Category Archives: Disaster

How to Save a Life

I was privileged to recently to be the headliner for the February SPARKS Talk in Indianapolis.  They give you free-reign for your topic and 10 minutes in which to present it.  Nerve-wracking to say the least!

If you are in the area, check out the SPARKS Talks which happen the 2nd Wednesday of every month (

And let me know in the comments below if you’ve used any of these techniques to Save a Life.

PS–For some reason the slides don’t line up with the video, ignore them.


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Filed under Disaster, Life Hacks

Surviving A Week Without Water

My front yard is being re-landscaped so I can have running water!

My front yard is being re-landscaped so I can have running water!

After more than a week without running water, I appreciate even more the privilege of living in a first world country.  I never expected to be without running water for such a long period, but the unusually low temps in our area have prevented outside repairs.  We’re lucky though, even though our water main is broken, it has just enough pressure to allow us to turn it on for a few minutes each day to “restock” our water supply.

All this time without working faucets has got me to thinking about disasters in much greater detail.  I also have a much better understanding of how much water you HAVE to have each day to get by.

It turns out that the recommended 1 gal per person per day is actually a bare minimum.  We have found that, even if you aren’t taking showers or flushing toilets, you will need closer to 2-3 gallons per person per day.  Add toilets and basic personal hygiene (but still no showers) into the equation and you need more like 5-10 gallons per person.

Wow, what an eye opener.  Think about it, do you even have enough room or containers in your house to store 10 gallons of water per person for one day, let alone a week?  Puts things into perspective doesn’t it?

Of course, not all water is created equal.  The quality of the water coming through our broken pipe in not drinkable, so we’ve had to use a purification system to make sure we don’t create a “secondary emergency” by getting sick.  We’re fortunate to already own a system that will make our water potable, but it certainly isn’t something I would have thought about having in place for this type of situation.

My Red Cross disaster training has been really helpful in coping with this situation; it gave me some basic guidelines to follow and some ideas of how to be creative with our resources.  But nothing short of going through a situation can really make you challenge your underlying assumptions—many you may not even realize you have.

I had never considered how much water it takes to brush my teeth or how to wash my hands one at a time with one hand pouring from the pitcher and the other trying to wash itself. These are only two small things, but there are dozens of small challenges to be overcome without running water, everything from laundry to cooking.  I have always thought I would do OK during a zombie apocalypse, but I have definitely reconsidered some of my bravado after this past week.

While we’ve done great, we’ve also not been 100% without access to water or other resources.  At any time we can get in our car (which has plenty of gas) and drive to the store or go to a friend’s house for water.  We have more than enough food and haven’t lost power or heat, all things that can become scarce or nonexistent for weeks on end during disasters (think Hurricanes Sandy or Katrina).

So my message to all of you who are enjoying a cozy snow day, is to take a few minutes today to consider what you might do if you lost even one of these precious utilities that we take for granted.

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Outside a Disaster Looking In

For me, it is always an odd feeling to watch a disaster from the outside.  I am more typically in the middle of things focused on helping to deliver the Red Cross mission to people who desperately need help.

Red Cross volunteers Jill Bode and Ana De La Garza during Hurricane Isaac.

When you are on the outside, with the media and social media as your primary sources of information, it looks a little different.  But there are some universal truths about disasters regardless of location, duration or frustration.  Here are a few:

1)     Someone will always need help.

2)      Someone will always give help.

3)      There will always be sorrow.

4)      There will always be laughter.

5)      Help can = a Hug.

6)      You can’t make it go away.

7)      Sometimes you can only choose your attitude.

8)      People are incredibly generous.

9)      People are amazingly resilient.

10)    Everyone wants to know what they can do to help.

Disasters are the worst of times, but seem to bring out the very essence of who we are.  They are frequently unexpected, unwelcome and unnerving, but they are always a learning experience for the families, volunteers and communities impacted.

Have you ever had a disaster?  What did you learn?

If you’d like to support the Red Cross, visit to learn how.

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Filed under Disaster, Non-Profits

In Search of a New Beginning

Those of you who know me well know that I have spent nearly two decades as a PR Chick of some type–non-profit, government and private sector–and that my “hobby” has been disaster response, more specifically with the Red Cross.  Then in June of 2008, while I was actually taking time off from my job to volunteer with the Red Cross (in West Virgina), my own home flooded.  But it wasn’t just my home, it was hundreds of other people’s homes as well.  Pretty much everyone in my whole community was affected in some way, many much worse than I was.

My husband and I were very lucky, we had friends close by to help, we had some basic disaster recovery/mitigation knowledge and, quite frankly, he’s a bit of a McGyver, and was able to rig up pumps and other devices to help limit the damage to our home.  A few months later, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity came my way, a chance to head up the local long-term flood recovery program. For the first time ever, I could combine my passion for disaster with my practical PR side–a marriage made in heaven!

We have accomplished a great deal more than anyone really planned or expected, but I’ll be honest, I certainly didn’t think it would be such a struggle to get this done.  I DID think it would be hard work and that people would become tired and worn out, I just didn’t anticipate the barriers thrown up by other non-profits.

I totally get that everyone doesn’t think exactly alike and that there are going to be disagreements and that solutions are going to be frequently knitted together out of compromises–that’s not what I am talking about.  I am talking about real, systemic problems that force non-profits to be competitive with each other instead of cooperative.  Everyone is so busy fighting over the scraps, that they miss the 5-course meal that could be sitting right in front of them.  Sort of the Stone Soup idea, if we all worked together, we could all eat better (and I am ALL about eating).

It’s probably naive that I didn’t notice this the first time I worked for a non-profit, or maybe even the second time, or maybe it just wasn’t as obvious then as it is now.  Who knows?  The point is, it’s here and I don’t want it to stay.  It is not a productive way to do business (yes, non-profits are businesses) and it certainly doesn’t deliver more, better or faster services to those who need them the most.

I don’t really know what the answer is, but what I do know is that my job here is done.  We’ll be closing the doors of our long-term flood recovery program on Dec. 17th, 2010.  The organization will transition to a group that helps get the community ready for the next disaster AND it will be completely managed and run by volunteers.  I’m actually thrilled about it.  It seems like the model of a non-profit that meets the needs of the community and then shuts down, or in this case, morphs into a lean, mean volunteer machine is a far better model than an organization that goes on and on just because it’s always been there.

Since I knew that my time was limited and our organization was well-funded, I had the luxury of not having to involve my ego or my continued lively hood in every decision that was made.  It was VERY freeing!  And completely stymied many of the non-profit executives I worked with.  They really couldn’t believe that I didn’t have an ulterior motive or a hidden agenda, it was difficult for some of them to accept this and focus on the work that needed to be done.  More importantly, many of them wondered how they could access the bounty of funds that our agency was given, it was almost like sibling rivalry.  “Why can’t I have that toy?  I’m older!”  To say the least, I felt like I spent a lot of time on the defensive explaining why whose funds were given to our agency and what they could (and couldn’t) be used for–never a comfortable feeling.

Regardless, as I said, my job is done, but not my work.  I have decided that it’s time for a new start for both me and the non-profit world.  I know I can’t personally change all the issues I’ve seen, but I CAN change how I approach the causes I care about and the organizations I give my time and energy to.  So, with that in mind, I’m setting out to look for my next adventure and a new beginning!

I’ll keep you posted on what I find and I’d love to hear what you are doing to make your community a more wonderful place to live.

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Flood of Memories

Like many of you, I’ve been watching the devastation caused by flooding in Nashville and other parts of Tennessee.  And I have a empathy for those folks that I might not have had two years ago.  You would think  that as a long-time Red Cross disaster volunteer (18+ years) I would have seen about every kind of natural disaster that can impact humans.  BUT, and it’s a big but, the worst disaster I ever experienced was the flooding that entered my house on June 7th, 2008.  It wasn’t the biggest, most dangerous or even most costly disaster that I had ever responded to, it was just the most personal.  Because this time it was my stuff that was damaged or destroyed and my family, friends and neighbors who were impacted.  It makes all the difference.

I, who have all these years of experience in helping others recover from disasters, can admit that it took me a year before I could finally put the last few items back in the area that flooded.  I still haven’t put in permanent flooring because, even though it is irrational, I can’t face tearing it up  again.  I still get a little stressed out when big rain storms move in (like Nashville our area got too much rain in too short a time).

While I feel badly today for those Tenessee families, I feel even worse for them in the upcoming years.  Note that I said YEARS, because the floods will impact their lives for far longer than you might think.  Nearly two years after the flood that covered our community for just one day, we still have families who don’t have permanent housing, who are still waiting for the promised “solution” of a buy-out and who can’t seem to resume their pre-flood lives.  Children cry when it storms and yet many people in our area think that everything has returned to normal.

My heart aches for the days, weeks and months of frustration, anger and hurt that those Tennessee families will be facing.  It ends up being far more devastating than the actual flood.  The applications to FEMA, insurance carriers and the SBA are hard to focus on when you are trying to salvage your belongings.  And, in our area, many middle-class families didn’t think they would qualify for FEMA because they made too much money (any homeowner can apply for FEMA help, regardless of income). They were wrong and they suffered for it.

The inspectors who come out from the various agencies (government and insurance) seem to be operating off of completely different sets of rules.  One inspector might claim that you had minimal damages, while another might consider your home totaled. There just seemed to be no rhythm or reason to the system.

While most families were able to get help and support for their various claims, it still took a lot of time and effort.  Unfortunately some families are just too disheartened or tired to make a fuss and as a result, they often get the short end of the stick from the very agencies that were put in place to help, including the insurance companies that they had religiously paid monthly.  Add to that the insult of a declining economy over the past two years and you have a true recipe for suffering.

Countless families have since filed for bankruptcy, been split by divorce or needed mental health help.  In many cases these family crises could have been avoided if certain types of community support were in place sooner.  But a community that has never HAD a large disaster is at a huge disadvantage, they simply have no experience in recovery.  The long-term recovery groups that started after the June 2008 floods in Indiana have been learning as they go. While they have done many, many things right, most of their directors and volunteers will tell you that there are a few things they would have done differently. For the last several months, those groups have been trying to gather up best practices and capture them for future use.

I hope that some of the lessons we’ve learned in our area will be able to help the folks down south recover faster and stronger than we did.  At the very least, our community is much better prepared to handle the next big thing that comes along to rock our world.  So, to everyone in Tennessee who was flooded, hang in there, we know how you’re feeling and we wish you a quick recovery.

This is a video made one year after the June 2008 Floods & Tornado in Johnson County, Indiana.

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To Really Help in Haiti, Help at Home

The goal of this post isn’t to rant, but instead to educate.  I apologize in advance if I hurt someone’s feelings or you don’t agree with my point of view, but I think it’s time to give a few facts about disaster response to the world at large.

Long post WARNING, bear with me.

As a long time Red Cross disaster services volunteer, I have a unique perspective on what is currently happening in Haiti and I want to share that with you.  Within hours of any large-scale disaster I usually receive several phone calls from friends and family asking me if I’m on my way to the latest calamity.  It’s a fair question since I’ve spent more than 17 years responding disasters all over the country and because I’m part of a special team that typically deploys within hours.  In the case of Haiti, my answer has been “not yet.” I’ll get into the reasons why in a minute.

The very next statement is typically something like, “I wish I could do what you are doing or help in some way.”  And my answer is always, “You can do what I’m doing and there are hundreds of other ways you can help as well.”   I’ll share with you some very clear-cut steps you can take to help Haiti from Home.  But first I need to give you a little disaster background.

I think that it was fairly apparent from the video footage that we’ve seen from Haiti, that there was a huge amount of infrastructure destroyed.  But for most Americans, that really doesn’t mean much.  At the worst, we are usually without only one or two pieces of our infrastructure functioning at a time.  Perhaps the phones don’t work, or the power is out, or the water isn’t drinkable, or a road has collapsed or a bridge is out, but it rare for us to have the “perfect storm” where all of those situations strike at the exact same time.  Even our worst natural disasters rarely have that happen in this country.  And when a disaster like Katrina strikes, help (food, water, shelter) is only a few hours away.

Haiti is an island.  This complicates an already unbelievably complicated situation even more.  Without an airport and a seaport functioning at capacity, it’s like trying to move without arms and legs.  Even if the resources are ready to go there, they can’t be moved in country fast enough. Ever single square foot of space on a plane or a ship becomes incredibly valuable.

Earlier this week I read a story in our paper about a local dentist who jumped on a plane and headed to Haiti. I’m sure you’ve heard similar stories in your area.  They make me so very sick and sad.  Now, in his defense, the dentist had been running a clinic in  Haiti for 20 years and probably had some relationships and language skills that made it easier for him to be there. He has apparently been doing some basic medical things like helping set broken legs and deliver babies. So in that sense he was probably a better choice than you or even me.  But I still think it was very selfish.

In a disaster situation like the one in Haiti, it’s not enough to have basic disaster experience or speak the language or even have resources. You MUST have highly specialized skills that are appropriate for the initial stages of a calamitous disaster–water purification engineering, food distribution specialization (which is extremely important to help avoid riots) and medical trauma skills.  Anything less right now is literally taking the food and water out of someone’s mouth.  He filled a space that could have been filled by someone with more skills and his presence there may have actually caused someone’s demise.

It is arrogance to believe that just because we have a particular set of skills and resources that it’s enough to give us the “right” to go help in a country that has such severe needs.  If my many years of disaster work have taught me nothing else it is this:  even I with my mass casualty disaster experience and basic French language skills am not the best person to deploy at this time. Later perhaps, but not now.

Let me tell you about the member of our team who was sent to Haiti.  She’s a trained trauma flight paramedic with thousands of hours of experience, she’s multi-lingual and she has years of experience working self-sufficiently in third-world countries.  I’ve worked with her on mass casualty disasters and she’s level-headed and calm.  And, this is important, she’s the only one from our team there right now.  We have over 50 team members who could go, but a very strong case has to be made that it is worth the risk that we might not do more harm than good.

And let me tell you something else, there is no hurry.  Yes, there is a crisis in Haiti and millions of dollars, thousands of people and dozens of hospitals are all pouring into that country.  But this disaster isn’t gong to be over tomorrow, or next year or most likely, even this decade.  It’s going to take billions of man hours, dollars and people to help Haiti recover.  It won’t be done overnight.

So what can you do?  You can raise money. That’s the big one.  Don’t collect clothes or water or food to ship to Haiti, it won’t help.  After major disasters in this country, Hurricane Andrew or Hurricane Katrina, they have had to destroy truckloads of wasted resources because they  weren’t the right thing, they became mildewed and unusable or they didn’t get to where they were needed.  The only thing worse than having no help is having the wrong help.  Shoes for your feet won’t fill your belly.

I’m not sure why people are so reluctant to believe that money is the best way to help.  Perhaps this disaster will be the turning point in that mindset.  If you must collect clothes, have a garage sale and send the proceeds. Or host a bake sale, it doesn’t matter how you raise the funds, raise them! Remember that money has power far beyond what it can purchase, it can also  re-start a nation’s economy, making sure people are employed and able to help themselves as much as possible.  (And while I’m on the subject, I think this would make a great economic thesis topic for a graduate student–hint, hint.)

I promised to tell you what you could do to help here at home to make an impact on Haiti.  We all have a lot of problems in our own backyards, so remember that as you read this list:

  1. Raise money for a trusted charity! (I know you’ve already heard this one, but it bears repeating because it is THAT important!) Remember that there are already dozens of disaster charities in place in Haiti who can use your support, Red Cross, CARE, and many others.
  2. Those same groups have needs here at home.  Volunteering with them locally may help free up resources and better trained volunteers for Haiti. Find your local Red Cross here.
  3. Train for the next disaster now.  Disasters happen all the time.  A house fire or a flood may not seem like a big deal (and usually doesn’t get near the media attention), but trust me, from my own personal experience I can tell you the most profound disaster you will ever experience will be the one that happens to you. And someone who is trained to help can make all the difference!  Getting training now will also allow you to be ready to help during the next big disaster.
  4. There are amazing groups like Crisis Commons who are using their technically skills at Crisis Camps all over the United States (and Columbia now too!) to help solve issues that have been presented to them by various non-profits and others in the know.  So far they’ve worked on more than a dozen projects.  even if you aren’t technically inclined, they need to people to help them out. Check them out here.
  5. Use social media to spread the word about the amazing things that are being done to help in Haiti.  Let’s celebrate as much good news as possible! And, of course, you can use social media to help raise awareness and funds–have some fun with it.  Rally your friends to sponsor you in a crazy dare (notice I didn’t say dangerous) or offer to publicly humiliate yourself if they’ll send money to a designated charity.
  6. Join a completely non-disaster non-profit agency as a volunteer and dedicate your service to the people of Haiti.  Every time you give of your time and talents, you make this world a better place, whether it’s in Haiti or at home. And isn’t that the real point?

If you absolutely feel like you have to go to Haiti at some point to help:

  • Plan your trip for at least a year from now, if not two.
  • Have a clearly defined reason for going,beyond just “helping.”
  • Get specialized training beyond what you may already have.
  • Practice self-sufficiency, try primitive camping for a week or more.
  • Learn Creole.
  • Establish a support system of people or an organization in Haiti.
  • Raise money to fund your trip and take enough with you to make a difference.


Filed under Disaster

Crisis Camp Haiti LIVE Feed

Below is the link to the live feed that shows the very cool projects that have been/are being created by the Crisis Camp Haiti team. Techies from all over the country got together yesterday to use their powers for the greater good.  Over the course of one day they created a variety of tools that will help in the disaster relief mission in Haiti. Some of the projects that they worked on include an iphone app for English/Creole, a localized, real-time, texting program for first responders in Haiti and a mash-up of Red Cross/Google mapping to help find missing persons.

I am amazed by what a small group (more than 400 people) can do when they apply their time and talents to solving the worlds problems!


Learn More about Crisis Camp

*Thanks to @planetrussell & Cover It Live for sharing this resource.

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