A disaster planner’s guide to coping with the turbulent winter ahead
The most wonderful noise is emanating from the community laundry, along with the smell of fabric conditioner. A large group of women in this South Yorkshire town devastated by flooding are smoking, laughing and wolf-whistling.
One is telling a story and as another shouts “he didn’t!” they all fall about, hooting and pulling each other close, out of the rain. Every time I come here, I’m reminded of what it is to be human, and to stay human, in a crisis.
As a disaster planner, my life has brought me into contact with people during terrible, life-changing events, and I will always be in awe of the sheer strength it takes to keep going. To get out of bed. Put on a coat. Take a shower. Do the big shop. All while trying to not notice the ominous gaps on the food shelves or the overdraft limit. I don’t get hung up on the specifics of turbulent times in my book, When the Dust Settles, because many of the coping skills needed in a crisis translate across all of them: major illness, chronic abuse, bereavement, redundancy, and trying to navigate the Hiraeth – the mourning for a life before, to which there is no return.
“What else can we do but keep going?” shrug the mothers who have lost everything in the flooding. They have to put the tea on, get some paint back on those walls, find a new Billy bookcase for the donated toys, get some replacement photos printed off their phone. “I had a whole picture wall but it’s gone now…”, one gestures. They already know there’s no signed contract that life owes us anything. For sure, the council has built them a communal laundry with top-of-the-range machines. Somebody has added a notice board and a kettle. They gather here even when the washing is done, because these places are essential in the rebuilding of lives. But they live in the knowledge flood defences can only do so much. They will flood again.
“I’ve always been a slightly ashamed prepper – keeping my small stock of tins and hurricane lamps on the down-low for fear of ridicule”
I am part of a field called disaster planning, in which we think about all the things that will go wrong and make plans for how to respond to them. For years I didn’t allow myself to stop and think too much about how surreal it was to be sitting among emergency planning colleagues, sipping bad, hot tea while writing “assessments” of really difficult times that might come. But I think about that responsibility a lot now, and how perhaps I never fully grasped the weight of it before. We had endless boxes to tick for “psychological impact” – but I didn’t think enough about how it would be for individual women to carry on: to be mothers and daughters – to just try and keep going.
Right now, like everyone in the UK, I’m wondering how we’re going to get through the winter. My specific disaster assessment for the country involves cold and worry and expense and children not having enough to eat. It involves covid and flu and norovirus and monkey pox. It involves planned power outages on a rota and a not-unlikely scenario of longer, unplanned power cuts. It involves storms – politically and meteorologically. It involves a war on a continent that is a few thousand miles away, with the spectre of either deliberate nuclear release or nuclear accident. Plus, all the other stuff layered on top – a failing NHS and social care system, serious and organised crime, cyber attacks, terrorism, rapidly changing climate.
But I give all this 1% of the house room in my brain. I can watch as the teams around me file it into spreadsheets and colour certain columns into amber and red. Yet I can do nothing about it really, and neither can they. We are not diplomats or spies. We don’t bring wars to a messy end.
Civil servants beg me not to use the D-word in meetings but the cumulative effects of all this bear every hallmark of a Disaster. History will allow us to frame it like that. We are going into a crisis as a country, and the only way to get through is with Disaster Thinking. That means getting ready.
I’ve always been a slightly ashamed prepper – keeping my small stock of tins and hurricane lamps on the down-low for fear of ridicule. Updating my generator. But I’ve recognised like minds among my fellow emergency planners – we all have a bit of the prepper in us. So here are some contingency plans for you.
Top tips for emergency planning
My first piece of advice may appear counter-intuitive, especially to women, but it’s time to put yourself first. You’ll be told it’s all about helping out but in practice that’s not effective. You must not over-promise. The popular analogy of “putting your own oxygen mask on first” makes sense, but in practice mothers don’t. In an actual plane crisis they always struggle to assist their children first and then pass out from hypoxia. Women have to be ruthless that they are the most important person in the household. For example, when women are asked to add up the tasks they have planned for that day as units of time, their list often computes to an impossible 30-40 hours, to be completed in a five- or six-hour window. So be brutally realistic about how you use your time.
Disasters do not hit equally, and this winter will not hit equally. So if you have any reserves, share them. Do a first aid course. Keep your tribe well – keep up dental appointments. Cook food together. But only do what is possible, as above.
Be aware of food poisoning risks during blackouts, as the temperature in your fridge/ freezer will drop. You’ll feel pressured not to waste anything, but don’t eat any food that looks or smells off. Keep fridge and freezer doors closed – outages are supposed to be short enough not to damage freezer contents.
If you live alone think about ways to expand your support bubble and who you can ask for help.
Have a plan for short, planned power outages – keep your phones charged and consider battery packs. Be very careful with candles, because house fires go hand in hand with blackouts. Get torches and extra batteries. Give batteries as gifts. Put a first aid kit where it is easy to grab.
Prepare a disaster “go-bag” in case you need to move on in a hurry. Include a phone charger, spare house key, medication, underpants, non-perishable snacks, bottled water, menstruation products, feeding equipment, wipes and nappies for infants. Remember to pack kits for people with additional needs (eg a spare epipen). Keep the bag in a designated place and check the contents weekly.
Check your home contents insurance – and try, if you can, not to skimp. This month I looked at some friends’ policies, and they were all underinsured.
Love thy neighbours. Drop in teabags and biscuits. Help people to find the words to ask for help. Listen. Practise asking for help yourself. The early stages of the pandemic got us better at this: we have to keep it going.
Survivalists wear layers. Invest in winter thermals and scour charity shops for jumpers and sweatshirts. Layer your bed with blankets, throws, sleeping bags: make a nest. Gift hats and gloves; wear tights underneath trousers.
“It is time to embrace what I call ‘Gandalf’s ambivalence’. All disaster planners wish these times had never come”
If you’re a carer you need to become expert at asking for help. We all need to talk honestly about state back-up not arriving. And speak to each other about how to get someone to hospital without an ambulance, or administer life-saving treatment at home.
Limit your exposure to bad news. Focus in, shrink down, to what you can control. Having said that, local news is where local planning teams will feed vital updates, so it’s worth tuning in.
Talk openly about the times ahead (and don’t be afraid that such discussions will tempt fate). The first action for any emergency planner is to outline what could happen and then talk about the mitigations. It helps us form the narrative that we then aim to tackle. My colleagues and I talk about how we can get each other and our clans through these times a lot.
Give children jobs – they are more capable than we know. We keep our kids young and try to protect them through gritted teeth as we ourselves drown. Follow the example of international preppers who involve children in their plans. Both my kids have go-bags and hurricane lamps.
Campaign, if you can, to bring back communal spaces where disaster healing is done, such as libraries and community hubs. Communities that survive disaster have lifescapes – the pub, the shop, the mosque, the scout hut. The laundry.
It is time to embrace what I call “Gandalf’s ambivalence”. All disaster planners wish these times had never come, but to borrow from JRR Tolkien, “so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us”.
Remember there will always be times of turbulence and there will also always be lantern bearers guiding the way. And don’t ask me for a purpose to any of this – there isn’t one. Don’t ask me for an end point – there isn’t one of those either. All that’s left is to keep going. To believe that we are worth saving, that all this is worth saving. Look deep inside yourself and you have more strength than you know.
Lucy Easthope is a UK emergency planner and author of Sunday Times Bestseller “When The Dust Settles”. Follow her on Twitter @lucygobag