Bellevue resident David Baum has a generator wired into the electrical system of his house, enabling use of appliances during a power outage. Forty feet away is a shed stocked with bottled water, a first aid kit, nonperishable food, tools, ropes, flashlights, batteries, a tarp, astronaut blankets, and five gallons of gasoline. He and five other households are on a walkie-talkie network in case the power goes out.
Baum is dedicated to educating and assisting his immediate neighbors in the Bridle Trails area in getting materials they will need if disaster should strike. He refers to his approach as politics at its most basic level: organizing society to meet people’s needs.
In the wake Hurricane Katrina, many who previously assumed the government would be there to help are now taking matters into their own hands.
Last spring, Baum set out door-to-door within his neighborhood (defined as the span he can walk in five minutes and including 33 households on three streets) with cases of bottled water, practical information published by organizations such as the American Red Cross and the Washington State Department of Health, and invitations to attend disaster preparedness meetings in his home.
Baum is an independent community activist from Champaign, Ill. He moved to the Seattle area 20 years ago and his interests have included nonprofit theater, animal sheltering, and advocacy for the homeless. His current focus is spelled out in his blog.
The kind of work he’s now doing doesn’t proceed quickly. “It’s very hard to organize for a low-probability, high-consequence event,” says Baum. “It’s hard to get resources, and it’s hard to get peoples’ attention.”
Federal and local agencies provide guidelines designed for personal disaster preparedness, but as Baum points out, having knowledge and actually practicing it are entirely different things.
Baum believes monthly meetings are vital as they increase interaction among neighbors and expose people to ideas and resources. He emphasizes the importance of continuity and hopes these meetings will become a part of his neighbors’ daily lives.
“It’s a matter of working outward from the individual household, according to people’s natural connections,” he says.
Despite 11 years at her residence, Baum’s neighbor Suzie Wagner has not had the chance to speak with many in her neighborhood. She believes the two meetings held so far have brought an enhanced level of awareness and familiarity.
“It’s hard to ask for help,” says Wagner, “but I think we’re starting to establish a new pattern of reaching out and connecting with each other.”
The winter storms of recent months exposed weaknesses in household provisioning, as more than a million people were left without electricity for up to 12 days. Wagner recognizes the valuable lessons presented, in addition to the unfortunate hardships.
“Sometimes you get those wake-up calls in life where you think, ‘Hey, anything can happen!’ So I think in lieu of a wake-up call, you have a meeting,” she says.
Baum and Wagner agree that self-reliance is key when it comes to disaster preparedness and response. While Baum holds King County government’s local preparation in high regard, he feels federal agencies have proven useless. National funding for earthquake, pandemic, and anti-terror preparation has been distorted in recent years by politics, ideology, simple incompetence, and mismanagement, he says.
“Any response that may occur is likely to be slow, ineffective, and inadequate — leaving counties, cities, and states on their own and without adequate resources.”
Baum places some value in training conducted by Community Emergency Response Team programs and other local programs, which provide free or low-cost classes on how to prepare for disaster and assist professional responders. But he feels they fall short when it comes to preparing people to respond in practical ways. Direct experience has shown him that, instead of formal training, people want to know what to stock up on and how to communicate with each other when disaster strikes.
Once he pinpoints the most effective approach in reaching his neighborhood of 33 households, Baum will turn his attention to the broader community of 1,800 households. Initially, he intends to hold monthly meetings, offering first aid training and information, in hopes of emphasizing the importance of being ready.
“It’s politics without partisanship,” he says. “It’s personal, it’s one-on-one, and it’s right in people’s homes.”
By ANGIE JONES, Contributing Writer
Baum’s blog, www.greenhammer.net, spells out his focus and links to tons of external information.
For the local Community Emergency Response Team programs, visit www.citizencorps.gov/cert
King County’s Office of Emergency Services: www.metrokc.gov/prepare