Lessons for the San Juans from Hurricane Ike | Guest Column

By Brendan Cowan

I’m just back from South Texas and, as is always the case when I find myself close to a disaster working on the response, I wonder how our own community will fare when it’s our turn.

The islands aren’t hurricane country, but the impacts of an earthquake or severe winter storm (google “1962 Columbus Day Storm” for an example) are similar to what Texas is facing. No fuel, food, water or electricity. Limited medical care. Damage to roads and homes. The list goes on.

The types of disasters vary, but the nature of the impacts is consistent. And of course, at every disaster you find people and communities caught off guard.

For me, the most important (and enjoyable) part of my work is trying to make sure that we’re the exception, that we’re prepared.

As I spoke to people in Texas, lessons were highlighted for us here:

— Individual responsibility is everything. The government response was solid in Texas, but nothing can make up for a lack of community preparedness. Out here in the islands, this is doubly true. Everyone needs to be able to be on their own for at least a week.

— Every agency, organization and business has a role to play after the disaster, and it will likely be very different from your usual mission.

In Texas, I saw schools organizing kids into clean-up crews. Parks departments were running water filling stations. Firefighters were feeding hungry cattle and churches were patching roofs.

— When the power goes out, everything changes. I saw businesses losing thousands of dollars in stock and missing out on potential business. Medical and nursing facilities had to shut down and library books mildewed.

I also saw families and businesses equipped with back-up power, functioning almost like nothing had happened within hours of the storm passing. Purchasing and maintaining a generator is a big step, but it could easily pay back a hundred fold. Think of it like insurance.

Another clear lesson is one that caters to the strengths of the islands: the need for truly coming together. Patience, compassion and determination are essential. I saw communities in Texas with a sense of pride, with patient and communicative local leadership, and with citizens who were willing to put aside their usual priorities and simply roll up their sleeves and get to work. Those small towns were coming back to life far more quickly than one would expect given the extent of the damage.

A final lesson is one for me and my office. We need to redouble our efforts to reach out to you. Whether business, neighborhood association, or individual, please let us know how we can help. We have a Web site (www.sanjuandem.net) with great info, but what we really like to do is talk to you directly. Call us at 378-9932 or e-mail dem@sanjuandem.net and let us know where you need help.

— Brendan Cowan is director of Emergency Management for San Juan County/Friday Harbor. He wrote this column after returning from the areas affected by Hurricane Ike in Texas.

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