Lessons from Hurricane Harvey | Guest column

By Brenden Cowen

Emergency Management Director, San Juan County and Town of Friday Harbor

Since late August, I’ve been working at the “mega-shelter” at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston. Initially, there were more than 10,000 survivors staying here. Now it’s down to 1,000. This has been a scene of incredible effort, compassion and struggle. What they say about everything being big in Texas is true – especially the hearts of the residents of this city who have done so much to help so many.

It’s impossible to see the loss here, and not think about the islands and wonder what our community will look like after the big earthquake. How will we respond? What sort of help will we get? When will we rebuild?

There are many differences between Houston and the San Juans; floods aren’t earthquakes, but there are lessons that apply, no matter the place, no matter the crisis.

Preparedness is the most important. If you aren’t prepared, you’re counting on someone else to take care of you. That help may be a very long time in coming, or it might not come at all. Prepare for being on your own for at least two weeks. It’s just part of being an islander. There’s help online at www.sanjuandem.net/prepare, and we’re happy to help (when we’re home from Texas!).

Specifics: water (or a water filter); food; copies of your documents and insurance; cash; know how to shut off your utilities if there’s leak; flashlights; medications; a radio. Think about what it means if power or water is out for weeks or more. How do you keep warm? Sign up for the Great Washington ShakeOut. Talk to your family about your plan.

Do you own a business, run a school or provide a service to the community? If yes, think about how you can become more resilient. Is your building up to seismic code? How will you handle loss of power and connectivity? You’ve got to think it through ahead of time.

It’s a team effort. Recovering from a disaster is not just the government’s job. Neighbors, churches, businesses, nonprofits, all have a critical role to play. The job of emergency management is to coordinate and support the effort and help the islands do what the islands do best – take care of ourselves. Reach out if you need help getting plugged in; take the initiative. Once the shaking stops, get to work – check on neighbors; gather resources; don’t wait for direction or use common sense and caution; seek to make connections at your local fire stations and build a coordinated effort. People who are kind, strong, energetic, calm, and compassionate will win the day. Government matters. When local public agencies are well organized, well led, and well supported, they play an absolutely critical role in shaping an effective recovery. Disasters are complicated, but the ingredients of a successful recovery are simple.

There are complexities of course, but the most important parts of a robust recovery from disaster are within the reach of all of us. For questions, contact dem@sanjuandem.net or 370-0587.