David Mas Masumoto: Good neighbors can be vital during and after disasters

November 30, 2012 

Witness the series of natural disasters from the most recent Superstorm Sandy to the summer wildfires in the Northwest and the tornadoes in the South: No one is immune from the wrath of nature. When a natural calamity strikes, who can you first turn to for help?

Your neighbors.

Many of us live in denial, believing catastrophes will happen someplace else. We give little thought to preparing for a crisis, and I'm not talking solely about emergency kits and supplies. Tops on my disaster survival check list is a good neighbor, or two or three if possible.

I'm struck by the numerous stories of neighbors helping out neighbors during times of crisis. While media often focuses on a single sensational act of heroism, thousands of caring acts unfold quietly and are invisible to outsiders. That's how acts of kindness often work: unheralded yet with priceless rewards.

Natural disasters bring out some of our best behavior, perhaps because these acts of nature are random. No one is to blame. Partisan politics take the back seat. Nature is in control. Humans are dwarfed and humbled.

My personal disaster plan is built around a culture of neighbors. I can map my neighbors, not just where they live and their contact numbers, but also other crucial information: the resources we can share when needed.

I can make an inventory of assets a few yards away that will beat any first responder. We all know who has trucks and equipment like saws and pumps. (One neighbor will volunteer his guns anytime, though I'm not sure that's on my survival check list -- it is on his.)

We can generate a list of skills at our immediate disposal. One neighbor is a doctor -- OK, really a retired dentist. While I don't believe I'll need an emergency root canal in the middle of a tornado or wildfire, this neighbor will have a medical sensibility on how to get things done. If we had a communitywide emergency, I'd put him in charge of medical triage until help comes, which may take days to arrive.

At a recent neighborhood potluck dinner, one neighbor summed it up: "Now I have more friends."

Unbeknownst to us, as we shared homemade bread and spaghetti with curry salad and wine, we held our own version of disaster readiness training.

Technology has changed how natural disasters unfold. Weather forecasting has greatly improved, advanced warning systems are in place for tornadoes, even the immediacy of an earthquake comes with an understanding where most fault lines lie.

Yet technology can't help alert us to an empty tank of friends and neighbors. In fact, the

trappings of social media may create a façade: We have hundreds of Facebook friends, but no one knows exactly where you live or in which room your bed lies.

And why does that personal information matter? A story from the 1995 Kobe, Japan, earthquake: If a neighbor knew where you slept, they could help immediately with search and rescue, knowing where exactly to start digging through the rubble.

Neighbors are often the first and best responders. They arrive in advance of others and bring local knowledge that may include a familiarity of inhabitants, comprehension of physical landscapes and an awareness of access paths and roads. Being native to a place will make a difference. (Our neighborhood potluck even included an accounting of pets, as all our dogs got to know each other.)

In an era of declining governmental assistance, what resources do we still have? After a natural disaster, mutual aid is required to rebuild both physically and emotionally. Our ability to recover is directly related to what we had before.

Most of the time, recovery is not just about money. We can't always buy what survivors need. Neighbors may be the best hope for survival and are a key indicator of a new type of wealth: a self reliance that can strength our communities.

Ask yourself, who would come to your funeral? They are the ones who may help the most in a natural disaster and are probably the best indicator of surviving. (I hope we don't have to wait until a funeral to demonstrate our neighborliness.)

And after the initial search and rescue phase is over, then what? Good neighbors can become part of the long-term recovery plan, and assist in the next phase of care -- the weeks or months as people get back on their feet.

Disasters test us and we will discover how vulnerable we are: For a crucial moment, we will be thrust into a nontechnological world. No cell phones. No electricity. Without the power at the end of a cord, do we become powerless?

I hope it doesn't take a natural disaster to bring out the best in us. Neighborliness is the best disaster plan I can think of. Investing in a good neighbor by being one may be the best insurance we can have.

Masumoto, a farmer in Del Rey, writes about the San Joaquin Valley and its people. E-mail him at masmasumoto@gmail.com.


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