Preparing the neighborhood

As y’all probably know, I got married, moved to the suburbs, and had a kid. Because I’m figuring out how to be involved in local politics, I joined the neighborhood association (not an HOA). But I’m still thinking about crisis response. So the natural combination of these things was to get involved in preparedness in my neighborhood. The association has an open meeting twice a year, and I requested that the one last month be focused on disaster preparedness.

We first heard from the city emergency manager. We’re a mid-sized city in the shadow of both SF and Oakland. We have about 100k people who live here, and have 5 public works employees and 80 police. Our fire department is “on lease,” whatever that means (I didn’t want to completely derail the presentation with a deep dive into this) (also, why we prioritize having our own police but not our own fire people is beyond me). The message in this presentation was the same that I’ve heard elsewhere: folks really need to be able to fend for themselves for the first 72 hours. We were told about a risk map (state and neighborhood) and the basics of being prepared (have predetermined emergency contacts; store water, food, and other supplies). The city representative told us about their main issue being how to get the word out – emergency alerts don’t seem to be getting the job done (again, I want to know more about that), so she suggested we sign up for a thing called NIXLE alerts (text your zip to 888-777) that works if the cell towers are up. Radio is still used. We have sirens in my town, but they don’t work. 

We also have resilience hubs in my town, and we heard about them from a college intern for the program. These centers keep racial equity in mind when approaching quality of life year-round. The disparity even in the urban tree canopy was called out – more affluent neighborhoods have more trees, which also means they’re cooler in heat waves. Their goal is to help groups “bounce forward” in climate adaptation. Their programming has a few arms – Community Care and Belonging, Disaster Preparedness, Climate Solutions, and Equity – during everyday, disruption, and recovery times. They also strive to have great buildings that can be useful in crisis; plus communications, power systems, and operations abilities (including conflict resolution protocols). I am clearly stoked about all this.

After hearing from the two speakers, I asked attendees to break into smaller groups and talk about what they would like to see happen in our specific neighborhood, and what questions they still had. This was amusing – the attendees hadn’t been asked to be participants beyond taking a mic to speak to a board in the past – but we got some good results! Based on the feedback folks had, I’m going to work with a small group to put together a risk and resource map of our neighborhood for our next Chili Cookoff and BBQ in August, which folks can add themselves to as resources. I’d also like to privately start collecting names and addresses of at-risk neighbors for block captains to check in on during the next heat wave or earthquake or whatever. At the same event, we’ll probably do a prize for the best go bag, and hawk this phenomenal guide another neighbor has put together for preparedness called Here Comes the Apocalypse. I am delighted by this fun visual guide and hope you check it out. I hope Jen and I get to be friends, because she’s brilliant for this.

It’s exciting to merge two things I’m so passionate about – the disaster cycle and my neighborhood. Fingers crossed we never need it, but if we do, we’ll be more ready than we would have been otherwise.

local San Francisco neighborhood preparedness

One of the hardest lessons and ongoing challenges in digital disaster and humanitarian response is how to connect with a local population. While many digital response groups deal with this by waiting for official actors (like the affected nation’s government, or the United Nations) to activate them, this doesn’t always sit well with my political viewpoints. Some of these affected nations have governments which are not in power at the consent of the governed, and so to require their permission rankles my soul. But to jump in without request or context is also unacceptable. So what’s to be done? It’s from this perspective that I’ve been diving into how civics, disaster, and humanitarian tech overlap. And it’s from this perspective that I’ve been showing up to Bayview meetings for San Francisco city government’s Empowered Communities Program. ECP is working to create neighborhood hubs populated by members already active in their communities. Leaders in local churches, extended care facilities, schools, etc gather about once a month to share how they’ve been thinking about preparedness and to plan a tabletop exercise for their community. This tabletop exercise took place on October 20th in a local gymnasium.

The approach of ECP is generally crush-worthy and worth checking out, so I won’t dive into it too much here. In brief, it is aware of individual and organizational autonomy, of ambient participation, and of interconnectedness. It has various ways of engaging, encourages others to enroll in the program, and lightens everyone’s load in a crisis by lightening it in advance. I am truly a fan of the approach and the participants. It’s also possible to replicate in a distributed and federated way, which means digital groups like the ones I work with could support efforts in understood and strategic ways.

Here is what doesn’t necessarily show through in their website: how grounded in local needs and social justice these community members are. There is a recognition and responsibility to the vulnerable populations of the neighborhood. There is a deep awareness of what resources exist in the community, and of historical trends in removing those resources from a poor neighborhood in a time of crisis. We’ve had frank conversations about what they’ll do about debris, and how the Department of Public Works parking and storage in their neighborhood is suddenly a positive thing. About what to do with human waste, and what a great boon it will be to have the waste water plant in their neighborhood. The things that wealthier parts of the city have vetoed having near them because of noise, pollution, and ugliness (NIMBY, or “not in my back yard”) will make Bayview resilient. They’re preparing to take care of themselves, and then to take care of other neighborhoods.

There’s a plan in NYC now to knock on every. single. resident’s door in the next crisis. It’s an approach other cities might also consider. But it’s one which is nearly impossible to implement. Who is doing the knocking? What are they doing with the information they gain? ECP’s approach is to apply their own oxygen masks first, and then to check on their neighbors, to know what the local Hub can take care of and what is needed for external support. When/If a city employee comes knocking on their door, they can then speed up the process of getting aid to where it’s needed (“I’m ok, but Shelly up the street has our 7 disabled neighbors there and they need a wheelchair, medication, and no-sodium food.”)

The end of the tabletop exercise had Daniel Homsey, the gent who heads up this program, talking about how we didn’t devise plans while together, but we did learn how to suddenly have to work at another role with people we’d barely or never met before. And I, as a digital responder, listened to what the community’s needs were, how they organized themselves, and considered the smallest interventions which could be maximally applied.