What do you think of when you think of a “disaster?” Are we talking leaving your card in the ATM, getting a call from a collection agency or finding out your teenager has replaced the contents of your Stoli bottle with water? When the Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network, a non-profit gathering of influential Santa Clara County names -- created the Disaster Resiliency Center at Moffett Field in Mountain View, they were thinking a little bigger.
Co-directed by Steven Jordan and retired Major General Peter J. Gravett and funded by the Department of Homeland Security and private donors, the NDRC hopes to train Bay Area citizens in disaster preparedness and response. They’re not talking about cuts and bruises--more like disaster on the scale of the Japan earthquake, Hurricane Katrina, the recent flooding in the southern U.S. and, closer to home, the gas line explosion that rocked San Bruno last September.
If and when a major disaster strikes – we do live in the world’s most famously earthquake-prone region – the NDRC wants you to be ready.
By “you,” they mean Burlingame. On May 21, NDRC CEO Jordan will be leading a special training session for Burlingame residents at the NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field.
“Participants will act out simulated emergency scenarios at a model city set up at Carnegie Mellon University’s Silicon Valley campus,” at Moffett Field, said a press release issued by the Burlingame Neighborhood Network program. Burlingamers will be invited to learn and participate from 9 a.m. to noon on the 21. Only a few spots remain for the session. Locals wishing to participate should email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The May 21 training session is one element of a movement that seems to be gaining speed locally. Since its last major disaster, the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, Bay Area organizations like the NDRC and the San Francisco Fire Department’s Neighborhood Emergency Response Team (NERT) are working to raise awareness. They’re doing it by engaging neighborhood residents, creating partners rather than captive audiences. It’s an entirely new approach to public safety and one built around casual, grassroots connections – and based on the idea that when it’s time to stand up and be counted, that count might end at one.
Who are the people in your neighborhood? Be they bankers, bakers, bikers or CEOs, very few of them have disaster preparedness training. Until recently, that simply wasn’t the way things worked. We depended on “the authorities.” Using the lessons of Katrina and others as a guide, NDRC, NERT and other street-level organizations are taking their message to John Q. Public in ways he can identify with – through casual meetings, block parties and barbecues-- all time-tested community-builders.
“Recent disasters such as the earthquake in Haiti, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the oil platform blowout in the Gulf of Mexico have provided ample evidence that deploying resources for a widespread disaster is agonizingly slow,” wrote Ken Castle, in Innovation, an online technology journal. “The underlying assumption is that survival (after a disaster) will rely on a grassroots effort from neighborhood organizations, businesses and legions of volunteers.”
The event on the 21 has limited space, so it will not have the Amish barn-raising quality to it that other methods rely on for neighborhood participation. At its most pure, the idea here is that each block sends a few key representatives, who will then pass their new knowledge onto the rest of their community.
The new paradigm differs from the old in another way. It teaches preparation, response and “resiliency,” a key human component in the face of disaster, one that requires grassroots teaching to stick, in my opinion. You build taller levees, but how fluent is the Army Corps of Engineers in PTSD or the psychic weight of seeing a lifetime of possessions turned into a smoldering heap of ashes?
“Don’t bet your life on first responders,” said Castle, in Innovation. He’s talking about the likelihood that government agencies are capable of quick response in the face of a disaster, but he could just as easily talking about the danger in depending on professional rescuers to do something only civilians with boots on the ground can do: rebuild a community.