What You Should Know About How to Help After a Disaster
By Fabian Ommar
When I wrote about the train derailment in Ohio a few weeks ago, I had no idea I’d be involved in another ugly catastrophe, this time a natural disaster near my hometown.
On February 20th, heavy summer storms caused massive landslides in several north shore cities in my state. It’s a region famous for white beaches flanked by exuberant green slopes and mountains, with many nice hotels and fancy condominiums. Over 60 people died (including 18 children), and several are still missing.
“In the coastal town of São Sebastião, 627mm (24 inches) of rain fell in 24 hours, twice the expected amount for the month. Dozens of people are missing, and while the number of dead is expected to rise, rescue workers hope to pull some of those trapped in flooded homes out of the mud alive. The video showed neighborhoods under water, inundated motorways, and debris left after houses were swept away.” [source]
A disaster like this requires the help of many volunteers for recovery. However, there are things you should know so that you are a help after a disaster instead of a hindrance.
An SHTF in the middle of Carnival
Disaster can be capricious. It’s summer here, and the beaches were packed with tourists enjoying the holiday. Thousands are dislocated and can’t return to their homes – tens of houses got swiped by the mudslide or washed away by the waterfalls and rivers that formed from the massive downpour.
“Armed forces joined the search and rescue efforts, aggravated by poor access to many areas after landslides blocked the snaking roads in the region’s highlands and floods washed away chunks of pavement in low-lying and oceanfront areas.” [source]
Each place has its issues. In some, the problem can come from snow; others suffer from droughts, tornados, earthquakes, volcanos, etc. Brazil doesn’t have problems with extreme temperatures and weather phenomena, or geological occurrences. But as a tropical country, it rains a lot, particularly towards the end of summer.
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Some obstacles for those who want to help after a disaster
Helping is not easy, even when done from the comfort of our computers. There’s disinformation (or little information), confusion, scamming, and more. Getting there and helping on the spot can be even more challenging, but at least it’s practical, and you get to see the results.
I arrived with a group of volunteers less than 48 hours after the end of the downpour. The landslides were still happening, and water was coming down the slopes – though not nearly in the same volume as before. The authorities were clearing the access and coordinating the disaster relief groups. Conditions were unstable, and the population was still afraid and in panic.
From the moment I decided to get involved to the time I got on the spot and started working, here are some obstacles I faced:
Reaching ground zero
Access is a first-order task in most disasters. The north shore is a fancy summer destination, usually a 3-4 hour drive during normal times. Even though I was traveling with an authorized group, reaching ground zero took almost 8 hours, including a 3-hour walk through mud and debris.
It can be a lot longer and harder than that, depending on the circumstances. The roads are small and twisting, and the landslide caused interruptions and destroyed bridges. The government’s action helped clear the way to facilitate access which is frequently a bottleneck to assistance and rebuilding efforts.
Moving around and getting to the affected places
Some places on the slopes are hard to reach even when sunny and dry. Mobility was heavily compromised due to the mud, debris, and fallen vegetation everywhere.
You must be careful to move around because the conditions are unstable and dangerous, even when not immediately apparent. It’s draining as well, as it can take hours to dislocate a few meters in some places, while others can only be accessed with climbing equipment or other machinery.
Once there, you see how chaos reigns. All kinds of people wander around: some in shock, others desperate, and others tired. Some are there to take advantage (i.e., loot of profit in some way).
Even though the authorities are present and coordinating things, and most individuals are focused and working hard to help, it’s not hard to become lost in the middle of the confusion and destruction. It takes a while to get into the flow, take that into account.
Conditions remain challenging for a long time
Images can’t do justice to the conditions we find on the ground, and even that is usually a fraction of what’s happening. For instance, sanitation and septic tanks got washed away, and sewage flowed in the open. Water got immediately contaminated, and a few days into the event, the smell of death from the decomposing animals and vegetation was everywhere.
The air was damp from the wet and warm weather, and there isn’t even a breeze to help in some places. People are getting sick and suffering from diarrhea from the water, food, and conditions. It’s an actual SHTF scenario. All that (and more) makes just being there mentally taxing and energy-consuming.
Risks and threats are still present
As the terrain dries out, conditions improve, but it’s still unstable in some places, especially near the slopes. Rocks and mud kept falling for days, and huge boulders are now exposed. Houses, containments, and other structures are destabilized by erosion. The soil is still wet in some areas, and even though the big storms gave a break, it rains at least once daily.
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There’s still no energy in some places, and the internet is random. The people are resisting leaving their homes for fear of them getting looted, which happened during the first days. It’s even more dangerous at night, but the work didn’t stop when it got dark due to the urgency. There are still people and animals to rescue.
When SHTF, things get down to survival, resources become scarce, and the system gets overwhelmed. That combination naturally causes some instincts to flourish, not just in bad people but everyone – don’t think you’re above evil because it’s only a matter of circumstances.
However, Selco has warned about evil coming to the surface once the system can’t contain it. We saw the lawlessness and violence in the case of Hurricane Katrina and many others, and here too, the bad elements are out to take advantage of the situation or exploit others however they can.
It’s crazy because the 99% that are here to help, natives, and volunteers on the spot, create an environment of community and support. However, you can count on a larger number of badly intentioned people taking advantage of chaos and disorientation.
Returning to normal
Right after a disaster, and for a few days (maybe even weeks), media attention is at maximum. Everyone is mobilized, and aid can even overwhelm the capacity of distribution. Then attention starts turning to whatever happens next in the world.
This can be good and bad, as a slow return to normalcy is necessary for the reconstruction to take place, but it also means a reduction in aid. It’s important to keep the efforts going, even from a distance, because the problems at the site will remain, and people will need support to rebuild their lives.
More practically, as a testimony to the effectiveness of preparedness and survival strategies, equipment, and skills for emergencies and disasters, here’s my account of what works in a situation like this:
Cell phones work so-so in these coastal regions due to geography and vegetation. To make matters worse, landslides destroyed parts of installations and antennas.
However, I was surprised to discover that service and internet were working reasonably well in most places, especially considering how early it was in the disaster. This helped immensely with communication, but we can’t always rely on it.
HTs and walk-in talkies are effective. Authorities and relief teams rely on radios, and the local HAM community was highly active and involved, as is usually the case during emergencies. Even Morse Code was used at times. I had my radio and that got me in the loop rather quickly.
Wilderness survival techniques and skills
Whenever the grid fails, I get reminded of the effectiveness of these to remain safe, healthy, and comfortable in the middle of chaos (I mean comfort for restoration, not enjoyment). Everything we do while backpacking and camping is needed in high doses during these situations: water treatment, fire starting, shelter building, first aid, and so on.
Equipment is tested to the max, too: cookware, water filters, boots, knives, tents, everything. Regular clothing gets destroyed quickly; outdoor gear keeps us protected and performing. Even my portable solar panels saw heavy use (recharging HTs, cell phones, flashlights, and headlights, not just mine but from others too, is critical).
Whenever I’m volunteering in a situation like this, I want to be as independent as possible so as not to become a burden to the relief efforts. I brought my own food, water, lights, radios, and everything else and camped on a city square near other support tents and other volunteers.
The terrain knowledge and skills we gain from traveling and camping in the wilderness are also helpful. Things like being comfortable walking through rough paths, analyzing the stability of the surroundings and the vegetation, moving around and performing safely in the darkness, dealing with insects and animals, sleeping comfortably, and so on.
If pressed to come up with a short list of essential items, I’d say:
- eye and hand protection (goggles and gloves)
- long and robust pants and shirts
- knife (a good full-tang and a Swiss Army)
- flashlight and headlamp
- bug spray and sun blocker
- assorted ropes
- a 3L Camelback
- a hat.
Everything else will add, but these are critical in a disaster like this. If staying on-site, a tent or hammock and tarp for resting.
Disaster relief teams are highly prepared and capable
From a prepper’s perspective, it’s good to observe how organized, capable, and strong-headed these groups and individuals are. We can learn a lot. There are people out there, trained or otherwise, who dedicate themselves to helping others. As long as a disaster isn’t a true SHTF with widespread destruction taking everything down simultaneously, it’s safe to assume there will be a help.
The authorities can do a lot in these situations, too. We criticize them and it’s well deserved, but despite all misconducts and issues plaguing governments in general (bureaucracy, politicization, corruption, squandering, and so on), the sheer power of the state bears a significant weight. There was no shortage of machinery, personnel, and other resources.
The new state governor stayed on the site for days coordinating efforts in person to clear the roads and passages and building hospitals and other support structures to shelter the dislocated population until the situation was stable. When politicians decide to act, whether by the pressure of the population or media exposure, things move swiftly and efficiently.
The psychological aspect
Watching the destruction and death up close takes a toll on us. There are no words to describe how hard it is to dig a dead person or animal out from the mud or to see someone who lost someone (or everyone) and everything in the disaster. It’s saddening.
People were crying and falling apart everywhere, and only by focusing 100% on the job at hand can we find the forces to keep going. As time passes, they adapt and move on, finding strength and motivation to rebuild their homes and businesses and keep living life. Time and hard work can heal almost everything, but it’s never easy.
Previous experiences with disaster relief and suffering can help, and that’s why I advocate voluntary work with people and animal assistance for good preparedness. We never get hardened but develop a more positive mindset and get used to performing in brutal conditions. Also, we learn the power of gratitude: if I’m blessed enough even to be able to help others, then I must.
I returned home to resupply and take care of personal stuff but came back for another turn on the weekend. Things are improving, thankfully, but they are far from back to normal. Kids haven’t yet returned to schools (some are being used as aid centers), and many places are interdicted or condemned or still with lots of mud and debris.
I’m helping residents evaluate the damages, assessing their houses’ status, and orienting the reconstruction. I work with engineering, and that can be done remotely as well. With the help of a couple of specialists that work with me on structures and foundations, we hope to help the population to prepare for another deadly downpour that can come at any moment until storm season is over, which is due in April.
When it comes to natural disasters, time is always critical.
Have you ever volunteered after a disaster?
Have you ever been involved in a major disaster? Were you a volunteer or a victim? What did you learn about helping after a disaster from either perspective? Do you have any tips for others who want to render aid?
Let’s discuss it in the comments.
Fabian Ommar is a 50-year-old middle-class worker living in São Paulo, Brazil. Far from being the super-tactical or highly trained military survivor type, he is the average joe who since his youth has been involved with self-reliance and outdoor activities and the practical side of balancing life between a big city and rural/wilderness settings. Since the 2008 world economic crisis, he has been training and helping others in his area to become better prepared for the “constant, slow-burning SHTF” of living in a 3rd world country.
Fabian’s ebook, Street Survivalism: A Practical Training Guide To Life In The City , is a practical training method for common city dwellers based on the lifestyle of the homeless (real-life survivors) to be more psychologically, mentally, and physically prepared to deal with the harsh reality of the streets during normal or difficult times. He’s also the author of The Ultimate Survival Gear Handbook.
You can follow Fabian on Instagram @stoicsurvivor
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