By Ruah Swennerfelt & Louis Cox, Transition Town Charlotte, Vermont
How ready are we if suddenly we have to evacuate our homes during an emergency? What would we grab? What might we forget? Or, what if we’re stranded at home with no electricity and the phones aren’t working? That has happened where I live in rural Charlotte, Vermont. A region-wide ice storm in 1998 disrupted electric service for two weeks. Our house was off grid, so neighbors came to get water, take showers, get warm by our wood stove, and lament the loss of so many trees.
This year we and those same neighbors joined to participate as a pilot group for the Transition US Ready Together program, helping individuals and communities be prepared for difficulties, disasters, or whatever threats to health and safety might suddenly arrive at our doorsteps. We were one of four pilot groups in the country, along with Phoenixville, Pa., Media,Pa., and Helena, Mont. I asked Sari Stuber of Media, Jane Dugdale of Phoenixville, and Diana Hammer of Helena to add to our story with their experiences in the program.
Transition US describes Ready Together as a program that helps neighbors work together to prepare for the many kinds of emergencies we may encounter these days—and even to prepare ourselves mentally and physically for events that at the moment don’t seem very likely but that nevertheless could be devastating if they did occur (for example, tropical storm Irene, which caused unprecedented flood damage in many Vermont communities in 2011). While our focus is on natural disasters, by working closely with those neighbors who will likely be nearby to help you when a disaster occurs, Ready Together develops a foundation for ongoing support during life’s many unpredictable events.
When I proposed participating in this program with my neighbors, 10 people readily signed up. When we first came together, some had doubts about whether we really needed this in rural Vermont. During our seven weeks of working through the lessons and homework, we found that there were many ideas and suggestions that were applicable to us, and we are now meeting once a month for a quick check-in to share what progress we’ve gained in getting ready. A great benefit was the laughter. We imagined so many scenarios of being isolated and wondered what we’d need to survive. Some of the answers were hilarious.
Diana asked a small group – seven neighborhood families – to participate in Helena’s pilot. There were a couple of reasons for this: keeping the group small to see if this would be something to bring to the larger neighborhood, and minimizing risk during the pandemic. One of the biggest take-aways for Diana’s and our groups was the fun we had meeting regularly to discuss our preparedness plans and getting to know each other better!
Part of our homework was to determine what would go in our “to go” bags (a bag, backpack, or small suitcase with essentials for a quick getaway). Also suggested was a to-go wallet with essential documents. That was a challenge because we didn’t want to lose such a wallet and therefore lose our IDs and other sensitive information. I did some research and found a thumb drive that can be password-protected, so I took photos of the essential information, IDs, insurance cards, prescriptions, etc. and put one in each of my and my husband’s bags. Diana’s group was also working on the bags.
For our rural neighborhood, we contemplated how we might communicate with one another if all phones were incapacitated and we were snowed in (we cover several miles distance among us all). Two people volunteered to explore using walkie-talkies and then creating a “phone tree.”
For Diana’s group it was really helpful to think about – what if X occurred and we weren’t home? What then? We actually had discussions with family about meet-up places, contacts out of our immediate community who could potentially relay messages if need be, and “mapping our neighborhood” in terms of who may be in need of assistance?
Charlotte’s group created a Google spreadsheet with vital information to share and listed our assets that would be helpful to the neighborhood if the electric lines went down. For example, I live in a house that is partly off-grid, so we can charge people’s phones, etc. Some neighbors listed their generators, their root cellars, or various survival skills.
As a follow-up, the Helena group is looking for a template that they could use to set up a neighborhood “phone tree” so everyone can check in on neighbors. They talked about possibly designating “street captains” to initiate the calls. They also explored a system of posting signals (e.g., red paper means “help”; green paper means “all good”) in their front windows to let folks know visually if assistance is or is not needed. It’s so fascinating that our group also talked about a similar system of having flags to put on our mailboxes to let others know if we were okay or needed help.
The Phoenixville group started with a dozen on the list who had indicated they might be interested, Jane reported. In the end there were four of them who stayed together and valued their time working through the program. In fact, the four of them are ready to do it again. They are each strategically located on their block to recruit people in their quadrant, maybe just for their smaller group, or maybe to do it block-wide again. The energy at the end was a lot about organizing a block party in the summer of 2021.
The Media group thought the concept was great, according to Sari. They thought getting together in person with your neighbors to work out ways to become prepared for emergencies was a terrific idea. They also liked the way the topics were broken into seven identifiable sections so that it was easy to focus on distinct actions to take for each meeting. They appreciated the new ideas they were given to think about (people with disabilities, pets, etc). A go-bag table of useful things to take home was very useful. And they also appreciated the review chapter, which led to a discussion of what was still needed to accomplish and how to follow up on what had been learned.
Getting together with neighbors, learning ways to be there for one another, and learning how to prepare for uncertainties was a great experience. And even with the daunting time commitment, folks stuck it out.
All of the pilot groups were asked to give feedback to Transition US to help shape the program for wider distribution. This story is not about what was lacking, but what positive outcomes were experienced and what makes this program important for all neighborhoods. I shared a workbook with our town’s emergency preparedness director. He was thrilled with it and looked forward to promoting it. He also provided feedback to Transition US.
We neighbors are continuing to meet monthly to check in about our progress to be ready. Although there are times when some have done nothing during the month, everyone agrees that the monthly meet ups are fun and a continuing prompt to keep up the preparations.
Future discussions for these pilot groups might address the many reasons that people in general often don’t take known threats seriously and are therefore caught off-guard when emergencies do occur. What kinds of public-education programs could be effective in getting more people to increase the resilience of their households and neighborhoods? What changes in public perceptions and attitudes would bolster support for community-preparedness programs?
Congratulations to Transition US on a very useful and much-needed project! Now that the feedback is in, we all expect that the next iteration will be even better.