How often do we think about preparing to help our neighbors in a crisis? Neighborhood emergency preparedness isn’t something that gets a lot of attention, sometimes because in urban and suburban neighborhoods, we rely on our system of laws and the ability to call law enforcement to keep order. Neighborhood kids are known and the informal phone network keeps a close eye on them. Change is usually predictable or occurs at a reasonable pace; renters move in and out, trash is picked up regularly, and lawns get mowed. Neighbors are familiar, whether they are good, bad or anonymous.
And then disaster strikes — an earthquake, a major flood, or other long-term calamity. Disaster is, by its nature, unfair; it devastates one house and leaves another one nearby totally untouched. Suddenly, your neighborhood has changed, and it’s definitely in your best interest that you pay attention and prepare to exert your influence to keep the neighborhood stable.
A Stable Neighborhood Is a Safer Neighborhood
It’s a simple rule of civilization that a healthy, interactive neighborhood is much preferable to one with abandoned houses and no communication among neighbors. The latter welcomes crime and uncertainty, the former allows neighbors to support each other so everyone is kept safe. Everyone knows the elderly, the disabled, and others that need extra help…as well as the house rented by four strapping college football players (muscle can come in handy!).
Disasters can attract predators of the human variety, whether they be faux contractors looking to scam victims with a repair scheme, your basic thief looking for loot to pawn, or opportunists squatting in an abandoned home, they will thrive if your normal network of communications among neighbors is disrupted.
READ MORE: How can walking your dog help you prep? Read this!
Most Neighbors Won’t Be Prepared
It’s no secret that the unprepared greatly outnumber the prepared. If you’re reading this article, I’m betting you’re the latter. We quietly store extra food and water, tend to our generators and solar panels, and make our plans. What we usually don’t do is plan for the actions or inactions of our neighbors. However, your ability to safely stay in your home is somewhat dependent on your neighbors’ ability to stay in their homes. With a familiar presence next door, you are inherently safer.
On the Ragged Edge
We all have to make the calculation as to whether we go or we stay. For those of us who are well prepared, we have flexibility that those who were not prepared do not have. For some, it may come down to one thing that causes them to flee; it could be a lack of batteries for flashlights, lack of gas for a generator, or basic lack of food and water. Or it could be something as simple as having enough food for their dog. Civilization is surprisingly fragile.
Finally, if government assistance has not arrived and no one in the neighborhood can inspire confidence in those who are on the fence about staying or going, there’s a much greater likelihood that more than a few neighbors may feel the need to run and abandon their homes.
Reinforce That Castle Wall
Your commitment to stay and fight against whatever disaster has occurred can mean a lot to your neighbors. Nobody wants to be the last man standing, and everyone needs a hand here and there. Each time you help a neighbor, you’re strengthening the invisible castle wall that surrounds your neighborhood, not just your own home. You’re encouraging your neighbors, friends or foes, to stay and help keep you and your family safe. Even a simple thing like a running an extension cord from your generator to your front yard so neighbors can charge their cellular phones can make a huge difference. Sharing a hot meal can be a great way to perk up a neighbor used to cold pork and beans.
Two Types of Generosity
Providing support to your neighbors in a disaster can take two forms:
- During or immediately after the fact
- After the major threat is over during an extended disaster
This is an important distinction, as generosity shown early in the disaster does not imply the ability of your neighbor to obtain support from you later; in this early or rescue phase of the emergency, help is easily offered and easily accepted as a “Good Samaritan” gift.
Later, as the adrenaline from the immediate emergency leaves the body, the focus for most of your neighbors will turn inward to their own families and situations. Over time, the ability to communicate with people outside the neighborhood will become easier. Assistance given at this point has more implications, as noted below.
Preparing to Help
We don’t usually spend a lot of time preparing for what others might need in a disaster. And yet, this might be one of the most important things that we can accomplish in our preparedness. What I’m talking about is preparing giveaways: Small items that we stock in advance for the purpose of helping others in a disaster. In a way, it’s similar to stocking extra supplies with the idea that they would be valuable for bartering for things we might need in the future. In this case, we’re not bartering for supplies, but for less tangible things like safety or security.
So what kinds of things make good giveaways? Some examples include a four pack of AA batteries, a juice or milk box, a candy bar, or a gallon of gas. A giveaway is simply an individual item that you can spare in order to obtain goodwill or stability and safety in your neighborhood.
- Chemical lights (glow sticks)
- Emergency blankets (mylar/aluminum)
- Cans of juice or soda
- Energy bars
- Band aids and antibiotic ointment
- Cleanup items like bleach or wet wipes
- Cigarettes or airline bottles of liquor
- Diapers or baby formula
A Friendly Chat
A big part of this strategy is gathering information. In law enforcement, we called this the “Walk and Talk”. This is simply making conversation, exchanging information and finding out what’s going on with the other person. It’s really not anything different than what you normally would do with your neighbors, but in this case you will have more of a purpose.
Each of your neighbors will have their individual issues, such as damage to their home, inability to contact a loved one, or their personal medical or mobility problems. One thing to watch for is common themes: ‘My car got broken into’, or ‘There’s a pack of dogs roaming the neighborhood’, or ‘I’m seriously thinking of getting out here.’ These may be indicators of serious problems to which you need to pay immediate attention. In most cases, it will be obvious who really needs help, and those that are doing okay. As for you, keep things vague if everything is fine with you and your family. You don’t want to become the target of opportunists.
One large pitfall that can occur is that your generosity can be quickly and easily abused. The last thing that you want is to be the house that everybody goes to for “stuff.” You must set boundaries immediately and strictly:
- Only use giveaways for neighbors that you know or can verify.
- Make it clear that the giveaway must be kept secret by the receiver.
- Limit giveaways to one per household per day.
- Don’t be afraid to say no, especially to unknown people.
Otherwise, you risk becoming a mob scene of people seeking free stuff. Think of an episode of The Walking Dead and you can imagine what your front yard could become. Firm boundaries are much easier to set early than to try and establish them after things have gotten out of hand.
Bottom line: Take care of your neighbors as well as you can. After all, they’ll still be your neighbors after the smoke clears.