Prepping for disaster
Eight ways to be ready in the climate change era
Climate change is here. On average, temperatures are already 1 degree Celsius warmer than in pre-industrial times. And according to the Environmental Protection Agency, people “have increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the air by 40 percent since the late 1700s.”
It’s important to understand we are not helpless. We can pressure government officials to take the actions necessary to curb carbon emissions and to prepare our infrastructure, including sustained investment in renewable energy. But in the meantime, we have to start thinking about whether we are prepared for the impacts of warming that have already happened or are inevitable.
According to the EPA, Nevada’s climate is already changing. In a 2016 report, the agency noted that the state has warmed about two degrees Fahrenheit “in the last century. Throughout the southwestern United States, heat waves are becoming more common, and snow is melting earlier in spring. In the coming decades, the changing climate is likely to decrease the flow of water” in Nevada’s rivers and increase the frequency and intensity of wildfires, while decreasing the productivity of ranches and farms. Climate change also makes extreme weather events like floods, blizzards more intense and, in some cases, more frequent.
Being prepared is not “an achieved state,” said Samantha Montano, an assistant professor of emergency management at North Dakota State University. That’s the wrong approach because “at an individual level, our preparedness is changing literally minute to minute.”
How prepared you are depends on where you are when disaster strikes, your relationships with other people and your information sources, among other factors. This guide offers tips and resources for how you can be more ready.
Know what to worry about and when
Here’s a timeline of the types of extreme weather can occur in the Truckee Meadows and its surrounding areas during the different seasons:
Fall: The summer heat may be breaking, but don’t be fooled into thinking fire season is gone. Until the Truckee Meadows and Lake Tahoe Basin begin receiving snow, wildfires pose a serious risk. Anything from late summer thunderstorms to the careless flick of a cigarette butt can ignite one. On the other end of the spectrum, people visiting or living in the Tahoe Basin should be aware that the first snowfall there usually occurs sometime during the first two weeks of October. In some years—including 2017—it’s happened as early as mid-September.
Winter: Winter in Northern Nevada is long and generally cold, but there’s no guarantee of moisture in the Truckee Meadows, which exists in the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. When winter is wet in this region, storms can vary from frigid blizzards to warm, wet storms driven in an atmospheric river from around the Hawaiian Islands. Sometimes called “Pineapple Express” storms, they can cause massive winter flooding.
Spring: Spring, especially early in the season, is a time when the Truckee Meadows may again be wet or dry. As with the fall season, visitors and those who live here should be aware that snow is a possibility. Three inches of snow fell on Tahoe City on May 16 of this year.
Summer: It’s fire season, regardless of whether it’s hot and dry or hot and stormy. By summer, the landscape is always at great risk of burning—in part because our region receives an annual average of 7.4 inches of precipitation, most of it between November and March. However, when it does rain, be aware that rivers and creeks can quickly swell to dangerous sizes.
Throw a block party
In preparing for disasters, we often think about having enough food and water to hold out. But a significant factor is a lot less tangible: social connections.
How involved are you in your community? How far does your social network extend?
One study found that during the March 2011 tsunami that killed about 20,000 people in Japan, those living in communities with high levels of trust and social interaction had higher survival rates. In another study by Daniel Aldrich, director of Northeastern University’s security and resilience program, researchers found that Facebook users were more likely to evacuate during Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria if their friends-of-friends network on Facebook included more people in different geographic areas.
“Broader, more diverse networks give you more diverse information,” said Aldrich.
Community trust and social networks are examples of social capital. “The nice thing about social capital, like other forms of capital, is it can be built,” he said.
Cities can invest in parks, libraries and other public spaces. Individuals can take even simpler steps: Introduce yourself to your closest neighbors. Organize block parties and other neighborhood events. Attend public meetings. And join social media groups based in your community.
Defend your space
Those who’ve followed news coverage of major fires have likely come across some firefighting lingo with which they may not be familiar. One phrase that comes up often is “wildland urban interface.” In past interviews with the RN&R, Reno Fire Marshal Tray Palmer has explained that the term refers to areas where human development meets unoccupied, undeveloped land—and, for the City of Reno, most of it lies near the official jurisdiction borders. For the Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District, which serves unincorporated Washoe County, the majority of its 1,000-mile jurisdiction lies within the wildland urban interface.
Another term people may have heard is “defensible space.” It refers to space surrounding a building that’s been cleared of brush and combustible materials to make it easier to defend from encroaching fire.
In an interview last fall, RFD Battalion Chief Mark Winkelman recalled that when a swath of the Caughlin Ranch neighborhood burned in November 2011, it was largely due to a lack of defensible space around homes—and one type of plant in particular that the department wants homeowners to get rid of.
“I’ll tell you from experience, Winkleman said. “After investigating the houses after the Caughlin Fire—the majority of the houses that burned, even the stucco houses, had junipers right up against the exterior walls.”
It’s part of the reason the RFD runs an awareness campaign called “Junk the Junipers” during fire season.
“We’re trying to get people to pull out super fire-reactive juniper plants and replace them with less reactive things, … and it’s hard to convince people to do a lot of this, and so they take a lot of this risk on themselves when they don’t,” Winkleman said.
For renters, making a defensible space may not be as easy, as they’ll have to get approval from landlords or property owners before taking action to create one. Laurie Schoeman, who oversees the resiliency and disaster recovery program at Enterprise Community Partners, an affordable housing nonprofit, says tenants should organize themselves and work with property owners to ensure a property has defensible space and other safety precautions in place.
“Residents are the eyes and ears for the building and the community,” she said.
Enterprise offers a “Ready to Respond” kit for property owners and renters on its website. Renters should also purchase renters’ insurance.
be ready for floods
The Truckee Meadows and surrounding areas have a history of flooding. Flash floods in the summer can pose serious risks and have happened on dozens of creeks, streams and drainages—but most major floods on the Truckee River have happened in winter, including floods in 1862, 1875, 1890, 1904, 1907, 1928, 1937, 1943, 1950, 1955, 1963, 1986, 1997 and 2005. In January 2017, the region prepared for another major flood that thankfully never manifested.
The City of Reno’s Flood Information Center online recommends residents, “check ditches and culverts on or around your property. Remove any debris immediately, even a small object can cause a backup and overwhelm ditches. During high-wind advisories, it is recommended to secure loose objects” so they don’t add to flood hazards later. The website also offers sandbag locations: bit.ly/33Mu3Bc.
Renters and homeowners should have flood insurance; standard renters’ insurance policies may not cover flooding, so you may need to buy a separate policy.
Floodwater is often contaminated and you should avoid contact with it, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Flooding can also contaminate drinking water, so it’s important to store containers of clean water at your home and workplace in case of emergency. The best method for making water safe in an emergency is boiling it. First, filter the water through clean fabric, a coffee filter or a paper towel and let any contents settle.
Climate change increases the likelihood and intensity of wildfires, and these fires can move fast.
When officials issue evacuation orders, “you have to take and heed the directions,” said Brian Marshall, fire chief at the California Office of Emergency Services. “Time is of the essence.”
“You’re not going to hop in your car and just drive out quickly. Everyone else is going, too,” Johnson added.
Evacuation can mean leaving town, and routes may not be predetermined. In the Truckee Meadows, the Washoe County Emergency Management Program assists local agencies and communities in preparing for emergencies and developing evacuation plans and procedures. On its website, you can find a regional evacuation and shelter plan. In the event of an emergency like a wildfire, tune your radio to KKOH 780 AM or KUNR 88.9 FM for official information and evacuation orders. You can also follow local fire and police agencies on social media.
If your neighborhood is at risk of fire or flooding, even if you don’t feel threatened, the safest thing to do is leave if you’re able. Don’t just think about yourself. Think about others trying to get out and first responders coming in, all of whom can benefit if you evacuate promptly.
Staying in a shelter
After a disaster, you may not be able to return home for some time. If you are unable to stay with friends and family, you can check into a shelter.
Often these shelters are run by the American Red Cross, which coordinates in advance with community facilities willing to host disaster victims. For up-to-date information about shelter locations during an emergency, Washoe County residents can turn to the region’s Red Cross Facebook page at www.facebook.com/RedCrossUtahNV. On its website—www.redcross.org—the organizaiton hosts a variety of free mobile apps designed to help individuals during disasters.You can look also look up open shelter locations on the website, though local police and fire departments will also be aware of sites.
Service and comfort animals are allowed into many shelters, but some cannot accommodate pets. Sometimes, veterinarians will take pets in for free. People who choose to stay with their pets outside a shelter may still use shelter facilities.
The Red Cross does not require ID from people seeking shelter and does not ask about immigration status, said national headquarters spokesperson Don Lauritzen. The organization has also said it will not allow immigration agents into a shelter without a court order.
In their 2017 book Enviromedics, doctors Jay Lemery and Paul Auerbach write that environmental change “has been proclaimed the biggest global health threat of the twenty-first century.”
The book looks at a long list of health impacts of climate change, including increases in heat illness, greater spread of diseases, poor air quality and declining access to clean water.
If you have any health problems, climate change could make them worse. Talk to your doctor about whether you should change your asthma or allergy care during pollen season or heavy wildfire smoke. Be aware of any medications, including for psychiatric conditions, that make you more sensitive to heat.
One thing to watch for during the sweltering summer months is heat illness. By the end of the century, average daily maximum temperatures could increase by 10 degrees, according to UC Davis researchers.
Be alert for symptoms of heat exhaustion and more severe heat stroke. Get to a cooler location, ideally somewhere with air conditioning. Drink some water, and if symptoms don’t subside in 15 minutes, go to the hospital.
Heat stress can be deadly, leading to problems such as kidney failure. The National Kidney Foundation recommends against using non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen when you know you’re going to be exposed to heat.
Exposure to heat is a major health risk for people who work outside and in high-heat indoors, such as farm workers, landscapers and factory workers.
If you pack an emergency “go-bag,” try to include extra supplies of your prescription medications. If you have insurance, see if you can move up your refill date to have extra pills on hand. You can also ask your doctor to prescribe an additional one-time supply. Some insurance providers may have special programs to help disaster victims get prescription medications.
A number of local organizations offer free and low-cost disaster preparation and response training, as well as opportunities to participate in coordinated disaster response. Joining these groups can help better prepare yourself, your family and your community.
CERT (Community Emergency Response Team): This federally recognized program trains volunteers for a range of disasters, from basic individual response to coordinated response by teams after large-scale disasters. In the Truckee Meadows, CERT is administered through the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office. You can learn more at www.washoecert.org. Training is free.
ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Service): Ham radios and other alternative communication methods become indispensable when regular communications systems like cell networks are overloaded or fail. Locally, we’ve got the Washoe County Amateur Radio Emergency Service. You can learn more about this group and how to join it by visiting wcare.us.
MRC (Medical Reserve Corps of Washoe County): If you’ve got clinical skills, great, but this group is looking for volunteers ranging from licensed medical practitioners to those with clerical skills. MRC is designed to support public health efforts during natural disasters and emergencies by providing volunteers to help staff shelters and places where medicine and medical care are dispensed. Learn more at bit.ly/2Pa1Y3F.
September is National Preparedness Month. Since 2004, this FEMA-sponsored campaign has encouraged people to take steps to prepare for emergencies in their homes, businesses, schools and communities. This year’s theme is “Prepared, not scared.” You can learn more at ready.gov.