Strengthening our resilience

As we engage in long-term social distancing, we should learn and adapt so that we will be better prepared for a flood, a wildfire, an earthquake — even another pandemic

DUMMERSTON — When most of us think about resilience, we imagine disturbances like intense storms, flooding, sea level rise, tornadoes, and wildfires. Clearly, pandemics need to be part of the resilience discussion as well. COVID-19, the coronavirus spreading rapidly worldwide, is bringing this aspect of resilience into sharp focus.

Resilience is about being prepared for the unexpected, about keeping safe during emergencies, and about bouncing back (and, yes, bouncing forward) from disturbances. Our resilience as individuals, as communities, and as countries is being tested.

Let's take a look at why resilience is so important during pandemics and what we can do to improve it.

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Passive survivability: For 15 years now I've been making the case that we should be building and retrofitting buildings to keep occupants safe in the event of extended power outages or interruptions in heating fuel. This idea of passive survivability is particularly relevant today with the global COVID-19 pandemic upon us.

Millions of us are effectively already self-quarantined in our homes or apartments, as we're being asked to work from home and practice “social distancing.” Given this reality, our homes or apartments need to keep us safe.

Passive survivability is especially important during a pandemic. That's because we may not be able to count on our utility companies to restore power following storms or other disturbances.

If significant numbers of utility workers are sick or quarantined due to COVID-19, they may not be able to respond as quickly to outages caused by downed trees, equipment failures, or other problems. Similarly, if significant numbers of propane or heating oil delivery drivers are unavailable, fuel supplies could run out.

Passive survivability is achieved through high levels of insulation, passive solar design features, cooling-load-avoidance strategies, natural ventilation, daylighting, and other passive design features. Achieving this level of building performance takes significant effort - it's usually not something that can be done quickly. But whenever possible, this priority should be pursued with vigor for all new construction projects and major renovations.

Communication and online access: Maintaining reliable communication in our homes or apartments is critically important during pandemics. Fortunately, internet connectivity, WiFi, and teleconferencing have revolutionized the capability for many people to work from home, for online schooling, for online shopping, for medical diagnoses, for receiving up-to-the-minute news and alerts, and for communicating with our loved ones and social networks in an era of social distancing. This communications capability can allow us to remain homebound - including when self-quarantining is required.

Ensuring that everybody has dependable access to the internet and cellular communications is a huge public safety priority.

Rural areas that do not have access to WiFi or cellular communications present a major public health concern, and we might want to consider using some of the emergency funding appropriated for COVID-19 to extend these communications networks so that all Americans finally have full access.

• Maintaining supplies of food and other goods: Public health emergencies are not the best times to thinking about keeping our larders stocked. If everybody runs out and buys food, toilet paper, bottled water, medicines, and other supplies, our grocery shelves will quickly empty - as we have seen in some places, especially with toilet paper.

My wife and I try to maintain at least a six-week supply of staples that can be safely stored for years. We have gallon jars filled with black beans, rice, and other staples, and we keep a reasonable inventory of canned goods and jars of peanut butter.

We buy flour in 25- or 50-pound bags, because we do a lot of baking. In an emergency, we could do just fine for an extended period of time making our own bread, and cooking beans, and rice - even if we lose power and our freezer.

Note that buying products like dry beans and rice in bulk is usually more affordable than buying our heavily prepared and packaged foods.

It is not an option available only to wealthier people. Cooking with those ingredients does take more time and effort, but if we are now homebound due to COVID-19, we should have the increased time required for cooking these foods. Perhaps this could even lead to healthier diets.

We also grow as much of our own food as we can - we're fortunate to have the land that allows us to do so. Along with the typical vegetable crops, a lot of our gardening is focused on crops that can be stored. We are still eating the winter squash and garlic harvested last year and stored in our basement.

We put up dozens of jars of tomato sauce, jams, and pickled beets. Canning doesn't preserve foods forever but, if properly processed, they have a shelf life measured in years. We dehydrate tomatoes, black currants, and other crops.

For those without a place to plant a garden, consider joining a CSA (community supported agriculture) farm. I'm also a big fan of farmers' markets, but in the interest of social distancing, CSAs - with pre-bagged or pre-boxed produce - are preferable.

In either case, local farm production is beneficial when regional supply chains may be threatened.

It's too late to be thinking of stocking up on hand-sanitizer right now, but once the COVID-19 pandemic eases - or as manufacturers ramp up production - stock up and keep some extra on hand.

The same goes for facial tissues, aspirin, cold medicines, and any specific medicines you may need for your medical conditions. Experts suggest stocking a 90-day supply of prescription medications.

The just-in-time economy is great - until it isn't. Part of resilience is making sure that you maintain an inventory of key supplies.

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Preppers, or survivalists, take this sort of preparedness to an extreme. The internet is full of prepper websites that fuel the sort of paranoia they embody.

The difference between me and full-blown survivalists is that the latter (at least the more vocal of them) maintain a fanatic individualism that can be directly at odds with community building.

I believe that building strong community is key to resilience - with the caveat of social distancing when it comes to pandemics.

Another difference is that some survivalists look forward to the sort of long emergency that a pandemic could cause. I don't look forward to it, but I do want to be prepared. I want to be resilient.

I want to know that my family could get by if we are forced to stay home for a month or longer - even if we experience an extended power outage while we are holed up.

Here are a few suggestions of preparations we can make to keep safe during disruptions of any kind - and especially a pandemic.

This sort of resilience isn't only about getting back to where we were before; it's also about learning and adapting so that we will be better prepared next time - when the disturbance might be a flood or wildfire or earthquake, or another pandemic.

• Keep six weeks' of food on hand-at least staples with long shelf lives.

• Maintain supplies of medicines that may run out during a pandemic.

• Make sure you know where you can get safe drinking water. Unless you have a redundant water supply (like our spring), keep at least a few 5-gallon containers of water in your home for emergency use; use opaque containers or store in a dark place to prevent algae growth.

• Do what you can to enable your home or apartment to keep you and your family safe during an extended power outage (passive survivability).

• For apartment dwellers, make sure that the central ventilation system doesn't circulate (potentially contaminated) air from other apartments; if necessary, install a window fan to blow outside air into your apartment, keeping it under positive pressure.

• Establish and maintain reliable internet connectivity.

• Try to maintain redundant forms of communication, such as cellular communications, a land line, and internet connectivity. In our home we have both internet and cellular connectivity; we gave up our land line a few years ago.

• Consider a battery backup system or generator to enable you to power your Internet connection, charge your cell phone, operate a few lights, and provide for other critical needs.

• Companies should transition to laptop computers for their employees to enable them to work at home efficiently. This measure offers the added bonus of saving energy.

• If there's a local email networking platform - in Vermont we have the Front Porch Forum - join it to keep up with local news and announcements.

• Maintain community even during an age of social distancing. Create online or email communities, and check in on your network of family and friends regularly. Social networking platforms like Instagram and Facebook can play an important role.

• To help with social interaction in an age of social distancing, set up video-conferencing capability using platforms like Zoom, Google Hangouts, GoToMeeting, and Skype. Acquaint your network with your preferred platform.

• Ride a bicycle instead of taking public transit. Advocate locally for better bicycle paths and bicycle lanes on our roadways.

• Know where to access up-to-date, factual information. The New York Times is making all of its pandemic information available for free to non-subscribers, and you can sign up for the newspaper's Coronavirus Briefing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintains an excellent COVID-19 site.

• And wash your hands with soap and water.

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