"When things go wrong, if you're not already ready, it's too late to get ready." -Nancy Brown
SERIES: Role of the Public Sector
Preparedness builds resilience and a resilient community always wins over any disaster. In this episode, Jennifer sits with Nancy Brown, the Community Preparedness Program Manager of Sonoma County. Nancy talks about the role of the public sector in ensuring that their community is adequately prepared for a disaster and how to overcome the challenges that come with this unique assignment. Jennifer and Nancy also discuss strategies and checklists to help the community prepare for communication failures, make evacuation organized, and help the LatinX community. The more prepared we are, the more we can help each other move towards a better tomorrow. Don't miss out on expert advice and practical tips to help you get started on preparedness!
- 02:27: Why be Prepared
- 05:48: Preparedness Challenges
- 11:24: Evacuation Checklist
- 15:46: Disaster Response and the LatinX Community
- 25:17: The Best Place to Make a Difference
- 32:48: How to Help Communities Post Disaster
- 37:54: The World of Disaster Response
- 45:44: Out of Control is the Norm of Disaster
- 49:22: How to: Self-Care in Disaster
- 52:21: Don't Forget Your Neighbors
03:08: "When things go wrong, if you're not already ready, it's too late to get ready." -Nancy Brown
04:14: "Preparedness is key to... our ability to get through the disaster to recovery and to the new normal that is established after any disaster." -Nancy Brown
07:31: "The challenge of preparedness is to get people to say, 'what if'. If you can get people to believe that they can do simple things [to] change their outcome, they're more likely to engage in it." -Nancy Brown
10:18: "People who start to prepare are more likely to continue to prepare." -Nancy Brown
13:32: "The likelihood of you surviving a disaster is often directly related to how well you know your neighbors and their survival as well… Preparedness is so much simpler when you're doing it with other people." -Nancy Brown
33:02: "Make sure that in everything that's being done, consider how best to do it instead of what the minimum we can do is." -Nancy Brown
36:46: "We don't always know that the right way to approach a community that we're not a part of." -Nancy Brown
42:05: "People are good and they care about each other at their very core, that's one more reason to get prepared." -Nancy Brown
44:04: "Don't disqualify yourself based upon your background." -Jennifer Thompson
44:18: "Life is long… There's so much time to do so many great things." -Nancy Brown
46:05: "When we call it a disaster, things are out of control and overwhelmed… Things are going to go wrong or slightly off the way you plan and that's okay. Keep moving forward and find ways to fix it." -Nancy Brown
48:12: "When a disaster happens, you can't ever go back… You have to always be picturing where you're going from here." -Nancy Brown
50:58: "Don't try to be a lone hero because it's never going to work." -Jennifer Thompson
51:37: "A mismanaged disaster is a catastrophe." -Jennifer Thompson
52:21: "Don't forget the conversation about getting together with your neighbors." -Nancy Brown
Nancy Brown is the Community Preparedness Program Manager for Sonoma County's Department of Emergency Management. Originally from Southern California, Nancy earned a Master of Science degree at California State University. Nancy completed her PhDPh.D. in Emergency Management at Massey University, Wellington, New Zealand. This interdisciplinary study combines the relatively new disaster science field with hospitality industry studies, community resilience, and organizational resilience studies. Her long-term objects include the continued development of pragmatic ways to build disaster resilience that engage communities and businesses in a systemic way - resulting in a culture of resilience.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Welcome to another episode of How To Disaster, a podcast that will help you recover, rebuild and reimagine. I'm so happy to have with us today, Nancy Brown. Nancy Brown is a professional in this space. And most of the time, we bring you people who are sort of emergent leaders. But we also think it's really important that you hear from people who have those official titles. Their whole job is all about how to keep us safer as a community. And a huge part of that has to do with how do we prepare as a community? What are our responsibilities? And what can we look towards the public sector to do? And when we talk about the public sector, we are talking about people at a city level, county level state and federal level. Oftentimes, when a disaster occurs, people look only towards the public sector to really try to help them manage that moment. And well, that's a good idea. It's really important that you also have some kind of responsibility for how you prepare in advance and how your community prepares so that you can not only help each other, but really partner with the public sector. So I asked Nancy here today to talk about her job. I also wanted to talk about, how did you even get into this work because it's not that usual of an occupation to choose.
So welcome to Nancy Brown.
Nancy Brown: Hi, thanks for having me.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Nancy, can you tell us a little bit about your title and why it was implemented by the county of Sonoma? And about how long you've been here? And what motivated you to come to this particular county to do your job?
"When things go wrong, if you're not already ready, it's too late to get ready." -Nancy Brown
Nancy Brown: Sure. So I am the Community Preparedness Program Manager for Sonoma County's Department of Emergency Management. And after the 2017 fires in the county, the Board of Supervisors rightly recognized that the Department of Emergency Management was nowhere near what it needed to be in order to respond to great events like that. So they reimagined what that would look like and set up a completely independent department. I think our full staffing is 12 people, and we're at full staff. And then they began to hire those people. One of the positions they thought was really important, the position that I have is this preparedness position because we all know that when things go wrong, if you're not already ready, it's too late to get ready. I think a lot of people found this just in the power shut offs of a couple years ago that if they didn't already have ice, it was too late to go get ice. But if you haven't already gotten this plan in your mind, if you haven't already figured out what you're going to do by the time you need to do it, it's too late.
"Preparedness is key to... our ability to get through the disaster to recovery and to the new normal that is established after any disaster." -Nancy Brown
So this preparedness piece is critical to basically build resilience. Because I think we recognize that, especially after this last year, that things are happening, they're going to happen. It's highly improbable that nothing will ever happen again and we will live a fairytale life in Sonoma County. It's more probable that something else will happen, and the amount of preparedness that each individual person and family have is directly related to how much disruption they experience. So is it just a blip in the highway? Or is it life changing when something goes wrong? And that preparedness piece can really help it. Just be a blip where it happened, you got through it, and then you got back to this new life that ended up happening after that. And so really, I think the preparedness is key to the capacity of the responders to be able to respond because so many more people are prepared, less people need help from first responders so they can help people that really need that preparedness. And overall, our ability to get through the disaster to recovery and to that new normal that is established after any disaster.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So when I talk to people about the space of disaster, one of the things that is completely the same across the country is that we tend to engage in magical thinking or whatever hasn't happened before we expect not to happen in the future. We actually are looking at least a decade of really devastating mega fires and this is across the American West. It's not just a Sonoma County problem. We have had three major fires since 2017, this is not including that one. Our last one was the Glass Fire. Right now, we are recording this in April of 2021. There is a declared drought in our area, and we're looking at a high degree of vulnerability. I do see some anxiety online. But when I talk to people about the space of community preparedness, it doesn't matter if you're in the public or private sector, it's incredibly hard to get people to prepare for something that hasn't happened. Even in a community where it has happened multiple times, people still just want to go, they need to go back to their lives, and on top of having this pandemic. So can you talk about the challenges of getting people into that space or in that mindset of preparedness?
Nancy Brown: Well, there's a couple of things going that keep people from engaging in preparedness when rationally you would say, well, of course, we've had fires 1, 2, 3, 4 years. Are we not going to have another fire? Of course, we're gonna have another fire, so let's get ready for that. But yet, we see people who still aren't. And part of that has to do with some of our hardwiring. So as human beings, we have this thing called optimism bias. It's what allows us to, for instance, if we've been trying to lose weight for 30 years, start another diet. Because we believe this time, we're going to, or any of these other things that allow us to. If we've been trying to get a raise at our job, we believe that next year, we will get it. And that next time, it will happen. And so this optimism bias is part of what makes being a human being hopeful and lovely. But it also is what keeps us from doing that preparedness piece because we overestimate good things will happen to us, in general.
"The challenge of preparedness is to get people to say, 'what if'. If you can get people to believe that they can do simple things [to] change their outcome, they're more likely to engage in it." -Nancy Brown
So you've seen that there's a lot of really interesting studies that show, okay, so we have people who just got married, we interview them in a study and we say, okay, what do you think? Let me first tell you that the divorce rate in the United States is 40%. How do you rate your divorce rate now that you've just been married? What do you think? Do you think you'll ever get divorce? 100% of those couples say no. You're like, hmm? That's just how we are. So when you say, well, there's two different things. Oh, it won't happen to me because it hasn't happened before. So yeah, there was fire in the county, but my house didn't burn so my house will never burn. Or my house already burns, so we won't burn again. All of these different things that people think of and so, really, the challenge of preparedness is to get people to say, well, what if, and if I do this small task, the simple thing, will it change my outcome? And if you can get people to believe that they can do this simple thing and it will change their outcome, then they're more likely to engage in it.
So I think one of the ways that, in general, emergency preparedness might have fallen off the wagon for a long time was trying to give people too much information that, when you think about, oh, I want to tell you everything. Here's the list, go get all these things, go do all of this. And you say, yeah, that's a great idea. And you set the list down and walk away. But when we look at these newer ideas, it's more about, do you have a flashlight? Get a flashlight, put some batteries in it and get some spare batteries. Let's start there. If I can get you to do that, then I can get you to do the next thing. It's just that people don't want to think about that they would need a list of 40 things. I don't need 40 things, it's not going to happen to me anyway. But if the power goes out and I have a flashlight with batteries, well, that makes sense to me that that could help. It's something simple, I can do it. I'll do that piece. So we've tried really hard to try to keep the messages small and try to keep it simple. Because that way, maybe we can attract those people.
So there's a whole group of people who are already engaged in Sonoma County, and it's a big group because there are a lot of believers. I mean, it's really hard to not believe now. Yeah, I would say if we talked about how many people were engaged in earthquake preparedness, we thought probably find that number really little. But how many people have a go back? The last survey we did, 78% of the people who took the survey how to go back. That's pretty good.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: But they're also more likely to take the survey because they have one.
Nancy Brown: Absolutely.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: There's that too. Like there's almost like a confirmation bias and those few simple things that you can just do, and then you can add into your go bag and add into your repertoire. I always tell people, and it sounds funny, but it's true to pack some clothes like an outfit. Comfortable, with shoes. Because in wildfires, naked evacuations are a very real thing. And while it sounds amusing, it's sort of salacious. It's really a horrifying experience for the people who are actually running for their lives and don't, they only have like three minutes to leave. And maybe they were wearing something, but often not. So just some little things like an outfit and change it out every year. And a flashlight, sometimes you have to give them those flashlights though.
"People who start to prepare are more likely to continue to prepare." -Nancy Brown
Nancy Brown: Yeah. But I mean, it's just that the real key is just, I think also people who start to prepare are more likely to continue to prepare. So how do we just lift up under the curtain, get under the curtain just a little bit and let them have a peek at what it looks like. And really, the key is just to recognize that if you do these things, your disruptions are going to be much less, it's going to be better for you. And of course, that other piece, which is not that hard, it's not that complicated. You can start with these easy, simple things that you can imagine doing. That you can imagine allocating time and resources to do.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I also would love the really very simple thing that I've heard. You all say, we say it all the time, which is to go around and videotape your house once a year on your phone. And I just heard you talking with the intern about how you used to have this photography habit, which I had too. It's very expensive, and very laborious. I loved it. But now you have all of this capability on your smartphone, and it takes, what? 10 or 12 minutes to go through everything. I believe I've even seen that message in the materials. Has it been put in the materials for the county?
Nancy Brown: It is in the materials. We have a new, it's an evacuation checklist that we put together that's coming out in some of our new materials for this coming fire season. And one of the things in the preparedness piece is videotape. And then if you have time before evacuation, that's like one of the other things. If you have time, if you have an hour before you have to get out, walk around your house and do that video. And if you haven't done it recently, and make sure that you do that because it's really hard to imagine what you own when you're not standing there. Close your eyes and picture the room you're in, you'll be lucky to pick 10 things out of it.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think that if anybody just saw even one of the contents list from our fire survivors, which I am in possession of one of them for Larkfield Estates, she had to remember down to what was in the hallway where she bought it in the cost. It's really like we don't think about all the stuff that we have. But also, you have to remember that for your future self which is going to be, if you do lose your home, will be traumatized. So you also have to think about what simple things can I do to reduce the trauma for myself and my family in the event of a disaster? The other piece is how can I be of service to my neighbors in the event of a disaster? Can you talk about your work with neighborhood programs?
Nancy Brown: Absolutely. I think this is one of the real keys to Sonoma County Resiliency for a lot of reasons. First of all, I mean, knowing your neighbors is a great thing. It's a community, it's a small town feeling, it's really feeling comfortable, and people are watching out for each other. So disaster aside, that somehow in the United States or certainly in California, we kind of got away from having these close knit communities. Certainly, when you have older communities, which a lot of our Sonoma County communities are, you don't have kids out playing the streets, so mothers and husbands aren't out in the streets with the kids and meeting the neighbors that way. So it gets harder and harder to make that overture to get out of your house to meet your neighbors because there's not a natural connection to that.
"The likelihood of you surviving a disaster is often directly related to how well you know your neighbors and their survival as well… Preparedness is so much simpler when you're doing it with other people." -Nancy Brown
But when we talk about preparedness, the likelihood of you surviving a disaster is often directly related to how well you know your neighbors and their survival as well because you didn't get the alert, but they came and told you. Your car got stuck in the garage so they helped you get out. All of these different stories you've heard from different events. We have some surveys from the 2019 power shut off and fires. And over and over again, people mentioned that their community neighborhood group, it was their savior that made all the difference. The power was out but our co neighborhood got together. And we barbecued all our food that was rotting in the refrigerator, so we made a little festival out of it. And it was fine and we were all good. We were there to support each other instead of sitting in our house stressing about it. And the other thing of course is just preparedness is so much simpler when you're doing it with other people. So when you have questions about, people have a lot of questions about generators. Not my field, but there's a lot to know about generators. If you're going to get a generator, what is it going to actually power? How much fuel you need to have on hand? Where are you going to put it? What you need to hook it up to? How do you hook things up?
I mean, there is a lot to know. But if you're in a neighborhood where you have 5 or 10 neighbors that you're with regularly talking about preparedness, you'll learn this information together and you'll be able to be really efficient at understanding that. And maybe you don't all need a generator, maybe three of you need a generator and that can support your community in the right way. But we've seen in Sonoma County, so many great neighborhoods working together in northern Sonoma County. The Northern Sonoma County cope, the citizens organized for emergencies, they have just turned into a wonderful group.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Because they've done such a good job. And so we like to support them through a grants program whenever we can because we're hoping that that becomes emulated in other areas, which can be tough. I live in the Springs, and people in the Springs are really busy. It's about 52% Latinx community and as a delivery service to the community in ways that are culturally appropriate in their primary language are so important. Can you talk about how to build in that sort of equity and how you tailor that response for its communities that maybe English isn't their first language.
Nancy Brown: We talk about the Latinx community members, they have so much to offer because this is a group of people who are highly social and have big networks throughout the county, within their own families. They have lots of events and parties, and they spend a lot of time together. So getting any portion of this group to move towards a preparedness would spread like wildfire. So there's a great practice to turn that into something that could be really meaningful, I think we're trying to find and develop leadership. And that's really where it comes from. So the Northern Sonoma County Cope leadership group is so well defined and has grown so well because it had some leaders who were super engaged. And that's really the key is to find leaders who have the time and the energy to put forth it and take it on as something that's really important to them and then support them in any way that you can. I know that in the Springs, there's a foot map, your neighborhood group that's starting to develop, and I see some really exciting people getting involved in that. So I think that'll be something that will go there. I know macro neighborhood's really popular in Sebastopol, they have a lot of groups. I think they have 40 groups now in Sebastopol that are doing macro neighborhoods. So that's another model that's been really good. And then in Sonoma County, we also have the fire safe councils which are also another group of just all the same theme, which is people getting together to solve their problems in advance.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yeah. And that's how you build resiliency, and how you partner, and then how you can help each other because even FEMA tells us that we're really on our own for about 72 hours. Academy will provide some degree, and a county can't always predict where the disaster is going to land. So in 2017, we've learned a ton since then. Where I live in Sonoma Valley was very much cut off from the county because it was on fire all around us. We were a bit of an Island or off the 101 freeway. And so serving this community outside of police and fire was incredibly challenging, but we managed to do it through mostly just community relationships and like, what do you need? And how can I help all the way around? But can you talk about, actually, do you want to dive into your background because I think it'll be really interesting for people. But can you talk about like, what is your advice for a person or a community who wants to start a map your neighborhood or build resiliency?What's the easiest first step to do that especially for an under resourced community, like in a rural area that doesn't have the kind of budget that the county of Sonoma has? Where does that public sector leader even begin to promote this message?
Nancy Brown: So we have a web page that has some materials and some information, and then all of our existing groups like the Sebastopol macro neighborhood and the Northern Sonoma County Cope, these people are very helpful in helping other people get started. We haven't had a lot of Latinx members in these communities, but they're really working hard to try to develop that as well so that they can have multilingual programs as well, which they haven't had the need for at this point because they haven't had a multilingual membership. But they really would like to start that too. So I think if you were listening to this and you were like, I really want to get together with my neighbors. My advice would be get together with your neighbors and just start by figuring out who has what. Yeah, just start there. How many of you have a generator? How many of you know how to operate, or have a saw? If there's a tree in the road, how many of you have big freezers? How many of you have barbecues? How many of you have first aid skills? Just take a poll and see what you guys have? And then the other thing, which I think is key also is, how many of you are going to need help? What's your challenge? I don't drive, or my cars in the garage, whatever these things are. What is your challenge? I have medication that needs to be refrigerated, who can help me with that? So just make a list of those things. And once you've done that, you're a long way to really understanding how to support each other because you know who has what and where to go to get it when you need it in a hurry.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And to think about it in terms that if we were on our own for 3 to 10 days, what would I need? And what are my neighbors need to get through it? Will communications be down? It's interesting because I absolutely think my house is gonna burn down every year probably because of this experience. But I am always also thinking about like, how can I ensure that I'm stepping up and helping my community? What are the communications if they go down, if we have a PSPS, which is a Public Safety Power Shutoff, which we usually do in the middle of a big event anyway. And also to avoid them, you may not have cellular service. What kinds of ways, and this may sound a little over the top to some of you, but I am the girl who also got a full face gas mask because I want to be able to help my community. But I bought two way radios for my family, and they go 30 miles. I have in-laws in their late 70's and extended family throughout the valley. So I thought, well, if they go down, it's actually a relatively small investment for 10 of these for a family network.
So if my mother-in-law has to evacuate, maybe with my father-in-law or without him, I can still figure out where she is. And that also if there's a mental health component to that, that they won't be alone in that because I saw this story in a documentary about Paradise that really struck me. And it was a first responder, a firefighter who lost his home, and his wife and child evacuated. And then for the next nine hours, he didn't know if she lived and she didn't know if he lived. And that story really convinced me that having a secondary mode of communication, like a walkie talkie, just like when we were 10 is a pretty good analog idea.
Nancy Brown: I think there's a lot of our different neighborhood groups that are really working on this communications redundancy that we have. They're putting together gmrs radio networks. They're looking at the funding and putting up additional repeaters so that their ham signals can get around the corner, and some of these different things. So I think there is some work being done there. Because I think it's obvious that when we've seen what's happened in the last few years with the power outages, that those systems that we highly rely on for information and communication can be very fragile. And very little we can do about that. I mean, we certainly advocating at the state level and things like that to improve the resiliency of cell towers and those things, but we can't personally do that. That's a governmental function, which is happening. But in the interim, we're still susceptible to having our communications completely cut off. And one more thing to add to your list, don't forget to have that battery operated radio so you can at least listen to the radio and find out what's happening and maintain situational awareness that way,
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Or even a crank radio is great. So what do you have in your go bag at home?
Nancy Brown: I have all the regular things. I have mylar blanket, I have food and water. I don't like that prepackaged little way for food. I have real food and water that will last me maybe a day and a half, two days, because I don't want my pack too heavy. I want to be able to carry it. I have a full change of clothing, including an extra sweatshirt and a pair of tennis shoes. I have aspirin because I get headaches when I get stressed out. So that's me. I have contact lenses because I can't see a thing. I'm always worried that there's going to be some instance where I don't have my contact lenses or I lose one and now I can't see anything. So I have like three pairs of contact lenses in there to make sure that no matter what happens, I can still see because that's critical to me. And then I have my flashlights and my batteries. All the regular stuff that you think you might need. I think one of the things that's really important, of course, is that radio to make sure that you have that redundancy. And you don't have to go out to your car and turn it on and use your battery for your radio to listen to that. You can listen to it in your home if your powers gone out to be able to find out what's happening.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: You just reminded me of like, I believe it was the Kincade Fire, and we also had a PSPS last like six days. I remember sitting out in my car for like 2:00 to 4:00 in the morning because I know I'll stay up and try to push out information. And having it then finally being like, okay, I don't want to do this. I'm just going to run an extension cord from my car into my living room and I'm going to try to work that way. But that's not a solution, that in itself is not a resiliency. It will work in the moment, but I don't actually recommend it. You will find yourself in those situations though if you experience a disaster or disaster adjacent. So you moved here a couple of years ago to take this job. You actually were not here during the 2017 fires and you bring the health food PhD and the choice to enter into this line of work. So if you don't mind, I would love to hear or share with the audience something about your background, and then your motivation to take this job and living here in a place that has experienced multiple disasters in the last few years.
Nancy Brown: Sure. So I came directly from New Zealand where I had finished my PhD. And in my PhD, I looked at disaster resiliency in the hotel sector and how to build disaster resiliency in the hotel sector and developed a model of resiliency that looked at organizational and community resiliency, as well as tourism subjects. So when I was looking for a job, I was looking for California, but I also wanted to go somewhere where there was a lot of engagement. That's really the dream is that you don't go somewhere where everybody, where you're in a corner and nobody believes in disaster, and nobody's going to pay any attention to what you're doing. It's like a side thing. You really want to go somewhere where people are engaged. I think when you think about things in Northern California, in general, that this group of people are highly engaged in a way that you wouldn't find them highly engaged in Idaho, for other places. So I think now that COVID happened, everybody's engaged.
But prior to that, I really wanted to see a community that was really interested in hearing about preparedness, and the opportunity to join a brand new team, and a community that was really, really highly motivated to understand the importance of emergency management, and really throw their backing behind emergency management in general and say, yeah, we want this and we want more of this. It's really a unique experience. I don't think it's the experience that a lot of emergency managers experience, typically, unless something happens. And then of course, everybody wants to know their emergency manager. But in many communities where nothing's happened for a long, long time, it's just not a priority. And when you're thinking about how to allocate money, and how to allocate resources, and where you want to spend time and effort when there's less money every year for a lot of organizations, a lot of cities and counties, then you have to think, well, where would be the best place to really make a difference? And it would be a place where people are really engaged, because you can actually get something done.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think one of the hardest things is that part of the reason we're really engaged were really traumatized. And I want to like throw that out there that that can also be a challenge in and of itself to deal with the community that is very traumatized. And this year was tough because we had a horrible fire season across the American West, the worst one in recorded history. And then at the same time, we have COVID like everyplace else, and Sonoma County certainly had pretty high levels of it. We were in lockdown for a very long time, and you had to work on how to evacuate people during our fires that we had in the middle of COVID. Can you talk about how it was like for you to meet those dual challenges at the same time?
Nancy Brown: It's really difficult when a community is as raw as Sonoma County is. And rightly so that it's not just one thing or two things, it's just one after another, after another. And to strike that balance between wanting to make sure people are prepared without adding additional stress because you don't want to do that either. But you also don't want to just completely ignore the fact that we're, here it comes again, folks. We need to continue on down the path. You bought your flashlight last year, can we go ahead this year by the radio? You do need to continue along this path. But at the same time, you don't want to make people, I think one of the things I worry about in Sonoma is every year, I hear people saying, I want to leave. I can't do this anymore. This is too tough. And I think preparedness can help that feeling too, that it's not as tough if you know that you're ready for it. And when it happens, you have a plan. You enacted it, it worked out okay. Your family was safe, you went home and carried on. So I think it can help with that because this is a beautiful place to live, but there is a lot going on.
And I think that COVID layer is particularly interesting. Because in the past, of course, we've always looked at congregate sheltering is not a good option. So the team built a new idea, which is this temporary evacuation point. And I think that's going to be staying as a really good way to manage evacuees in general because it gives you an immediate place to send people even if a shelter hasn't been set up yet, you still have somewhere you can immediately send people for more information. So I think they're going to flesh that idea out more and more with or without COVID. That establishes a temporary evacuation point, which is where you send people in from there if they need a shelter, or are there other ideas you can work on with them to make other ways happen for them to be able to go. Maybe they just need money to be able to get down the road to somewhere else, or other things like that that you can solve. Do some problem solving on the spot so that you don't have to have so many people in congregate sheltering, which I think anybody who's ever done it, it's not ideal. It's not the greatest thing in the world. If you had an alternative, you do that?
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, I think the one of the hardest things about experiencing these wildfires in the pandemic as comorbidities almost is that we depend on our community, and we depend on infection. We depend on our ability to be together in times that are very stressful. And to have the COVID layer on top of it already had so many people who were in pain and trauma, and then to add the extra layer of trauma over it. And then to take away a lot of our coping mechanisms for how we address disaster. That was a pretty rough thing to witness. One of the questions I wanted to ask you is, if somebody is watching this narrative emergency manager and say they're in Idaho, they haven't been devastated by data fires yet, but they are very vulnerable. What advice do you give them about, how to serve the community that's actually in front of you? Like, they're really good ideas. And a lot of times, when people talk about community inclusivity, they inadvertently leave out. They don't think, okay, what about people who are disabled, or people who don't speak the language at all, or they're afraid of the national ICE, they're afraid of immigration. Because that has taken a toll on us every single time.
And in 2017, we had just this massive disaster, wildfire disaster and the head of ICE at the national level got on TV and said that our wildfires were started by what he called an illegal alien, an undocumented person. And it was patently false information. It just didn't happen. But those sorts of things, and they happen in our national conversations. We don't really do politics here, but we can talk about how that sort of fear of, a taken in, or turned over, or tracked, or documented in some way is really a barrier to equities, or people of color in it in a lot of different ways. What advice do you give to that manager in a county who wants to figure out how to do right? And do you think that there's like, we always talk about mistakes. I talked about every mistake in my life, I totally talked about it. But is there something that you wish that you would have known ahead of time, or put it up differently in order to serve those sort of outlier communities, or not always outlier, but different populations in a way that is appropriate and sensitive?
"Make sure that in everything that's being done, consider how best to do it instead of what the minimum we can do is." -Nancy Brown
Nancy Brown: Well, I think one of the things that counties have done that. I think we'll see more and more counties across the country engaging in developing that Office of Equity. And that will have an equity officer in the Emergency Operations Center to make sure that everything that's being done, that we don't just tick the box, that we actually really consider how best to do it instead of what the minimum we can do is. And I think almost everybody's trying to, for sure, do the minimum. But that's not always enough. You talk about our undocumented workers who may be hesitant to go to a temporary evacuation point, or stay in a shelter because they're hesitant, because they don't want to be found by government officials there on the download. They like it that way. And I think we spent quite a bit of time with Alegria this year developing wording for signage that is welcoming, that makes it very clear right up front in Spanish and in English, that you're protected here by us, that we're protecting you, that your information that you give us doesn't go anywhere else, and that this is not a place where federal officials are going to come find you. This is a place of health and healing.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: A message out before they actually arrive at the shelter though, because it seems like when they're making that decision in their car, where they're going to go, during COVID, our organization paid for a lot of PSA to be on KPBS radio because it was an indigenous languages and in Spanish, and it was culturally appropriate. And a method of that was already widely used in our areas of our populations of concern that we want to make sure that we're being served, and in a way that they could hear. I mean, are you guys doing PSA's, or are you doing that ahead of time?
Nancy Brown: That's a great point. We are working with a couple of media partners on some PSA's for the fire season. And that certainly should be one of the messages that goes out. Because you're right, it is important that before they get there, that they go there because they may make alternate decisions. And I think also Alegria, and some other people at the county level--
Jennifer Gray Thompson: People who don't know, she's referring to Alegria De La Cruz who is an Inaugural Director of the Office of Equity, formerly with the county council, very smart, dynamic, amazing leader.
Nancy Brown: Perfect. She's also advocating with our congressmen to establish a rule with FEMA that is standardized, that says that if there's a federally declared disaster, we don't send anybody from immigration to any federally declared disaster area period. So that can be just put to bed at that point for sure that this is a policy now that we don't do immigration sweeps during a disaster, which you would think would be obvious. But it's a concern, and there's not a policy. So they're working really hard to establish that specific policy to put that question to bed once and for all.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Make time to do it, because FEMA just came out with a hole and they rent it to the federal registry as of April 22, a statement of commitment to equity, and they are to request for input. I hope that you all are commenting there and providing your expertise and your experience, because it hasn't been an easy thing to figure out in the past few years. Just when we think that we learned it, and we learned something else that we could have done better or that we needed to do, we hadn't even thought of doing. And really listening to the community and partnering with, really important to partner with trusted organizations on the board of an organization called L'alose. And when we had our fires, L'alose and then [inaudible] school, they were our real touch points for how to actually ensure that our entire community was being cared for in a way that was really supporting what they needed, as opposed to what we wanted to give them.
"We don't always know that the right way to approach a community that we're not a part of." -Nancy Brown
Nancy Brown: Right. And I think you make a really valid point that we don't always know the right way to approach a community that we're not a part of. Because we're not a part of them so you don't know what you don't know, literally.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I've been trying to embed for years. So speaking Spanish, and then I'll go in the meeting where everyone is speaking Spanish and I don't know what they're talking about. Because I want that experience of actually being the person in the room who doesn't speak the language that everybody else is speaking, so that I can remind myself always of how to increase empathy and action behind that being a guy that I've just recommended. Kind of a great experience. I don't know, maybe. Can you talk about, I've been actually gonna take you all the way back to when we first started this job. I came in, I sat down with you. A question I always love is like, how did you get here? I know you got here from New Zealand, and probably during part of COVID you wish you'd stayed. But like what led you to decide on this particular career?
Nancy Brown: So for my first career, I was a florist. I was a florist for 20 some odd years. And actually, pretty accomplished florist, a really good floral designer and really loved the business. But at a certain point, I decided I couldn't do it forever so I needed to go now while I was young enough to start a new career. Because you don't want to start a new career in your 60's. You want to start a new career in your 30's and 40's.
So as I sold my shop, like within the same month or so, Katrina happened. And for the first time in my life, I had time to volunteer. So I volunteered with the Red Cross and went to the Katrina response area and spent two weeks working with the Red Cross throughout the response area. And found, first of all, that it was incredibly complex and super interesting. And a lot of really important work is being done. I know there's a lot of fault in that particular response, and a lot of things went wrong. But there were also a lot of things that did happen. And a lot of people were very grateful for the kind of response that the Red Cross was able to put together in an area that was unprecedented in size. But also just so interestingly enough, I thought to myself, you know what? Somehow, being a florist has given me a lot of skills that are really useful here. Because as a florist, we spend a lot of time doing this huge planning so that we can provide flowers and deliveries, things for these big events like Mother's Day or Valentine's Day.
And yeah, we know they're coming. But we still have to do this huge amount of preparation up in advance to get ready for those holidays. And I thought, so what's missing here is they didn't have the right preparation. And everybody I know everything because I don't know anything. So I'm thinking, oh, I would have done it this way, and I would have done it that way, and I would have done it this way. And I think that really is, obviously that's the point where I said, okay, so I know what my new career will be. I just need to get myself some education so I can do it right. And then went on my way to get a master's degree, a PhD and all those other things.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Is there something, there's this great book by Rebecca Solnit called A Paradise Built In Hell, are you familiar with it?
Nancy Brown: I am familiar with it, and I have it on my nightstand but have not read it yet.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Okay, it was so good. It was recommended to me by Lindsey Anderson who works for FEMA now. But she was the director of disaster management University of Pittsburgh. She came on, she recorded a podcast and asked me to be on it. She was like, have you read this book? And I immediately got it. I think it's an important message about disasters, something you desire them. But I do want people to know, and I'm wondering if part of the alert for you is, it is a terrifying physical experience? It's awful, and it's traumatized. And there's no amount of playing down the trauma of having a fire monster at your back and surrounding your town or destroying your town.
But I will say this for humanity, man, people are cool. They're wonderful. And for the most part, most people are pretty wonderful. They show up for each other, they don't whip out their guns and start shooting each other. And trying to use hoard, we did not see hoarding. What we saw was if they had it, they gave it. If they had one thing, but they could cut it in half and give half away to somebody else and another half away to somebody else. That's what they did. Like our biggest issue was an avalanche of giving, alright, and how to manage that it wasn't necessarily, wasn't it all that people weren't willing to offer themselves forward and be incredibly heroic in this way that I found it very moving, and I need to change my life entirely. I was always an optimist anyway, because I am the person who thinks my house is gonna burn down. But for human beings, I tend to be an optimist until proven otherwise. Can you talk about that experience of humanity, for better or worse, has that affected your decision to do this work?
"People are good and they care about each other at their very core, that's one more reason to get prepared." -Nancy Brown
Nancy Brown: I agree with you, I think very often, the media finds these little stories about violence, and they become big stories. But basically, I agree with you that people are at their core. They're good, and they care about each other at their very core. I think that's one more reason to get prepared, because I don't think anybody's going to leave their neighbor behind. So wouldn't it be great if you already had a plan to get your neighbor so you could get out fast, instead of trying to get it together at the last minute co'z you're not going to leave them behind. You're not going to leave these people behind and runaway. You're going to do your very best to help everybody you can, even if it's slightly in dangerous shoes so it'd be really great to have that plan in advance. And I think one of the things coming from a retail perspective is that I was really wanting to do something that was bigger than me, and contribute to something that was bigger is something that was, some type of service industry type of a thing as opposed to a retail type of a thing. So something completely different, really. But I think that you can't underestimate how great and creative human beings can be. They really can just knock your socks off with how cool they can be.
"Don't disqualify yourself based upon your background." -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Even if sometimes, yeah, like in the midst of it, it can be a bit of a general. It's true, I want things to be this way or that way. But it's really, I am always impressed by the caliber of person in front of me, and the fact that they would want to do this work. And so I appreciate that you would take that skill as a florist. I hope that if somebody hears this and they're in a job that they like, and it has these particular skill set and they want to do something else, that they understand that a lot of the skills that you need in the field of disaster, you can get from waiting tables, you can get them from being a florist, you can get them my favorite and my disaster brother, Charles Brooks, who is the Executive Director of Rebuild Paradise Foundation, he was a reusable grocery bag sales director before he started Rebuild Paradise. And he's perfectly suited for this work. He's excellent at it. So don't disqualify yourself based upon your background. Take from your background, or watching from your work and your desire to do well to do good by the world. So I applaud you for doing, I think that it was brave and necessary.
"Life is long… There's so much time to do so many great things." -Nancy Brown
Nancy Brown: And the other thing is really important, life is long. People always say life is short, it's not. It's long, there's so much time to do so many great things that I think, particularly young people, they have this pressure that they have to make all these lifelong decisions right now. But you know what? The decision you make now, you can change it in 5 or 10 years, and you still have plenty of time to do something else. That there is so much time.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yeah. You can do all the cool things you want. This is my third career, and I didn't go back to graduate school till I was 41. Now, I'm 51, and it was worth it. Even though everyone was like, I don't know what to do with it, I graduated from grad school when I was 43. What do you do with a former teacher who's a Public Administration Master? But it turns out that you can find your way. I would like to actually close out today by you offering advice, advice on how to disaster. And one thing I'd also like you to include is one or two tips for how you care for yourself during a disaster and how you manage stress. A huge issue across the spectrum of helpers is a reluctance and an inability to care for yourself to employ sleep in the middle, or food, or meditation, or just a couple of things about how to disaster. Your best advice, but then a couple of pieces of advice for people who are in a position of service and need to take care of themselves too.
"When we call it a disaster, things are out of control and overwhelmed… Things are going to go wrong or slightly off the way you plan and that's okay. Keep moving forward and find ways to fix it." -Nancy Brown
Nancy Brown: So I think there's a lot of really interesting work being done in psychological first aid in general, which is talking about that particular topic, how to care for yourself? How to care for other people under these biggest stressful times? I think one of the things that I find super valuable is to keep in mind that when we call it a disaster, by definition, things are out of control and overwhelmed. If they weren't overwhelmed, it would just be a blip in the road. It doesn't get to be called a disaster unless systems are overwhelmed, and that you need outside resources. And so things are going to go wrong or slightly off the way you plan, and that's okay. You just keep moving forward and find ways to fix it, and throw a bandaid on it and keep going that it's okay that things aren't going the way you plan them to go. It's a disaster. Literally what's going to happen is that things are going to go not according to plan. But those plans will help you make different plans when you see what really happens. So there's a lot of jokes about the plan.
The first thing you throw out when something happens, because that never goes the way you said your plan would be. And that's fine, because the plan is an exercise for your brain. To try to figure out what some of the alternatives are. So now, you've figured out six alternatives and none of them work, but your brain is in that place so you can now figure out six new alternatives and one of those might work. But I think it's really important to understand that it's okay if it feels like things are spinning out of control. You will catch up, there is that place where it's so far in front of you, you can't get there. And then there's the place where you grab it and you go, okay, I got this. And it's part of the process. It's perfectly normal when these things are happening. And all of that planning that we do is not for not, even if it doesn't get exercised at that time. It is part of how we act more efficiently and learn and move along.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It was like a competency, or at least the baseline competency that you can act from there if you're willing to be nimble, and a little flexible and creative, which is not always easy under stress.
"When a disaster happens, you can't ever go back… You have to always be picturing where you're going from here." -Nancy Brown
Nancy Brown: Right. Right. I think that's really the one of the keys is that you just have to recognize that this is how it is. And I think the other key, and this is something I think is really important right now as we're coming out of this COVID crisis towards something is that when a disaster happens, you can't ever go back. There's no bounce back, it doesn't happen. You can't get there from here, it doesn't exist any longer, it's gone. You have to always be picturing where you're going from here, how the new looks. And it's always an opportunity for the new to be better than the old, but you can't. And I think a lot of people right now are experiencing different types of frustration about how to get back to where they were before COVID. And they need to just like give that up, you need to just give that up. You can't get back there from here because it just no longer exists. It's time warping and disappearing behind you.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I totally agree with you, which is why reimagine is always part of our tagline because it gives people permission to let the day before go. Like you have to let that go. But also to respect grieve, that it's okay to grieve for what was lost the day before. And to be very respectful of it in a way that will also respect the reimagining of where you're going to go. But that's a hard one to navigate. How do you take care of you in the middle of a disaster in this work?
Nancy Brown: Well, that's all of your basic things that I think people appreciate, and it's the same thing that happens when you're grieving a loss of a loved one or any of those types of things is make sure you get enough sleep, make sure you eat healthful food that feeds your brain. Just do those that make sure you get some exercise. The EOC can be an Emergency Operation Center, can be all encompassing and you can end up in a tunnel in there. You've been in the Emergency Operations Center, but to be able to walk out, leave, take a walk around the block, get fresh air, have fresh food, do those types of things. And really step away from it, don't step away from it with the news still on the radio in the car. And then when you get home, you turn the news on also. Literally step away and rest your brain. And of course, that's also when all your best and creative ideas come out is when you step away from it too. So it's good for you, and it's good for the event. So literally, take yourself out of it and give yourself permission to set these next five or six hours out. But it's okay to do that because you're going to be a better partner when you move forward.
"Don't try to be a lone hero because it's never going to work." -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Even if you're asking, even if you just tell yourself like, okay, I'm going to not do this for three hours. For three hours, I'm going to not take in information. I'm not going to help anyone. I like the fact that when we have major fire events, I'll stay up all night to push out information through our page and through my personal page. And then Melissa Stone who's on my team, she takes over now. We don't even talk about it anymore at like 8:00 AM, and she takes it, and then I know it's going to be okay. So don't be afraid to partner. Don't try to be a lone hero because it's never ever going to work. Remember that you have to off load all the adrenaline somewhere, which is where exercise is helpful.
"A mismanaged disaster is a catastrophe." -Jennifer Thompson
Nancy, I really want to thank you for bringing a public sector and community preparedness perspective to the How To Disaster podcast because I think that there's a lot of pressure in your position. And really what you're doing is you're trying to help people prepare for what could be the worst moment of their lives, or it could be a blip and it really can be as some of that is within our control. And a lot of it is not within our control. We do know that a mismanaged disaster is in fact a catastrophe. And the delta between there is often how we interact and intersect with our public sector, and how we take some ownership and agency as citizens. I really want to applaud you for not choosing an easy career. But really choosing one that will continually ask you to adapt, flow, learn, listen and try to get a community to the other side of something. It maybe nothing, but I just really want to thank you for being on our podcast. Let us know if you have any closing words of advice or message for the community.
"Don't forget the conversation about getting together with your neighbors." -Nancy Brown
Nancy Brown: I do, and that is don't forget the conversation about getting together with your neighbors. So if you are a leader, start leading. And if you know somebody in your neighborhoods who's a leader, encourage them to be leaders and just get a few people together. You do not have to make it formal, you don't have to call it something, just get two or three houses together and start planning together because that is really going to be so helpful to you in the coming years to be able to have that support network. They're right next to you to be able to help you through whatever goes on, and you can help them through whatever happens.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It turns out, and we say it all the time, the only way through any of this is together. That's just the deal. So thank you so much again for being on.
Nancy Brown: My pleasure.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: We created the podcast, How To Disaster to show you the breadth and depth of humanity in the midst of this really terrible thing that happened. We are bringing you humanity, that's the greatest resource you'll have in a disaster. And that's something that you learn in a disaster is that when everything else burns down, that humanity doesn't burn down. And this is going to be tough. It's going to be hard, and it is entirely possible.
So welcome to How to Disaster, and thank you for giving us your time.