How to prepare for the next environmental disaster

LGBTQ2S+ people are among the communities facing higher risks in disasters. But we also have crucial skills to help each other through

I’ve had a half-finished emergency kit gathering dust in my storage area for at least five years. It’s got some of the basics in it, like a first aid kit, a flashlight and dehydrated food, but it’s nowhere near complete. I started putting it together in a burst of good intentions and quickly lost momentum because I felt overwhelmed by everything I’d need to do—and buy—to help increase my chances of surviving a disaster. I recently moved to an island where we face risks like earthquakes, wildfires and floods, and where highway shutdowns or disruptions to our ability to travel off-island can cut off our access to other communities, services and necessary supplies. This transition—along with the responsibilities I feel as a community member and parent of three young children—has me thinking about how queer and trans people can prepare for disasters in an era of accelerating climate change and other threats to our survival.

But I still haven’t finished my emergency kit, and I’m not alone; in a 2020 survey, more than half of British Columbians said they didn’t have one, a figure that’s consistent with national data showing that fewer than half of Canadians don’t have a kit of their own. These numbers are even lower in the U.S., where only a third of people reported having emergency kits, and more than half hadn’t made any emergency-preparedness plans. Researchers attribute this lack of preparedness in part to our tendency to undervalue risk and overestimate our capacity to deal with disasters.

Undervaluing risk usually isn’t a problem for me. As a person who tends toward anxiety and hypervigilance, I’m practised at imagining worst-case scenarios, assessing risks and mitigating potential harms. It’s a survival tool I’ve been honing since childhood that sometimes feels like a superpower and at other times feels exhausting. That’s probably why I felt guilty, worried and a little bit ashamed whenever I thought about my own unfinished kit. If a disaster hit and I wasn’t prepared, any bad things that happened to my family and me would be my fault for not being ready.

And I need to be ready. I live in a province where the impacts of climate change are increasingly and frighteningly apparent. Two summers ago, B.C. experienced a “heat dome,” hot weather so extreme that it killed more than 600 people in the province, broke Canadian temperature records and helped spark a devastating fire that levelled most of the village of Lytton. The hot, dry summer also contributed to other wildfires that prompted the declaration of a two-month-long provincial state of emergency. In the fall that year, southwestern B.C. experienced an “atmospheric river” of rainfall so massive it triggered flooding and landslides that destroyed whole sections of highway, stranding people for days. All this happened concurrently with the COVID-19 pandemic and drug-poisoning crisis. It sometimes feels like we’re living in a constant state of emergency, the harmful impacts of which are inequitably distributed across populations and communities.

 

Although there are government agencies and non-governmental organizations dedicated to disaster preparedness and response, their efforts often fail to account for the unique needs of LGBTQ2S+ people and communities. In an article about preparing to evacuate from their small town without a car, non-binary writer andrea bennett observes that government messaging about emergency planning appears “to focus on middle-class families with access to disposable income and vehicles”— implicitly white, cis, straight, non-disabled, nuclear and housed.

Advocates for LGBTQ2S+ inclusion in disaster preparedness and response point to examples like a lack of gender-inclusive evacuation shelters or policies and procedures for accessing emergency supports, services and benefits that systematically exclude LGBTQ2S+ people and families. LGBTQ2S+ people may experience barriers to accessing disaster-relief funding due to factors like program designs that actively discriminate against us or fail to recognize our family structures, or with ID requirements that systematically exclude trans and undocumented people without the necessary government documentation. Research has also examined racial and economic inequities in access to these benefits, which tend to favour the white and wealthy. Disaster relief shelters and services may be inaccessible to disabled people, heavily policed by law enforcement, or operated by faith-based organizations that are unfriendly or overtly hateful toward LGBTQ2S+ communities.

These barriers—and our lack of inclusion in disaster-relief policy and planning—become even more concerning when you consider that LGBTQ2S+ people are among the communities likely to be at higher risk in disasters. This is especially the case if they’re Black, Indigenous or people of colour (BIPOC), disabled, houseless, low-income and/or incarcerated. “The status quo response to natural disasters,” write the authors of A People’s Framework for Disaster Response, “exacerbates existing inequalities. It increases racial and class disparities related to housing, employment, education, economic security, community investment and other essential social systems.”

“We can’t rely on external, unrelated groups to save us, ever.”

When I ask Myriad Augustine, a Toronto-based educator and writer whose work focuses on community preparedness, about mainstream responses to emergencies and disasters, they tell me, “We can’t rely on external, unrelated groups to save us, ever.” Augustine’s approach to preparedness is grounded in their identities as a mixed-Black, disabled, low-income, trans and non-binary person, and their political commitment to mutual aid

I first met Augustine in March 2020 when I participated in one of their Get Out Alive, Together! (GOAT) 101 workshops. They’ve been offering these workshops in-person and online since 2016 as a purposeful challenge to the right-wing, individualistic perspectives underpinning mainstream preparedness culture. Augustine teaches participants how to think about and prepare for disasters in strengths-based ways that emphasize accessibility and interdependence. The workshop focuses on our mindsets, skills, knowledge and advance planning we can do with others rather than on amassing an impossibly long and expensive list of stuff.

Participating in Augustine’s workshop was an important turning point for me. Learning more about approaches to disaster preparedness and response that are community-led and grounded in mutual aid helped me realize I’d unconsciously internalized an individualistic approach to planning. I was so focused on accumulating the things I needed to complete my emergency kit and I believed I would only have myself to blame if things went wrong.

Lukah Love, a white, queer, non-binary, disabled organizer whose work is informed by their anarchist values, brings a community-centred approach to their work on the steering committee of the U.S.-based group Mutual Aid Disaster Relief (MADR), a “grassroots disaster relief network based on the principles of solidarity, mutual aid and autonomous direct action.” Augustine and Love both point to how government- or non-governmental-organization-led approaches to disaster preparedness and response are often characterized by individualism and bureaucratic red tape. In contrast, Love tells me, community-led approaches leave “much more room for nuance and complexity … that actually meets people’s needs,” with “a lot of creativity and collaboration that governments don’t allow for.”

In 2017, for example, a group of MADR organizers travelled to Puerto Rico to offer support in the wake of Hurricane Maria. In his book Mutual Aid, Dean Spade recounts how these organizers soon found out about a government warehouse that was neglecting to distribute huge stockpiles of needed supplies to communities. Taking bold action in the face of institutional inertia, the organizers went to the warehouse, showed their MADR badges and told the guards, “We’re here for the 8 a.m. pickup.” Initially rebuffed by the guards, the organizers insisted until they were let into the warehouse to take whatever they needed to redistribute to local communities. This tactic proved so successful that they made more MADR badges for local organizers who returned to the warehouse for months to get essential supplies.

In an article on why we need to look to queer and disabled folks to survive climate catastrophe, Patty Berne and Vanessa Raditz highlight the work of disabled queer and trans communities of colour who are “already preparing for the survival of their communities through oncoming disasters, teaching each other skills in resilience-based organizing.” They cite examples like Mask Oakland, a California-based volunteer group formed in 2017 by trans disabled plural activist Quinn Jasmine Redwoods to distribute masks to unhoused communities to help protect them from the dangers of wildfire smoke and, once the pandemic hit, COVID-19. In 2018, Mask Oakland distributed more than 85,000 masks, more than all Bay Area governments.

“The truth is, we need each other to survive, and we can’t do it alone.”

Stories like these demonstrate the power of community-led approaches to disaster preparedness and response. They’re an important contrast to what Augustine described to me as “toxic prepping”: a culture of consumerism which teaches us that we can individually buy our way to safety. Toxic prepping perpetuates the fiction of the “perfect survivor”: a person so skilled, knowledgeable and prepared that they can make it through any emergency or disaster on their own. The truth is, we need each other to survive, and we can’t do it alone.

Augustine was motivated to start offering GOAT 101 workshops after they wrote a series of community-preparedness zines that sparked conversations at zine fairs with people who were convinced they didn’t have the skills to survive a disaster. Some were resigned to the idea that they’d be among the first to die when disaster hit, a belief reinforced by the plotlines of zombie apocalypse movies and doomsday-prepper reality shows. 

But Augustine’s community education work focuses on teaching LGBTQ2S+, BIPOC and disabled people that “we are already worthy of survival and already quite capable of surviving disasters because disasters happen around us constantly.”

I asked Augustine and Love for advice on how LGBTQ2S+ people might approach disaster preparedness, especially when mainstream guidance usually isn’t tailored to the specific needs of our communities, such as figuring out how to ensure an adequate supply of gender-affirming hormones or planning within chosen family structures that include multiple households, partners and/or co-parents.

Both stressed that we as a community already have the skills necessary to organize. We may be at higher risk in a disaster, but, as Love says, “being queer is already practising mutual aid disaster preparedness. We live in a world that is not made for us and has required a lot of creativity, relying on each other and advocating for ourselves just to get to the point where we’re at.”

Love’s words make me think about the do-it-ourselves strategies my friends and I have devised to help each other navigate mental health crises, deaths and sickness; the MealTrains and GoFundMes we’ve use to share food and redistribute resources; and how I’ve learned to use my hypervigilance as a safety-planning tool. It reminds me of the rich legacies of community care and mutual aid that have helped our communities survive across generations. This everyday preparedness is an important strength to recognize and draw on as we gear up for the bigger disasters that might affect us in the future.

Love and Augustine pointed to the centrality of interdependence and mutual aid in preparing for and responding to disasters. In practice, this can look like planning collectively with your chosen family, roommates, neighbours or other people or groups you’re in community with. For example, how would you communicate with your chosen family if cell service was down? What would you and your housemates need to have on hand if you needed to shelter-in-place for 72 hours or more? Who are your housed and unhoused neighbours, and how can you get to know one another now so you can help each other if a disaster strikes? Not sure where to start with this kind of planning? Begin by mapping who’s in your community using SOIL’s guidance on pod mapping for emergencies. Ready to go deeper? Check out the Ready Together Handbook, a practical, seven-session guide for collaborative emergency-preparedness planning.

Alongside planning with others, Love and Augustine both emphasized the importance of knowing what you need for safety and comfort in disaster situations. As Love put it, “When the shit hits the fan, if you can say, ‘I tend to have low blood sugar. I need to eat every two hours. Here are the things that I can eat,’ that’s gonna be helpful.” Using an emotional-safety-planning tool like mad mapping might be useful in articulating your needs during crises or high-stress situations, as might this guide to disaster preparedness and personal resilience. Along with knowing your needs, understand what supports you might be able to offer others. For example, I know how to stay calm and organized in a crisis, I’m a death doula who’s practised at holding space for grieving people, and I’m trained in basic first aid and don’t get squeamish around blood. 

When I first started thinking about disaster preparedness, I was stuck in an individualistic mindset, overly focused on stuff and grasping for rules that would help keep me safe in an emergency. What I’ve learned from people like Augustine and Love is that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to preparedness—each person and group’s needs, resources, circumstances and contexts vary. That means we need to find pathways into planning that feel relevant, meaningful and accessible to us. In my case, this looked like asking my co-parents to work together with me on preparedness, getting to know our neighbours and building my knowledge by listening to preparedness podcasts like Live Like the World is Dying.

After our community was affected by flooding, my co-parents and I started preparing collaboratively with other queer and trans folks who live nearby. While we’re still in the early stages of this work, some of our initial actions included making sure we have each other’s contact information, purchasing emergency radios after one group member researched the best model to buy and participating in a virtual GOAT 101 workshop that Augustine customized for our region of B.C.

I’ve also noticed how the ways of coming together with this group have strengthened our more everyday forms of interdependence, things like loaning each other tools, checking in after someone’s surgery or helping with yardwork. When my family welcomed twin babies, it was members of this group who cooked meals for us and took our babies for walks. These more mundane forms of community care and mutual aid feel like preparedness, too, because it’s through these small actions that we build the relationships that will help sustain us in the face of whatever disasters we might face next.

My emergency kit still isn’t finished, but I don’t feel guilty about it anymore. I feel motivated and energized. That energy comes from knowing I don’t have to prepare for disasters alone. It makes me think of my friend Jo—a queer femme who cares deeply for those around her—whom I once heard describe preparedness as one of her “love languages.” I want for us all to become fluent in the language of preparedness as love, to believe we are worthy of survival and to take care of each other. No matter what disaster hits next, we’re going to need each other to get through it.

Zena Sharman is a writer, speaker, strategist, LGBTQ+ health advocate and death doula. She's the author of three books, including The Care We Dream Of: Liberatory and Transformative Approaches to LGBTQ+ Health (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2021) and the Lambda Literary Award-winning anthology The Remedy: Queer and Trans Voices on Health and Health Care (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016).

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Health, Activism, Identity, Feature, Environment

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