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They were waiting for the Big One. Then coronavirus arrived.

Can being ready for one kind of disaster prepare you for another?
Emergency Volunteer Corps
Courtesy Photos

Linda Kozlowski’s neighbor wanted to know if she needed anything from Walmart. It wasn’t a quick trip into town; the drive from the Oregon coast to Portland took two hours. But because of her age, Kozlowski, a 77-year-old retiree, might be at risk from covid-19. Perhaps there would be hard-to-find goods, like hand sanitizer. She thought for a moment and asked for bread, pasta, and toilet paper.

Helping senior citizens is a neighborly thing to do, especially in the middle of a pandemic. But in Manzanita, where Kozlowski lives, joint grocery runs are part of a detailed disaster preparedness plan that Kozlowski herself introduced to the town 13 years ago. Back then, it wasn’t a disease they were concerned about, but a storm that helped locals realize exactly how vulnerable they were to power outages, floods, and landslides.

The Oregon coast is a harsh, unforgiving place where mundane outings can quickly turn deadly. This past January, Jeremy Stiles and his two young children, Lola and William, were swept out to sea by a sneaker wave while hiking north of Manzanita. Lola died at the hospital. William’s body was never found. (Jeremy recovered from hypothermia.)

Until recently, though, the main thing most residents were preparing for was a combined earthquake and tsunami they nicknamed The Big One. The Cascadia Subduction Zone fault line stretches from Vancouver Island in Canada to Cape Mendocino, California. The last Cascadia earthquake occurred in 1700, and scientists have predicted that one will occur every 300 to 600 years. When it hits, the region will be devastated.

So Kozlowski had helped the neighborhood get prepared. She’d followed advice, called a meeting, and identified who had first aid skills, who had generators, who had a chainsaw. She’d organized a spot for everyone to rendezvous if things went bad. Sure, she’d created the disaster plan in case there was a tsunami. But it meant that when the coronavirus pandemic hit, Kozlowski and her neighbors already knew exactly how to lean on one another.

The majority of Americans are not ready for disaster. A 2016 survey conducted by Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness found that 65% of households reported having no or inadequate plans to survive a catastrophe. Forty-one percent of households said they weren’t confident their communities knew what to do if disaster struck unexpectedly.

And yet, in the face of coronavirus, preparation has become urgent in a whole new range of ways to a whole new range of people. Lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders have paralyzed communities, shut down businesses, and led to panic buying. If the nation was generally unprepared for disaster, it was even less ready for this particular flavor of emergency.

“Are we prepared as a country? I don’t think so,” says Irwin Redlener, the director of the Columbia center. “The fact is, the studies we have done that have to do with individual preparedness have been extremely depressing.”

"Are we prepared as a country? I don’t think so. The studies we have done have been extremely depressing.”

Irwin Redlener, National Center for DIsaster Preparedness

Which makes the preppers of the Oregon coast—and Kozlowski, their grassroots leader—a bit of an anomaly. She believes being prepared for one disaster, like a tsunami, means being prepared for other disasters, like coronavirus.

Patrick Corcoran, a hazard outreach specialist at Oregon State University, says it’s impossible to ready yourself for an unprecedented event. “Can you really prepare for what’s to come if you haven’t experienced it?” he asks. “We toggle between denial and bargaining with the devil.”

But what else are you meant to do you when disaster strikes and your government fails to step in and help? Testing for coronavirus in America has been a mess, medical workers are pleading for masks, and hospitals are desperate for ventilators. The confused federal response has led to an unprecedented swell of local, personal action: neighbors buying food for their infirm neighbors, fashion designers stepping in and sewing protective gear, teams of volunteers putting together grab-and-go meals for kids.

Steven Eberlein, a professional resilience specialist who has given preparedness presentations up and down the Oregon coast, says that people should do what they can to prepare—but that some issues are just too huge for individuals to tackle alone. “Federal, state, and local governments can’t respond to everyone in a quick manner,” he says. “When you look at what’s happening with the pandemic, one of the big problems is our supply lines are clogged.”

Manzanita has “blown away every other community as far as preparedness.” Many other towns along the Oregon coast have followed its lead.

A little over two years ago, I was home in Portland for the holidays when my dad mentioned his cousin, Ellen, and her husband, Pete. They were preppers who lived on the coast, he said, getting ready for some big tsunami. I wasn’t sure what that meant, so I called them up, and Pete invited me down to their house to show me. I took my dad along.

For 90 minutes, we drove through canyons of evergreen forests. After passing through the city of Tillamook, famous for its cheese, we turned onto a narrow, flood-prone road that hugged the bay. As I followed the road’s curve toward Cape Meares—the coastal village where Pete and Ellen live—I became highly aware that if my hand slipped on the wheel, we would plunge into the water.

Pete and Ellen built their house in 1990 as a vacation home and retired there full time in 2003. It’s built on a slope and has stilts to support the deck. Six years ago, Pete did a seismic reinforcement of the foundation. When we walked up the steep steps and entered the cozy cabin, Ellen was in the kitchen making tuna melt sandwiches. (She and Pete can a year’s worth of tuna every August.) It was a shockingly clear day, and from the picture window in their dining area, you could see the beach and the Pacific Ocean stretching away for miles.

While Ellen made the food, Pete, who is 79, gave us a tour of the house. Cape Meares is divided into six neighborhoods and has about 60 full-time residents; Pete is the captain of their area. His job is to keep new residents up to date on preparedness plans and to coordinate with the emergency manager in Tillamook County. He’s a walking encyclopedia about The Big One, and he told us that when it happens, they have only 20 minutes to get to higher ground. He’s mapped out every possible exit route he and Ellen might have to take.

To ready themselves for The Big One, Pete and Ellen keep four cords of wood in case the electricity gets cut off, a butane cooker, a propane cooker, 100 gallons of drinking water, a Berkey water filter that Pete likes to note is used by Doctors Without Borders, and enough food to last them six months. They have nailed the bookcases to the wall and have three packs ready to go, whose contents include water purification tablets, duct tape, a tin cup, fire starters, dental floss for cordage, space blankets, a small folding straw, a pocket knife, aluminum foil, rubber gloves, cotton gloves, storm-proof matches, and jelly beans. In the bedroom, Ellen keeps her glasses in a cubby above the bed because she realized that in an earthquake they could fall off the nightstand and shatter, and she wouldn’t be able to see. Prepping “really is a way of life,” she told me.

It was Pete who first told me about Linda Kozlowski: Cape Meares, which is 30 miles south of Manzanita, has largely followed her lead, as have many other towns along the coast.

Kozlowski looks like the kind of person who gets things done. A small, compact woman, she has a wispy blond pixie cut, sharp eyes, and plump cheeks that make her look 20 years younger than she is. She often wears her blue Emergency Volunteer Corps sweatshirt with a lanyard dangling from her neck. The role seems to suit her: before retiring, she spent her career as a professional headhunter, and it’s easy to see why it was a good fit. But it wasn’t always like this.

She moved to Manzanita full time in 2004, arriving from Portland like many others in the area, and almost immediately decided to run for city council. When she won, and the mayor doled out responsibilities, she wound up—somehow—in charge of emergency preparedness. She knew little, if anything, about the topic. And for three years, she really didn’t do much with it.

Then on December 1, 2007, a windstorm known as the Great Coastal Gale slammed the Pacific Northwest coastline from British Columbia all the way down to Oregon. It lasted three days, with gusts reaching 137 miles per hour. Residents along the Oregon coast lost power for five days, and landslides on Highway 101, the coastal road, blocked the roads with no way out. Trees were downed, motel and road signs ripped off. There were some helping hands, but not many. One neighbor had a generator and graciously passed it around. In Manzanita, the person who acted as both fire and police chief fielded calls by himself for 36 hours straight. Even so, senior citizens were running out of oxygen tanks. Fuel for heat was getting dangerously low. “There was spot response, but not a community-organized response, because we just didn’t have anything,” Kozlowski says. “We were just really lucky.”

"Part of the reason we roll our eyes at our grandparents talking about the great depression and the scarcity is we don’t like the possibility of disruption."

Steven Eberlein

Kozlowski had never experienced that kind of isolation before, and it terrified her. Afterwards, she realized she needed to step it up. After starting off with the basics of organizing, she discovered the government’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program, which helps with first aid and search-and-rescue. She organized residents to get trained. Then came the portable, handheld emergency radio operators and those familiar with ham radio. Today, every Thursday at 6 p.m., they call in to a centralized channel called the Net (the operation center is the firehouse), say who they are, and listen to what’s called an “educational moment,” about something like how to get to an assembly site. Last year there were 2,701 total check-ins.

In 2008, Kozlowski expanded from Manzanita to two other local towns, covering some 2,000 people, and formed the volunteer corps. Most of its money comes from local fundraising and from the fire department. Her budget is small—even if it has risen from $4,000 to $12,000—but the corps offers classes in emergency radio, WaSH (water, sanitation, and hygiene), and managing chronic illness in austere conditions. The closest hospital is 40 minutes away, so the corps also has a medical reserve made up of local doctors, nurses, vets, and physical therapists. Kozlowski says this training has all helped them deal with coronavirus. “We’ve been talking about ‘How do you wash your hands?’ for a long time,” she says. “Because after a disaster, the last thing you want to do is get diarrhea.”

Kozlowski’s efforts were soon mimicked around the coast. Sharon Kloepfer, a CERT volunteer in Gearhart, another coastal town, told me Manzanita has “blown away every other community as far as preparedness.” In Rockaway Beach, a strip of land south of Manzanita, David Elkins is trying to copy Kozlowski after taking her volunteer corps classes. He was told the city didn’t have any money to hire an emergency manager, so he rallied 25 residents who are now trained in first aid, lost-person search, and small-fire suppression.

Unlike the stereotype of a prepper, Kozlowski takes an approach that is less everyone-­for-themselves and much more we’re-all-in-this-together. “How we recover in this next step is sticking together,” she says.

When America reported its first coronavirus case on January 20 in Snohomish County, Washington, disaster responders in many states—including Oregon’s volunteers—were put on alert. By the time the first victim died in Seattle on February 29, they had gone into overdrive, telling people to shelter in place and stock up on two weeks’ worth of food, and relaying information from the Centers for Disease Control back to residents.

But even the most battle-­ready prepper admits that this is a very different kind of disaster from the one they, and most of America, had in mind. There are no power cuts, no extreme weather or loss of running water—just empty streets and a lack of medical ventilators. This has made it extremely difficult to apply the come-together strategy of Kozlowski’s program. “It’s really hard to work as a community because we’re quarantined,” says Jim Kusz, a retired fire and rescue captain who teaches preparedness at Oregon Coast Community College.

And of course Kozlowski’s program can’t possibly apply to every disaster: after all, a pandemic—or, say, a terrorist attack—is a very different beast from a tsunami.

tornado damage
The residents of Manzanita are no strangers to natural disasters. In 2016, a tornado lasting only two minutes damaged 128 homes and downed a third of its trees.

“A city might be prepared for a major coastal storm for which very little will apply to being prepared for a pandemic,” says Columbia’s Redlener. Though Kozlowski says her plans have proved vital during the coronavirus situation, not everything readied for The Big One is useful. Tsunami prep, for example, takes into consideration exit routes and water filtration. But those are unlikely to come into play during a pandemic, where access to masks and food has become much more important.

This might not make a difference to how an individual prepares, but at a larger level it can be a big problem. “Preparedness” is a vague term, says Redlener, and it can create confusion, cover up incompetence, and even lead to underfunding of important services. “We want New York City or the Oregon coast or the Gulf of Mexico to be ‘prepared’ and we really don’t know how to define that,” he says.

Kozlowski was certainly not prepared for covid; her plans were targeted at a very specific and very different “bogeyman.” And I wondered at times whether her toolkit could help with covid-19. So much seems unknown about the virus, and the situation is so ever-changing, that being prepared for everything is almost impossible.

So much seems unknown about the virus, and the situation is so ever-changing,
that being prepared for everything is almost impossible.

Still, there’s likely to be a shift in how Americans think about preparedness immediately following this pandemic—an awareness of how a worldwide disaster could happen again and affect the whole country, not only those in identified high-risk areas. The US will need to acclimate, just as people living in high deserts already own masks for wildfires or residents of Los Angeles don’t hang paintings above their beds for fear of earthquakes. And yet the adaptation will most likely be short-lived. “We like normal. We like comfort. We like stability,” says Eberlein. “Part of the reason that we roll our eyes at our grandparents talking about the Great Depression and the scarcity is it makes us uncomfortable. We don’t like the possibility of disruption.”

I know what he means. When I first visited Pete and Ellen, and my dad and I stood in their garage gaping at the shelves piled with canned goods, it all seemed a little alarmist. It was such a beautiful, clear day that it was hard to imagine a tsunami. Plus, I’m the complete opposite of Pete. I let my gas tank dwindle to empty before I refill. I only buy the bare necessities at the grocery store. A few years ago, I saw an infographic in New York magazine about what would happen if a 10-kiloton nuclear bomb were dropped in Times Square. My neighborhood, the East Village, would be spared, but radioactive ash would fall for 72 hours, confining me to my apartment. I realized then that I would starve if that happened. My mentality has changed, of course, with coronavirus. When my mom asked how many rolls of toilet paper I had and I said 12, she was pleasantly relieved. “You usually have, like, one little square left,” she told me.

In March, after coronavirus began spreading in America, I checked in with Ellen and Pete. On the phone, Pete said their way of life hadn’t changed except they were now having groceries delivered and they couldn’t watch their grandkids’ basketball games, but those had been canceled anyway. They were still gearing up for the spring Chinook salmon season, just like any other year, so they could have a fresh supply of fish to freeze, smoke, and can. “We’ve just become perpetual preppers,” he said.

When I called Kozlowski to see how she was dealing with the pandemic, she said she felt secure. She was frustrated, though, by the swell of beachgoers who had descended upon Manzanita and were ignoring the calls for social distancing. Residents along the coast had been raging on social media—and to me—about the tourists. At the time, there hadn’t been a single confirmed coronavirus case in Tillamook County, and residents wanted to keep it that way: a quarter of the county’s population is over 65, after all, and cases in the US were jumping by the thousands every day. On March 21, Manzanita shut down the town to visitors and ordered out-of-towners to vacate. On March 26, the first person in Tillamook County tested positive for covid-19.

The shutdown was a promising action by city officials, but there is always more to be done—including tweaking your own personal disaster plan. Kozlowski is currently working on a “human waste strategy” for her and her husband. For now, they’re using a large garbage can piled with leaves. It’s not ideal.

“If worst comes to worst we’d probably dig a hole in the backyard,” she told me. But because she’s already equipped to handle disruption, she seemed more confident than many Americans about this incredibly unpredictable situation.

“I feel really good about the work we’ve done to prepare our community as much as we could for this pandemic,” she said.

It doesn’t mean her future is certain, though: “This is going to be a major disruption, and even the best plans in the world—it’s just hard work to come back.”

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