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Podcast: To beat a pandemic, try prepping for a tsunami

The small seaside town of Manzanita, Oregon put neighborhood action at the center of its disaster readiness plans—and that strategy paid off when the coronavirus came.

Mr Tech | Nahalem Bay EVC

Deep Tech is a new subscriber-only podcast that brings alive the people and ideas our editors and reporters are thinking about. Episodes are released every two weeks. We’re making this episode—like much of the rest of our coronavirus coverage—free to everyone.

“The reality is that there are two ways to look at responding” to a natural disaster, says Linda Kozlowski, a city councillor in Manzanita, Oregon. “One is that I'm in it for me, and everybody else can take care of themselves. We have chosen to go the opposite direction. Our community has chosen to say, let's work together.”

Small towns dot the remote, often harsh beauty of the Oregon coast. Storms regularly lash the region, and its inhabitants are sometimes left to their own devices for days. Many who call the area home could be described as “preppers”—preparing for the power going out, a tornado, or a tsunami triggered by the massive fault that looms just offshore. But when journalist Britta Lokting wrote about her cousin’s family in the tiny coastal hamlet of Cape Mears this spring, she found that preppers aren’t always the rugged, bunker-building individualists you may expect. Manzanita and Kozlowski, it turns out, have inspired towns up and down the coast to take a community-first approach to disaster preparedness. As Lokting found, it’s given them a unique perspective on what it means to be ready for anything—including a pandemic.

Show Notes and Links

They were waiting for the Big One. Then coronavirus arrived, April 15, 2020

Emergency Volunteer Corps of Nehalem Bay official website

What past disasters can teach us about how to deal with covid-19, April 15, 2020

How to prepare for the coronavirus like a pro, February 28, 2020

Full Episode Transcript

Wade Roush: Coastal towns in Washington and Oregon have warning systems like this one...

Tsunami warning system: This is a test of the AHAB system. If this had been a real emergency, you should follow evacuation routes. Move to higher ground. Inland now. Do not delay.…

Wade Roush: States built these alert systems because they know that at some point in the next century or two, the Pacific Northwest will be hit by a giant earthquake and tsunami. It’s just one of the ways people up and down the coast have been getting ready for their version of The Big One. Here at Technology Review, we want to know whether preparing for one kind of disaster can help communities deal with a very different one: namely, a pandemic. I’m Wade Roush, and this is Deep Tech.

[Deep Tech theme]

Wade Roush: Seventy to 100 miles off the coast of Washington and Oregon there’s an undersea fault called the Cascadia Subduction Zone. At this fault, the strain building up between tectonic plates gets released periodically in the form of a megathrust earthquake, which in turn unleashes ocean waves that inundate the coast. It happens every few hundred years, and the last great earthquake and tsunami here was in the year 1700.

Wade Roush: Britta Lokting is a feature writer who grew up in Oregon and now lives in New York. She says she found out recently that her cousins have spent years working to prepare for the Big One in their tiny coastal town of Cape Mears, Oregon. In a piece for the May issue of MIT Technology Review, Britta wrote about her trip to Cape Mears, what she learned about how the town’s emergency preparedness effort got started, and why it turned out all that work was critical to community health and safety once the coronavirus showed up.  

Wade Roush: So can you walk us through the beginnings of this story? Where did your reporting start?

Britta Lokting: Yeah. So I was home for the holidays. December 2018. So two years ago. And my dad just sort of offhandedly mentioned that his cousin, who lives on the coast and her husband are preparing for this tsunami. I had no idea what that meant. And yeah, it was also fascinating that I have extended family who is into this, which I didn't know about. So I emailed or called up both of them and they invited me down to see what this was all about. And I took my dad along.

Britta Lokting: So we started out from Portland and it's about a two, two-and-a-half-hour drive southwest. And you're driving through evergreen forests the entire time, basically. And then I think the first big town we hit is Tillamook, which is sort of a tourist town. It's known for its cheese and ice cream. And Cape Mears is sort of just on the other side of the Bay of Tillamook. And you turn onto this very narrow road and you're sort of driving in a C-shape around the bay to get to Cape Mears. And on one side of you is the bay. And then on the other side, you're driving right up against this cliff.

Wade Roush: Wow.

Britta Lokting: Yeah. And that road was actually really terrifying to drive on. So, yes, you drive around this kind of C shaped curve and then you come to Cape Mears. And it's tiny. I think they're like 60 full time residents there. There's a little bench area you can kind of sit on and look out on the beach and then behind are houses. And it's sort of up on this hill, too, which is where Pete and Ellen live. It's really exposed. And Pete and Ellen kind of lived, I would say, maybe a little further back from the coastline. Like there were homes that were definitely more towards the ocean, but everything is right on the coast. If the waves come, like from a tsunami or anything, you can see that they're going to hit all these homes.

Wade Roush: So what were Pete and Ellen doing to prepare for such an event?

Britta Lokting: They had thought about a lot. So they had nailed furniture to the wall, like bookcases, anything that's gonna come down, shelves, anything like that. They had months worth of food down in the basement. They had a Berkey water filter, which Pete always likes to reiterate, is used by Doctors Without Borders. So it's sort of like the big kahuna of water filters. And they have several grab and go bags, which is sort of standard on the Oregon coast. I actually think that there is a hotel that offers them for each guest in the room. So this has sort of become like the hot accessory on the Oregon coast, basically. They have several of them. And then they had also done some, not just things in the home, but like mentally preparing. So Pete knew, like, he had mapped out every situation in which he and Ellen might find themselves, like, in their day-to-day life. If they're fishing or if they're shopping in town, where they might be when disaster strikes, what their escape route is. So he knew exactly what to do in, like, any given scenario.

Britta Lokting: And Cape Mears had this whole neighborhood effort going on of someone knew how to do CPR. And there were several nurses and doctors. And it was kind of this whole effort that they had going on. So Pete and Ellen told me I should look into this woman named Linda Kozlowski and that they had really taken a cue from this town called Manzanita, which is about 30 miles away. And actually, I had sort of started interviewing people at state universities and some other kinds of expert people on the ground there. And everyone told me to reach out to Linda and that this was all started by her. So eventually I did.

Wade Roush: Britta interviewed Linda Kozlowski back in March. She learned that 300 out of the 3,000 people who live in the Manzanita area are part of an emergency volunteer corps that’s been preparing for disaster for more than a decade using a program called Map Your Neighborhood. To find out more, I called up Linda on Zoom.

Linda Kozlowski: Ok, my name is Linda Kozlowski. I am retired. I'm on the city council in the city of Manzanita and each council member takes a responsibility. And my first responsibility, they suggested I do emergency preparedness. And I really had almost no connection with emergency preparedness. And so I you know, I kind of dabbled with it and thought about it. And we had a police chief fire chief who was here, who was a great friend. And so we would we would talk about what we could do, but we really never did much of anything, really, other than talk about it.

Linda Kozlowski: And in 2007, December of 2007, we had hurricane force winds that wiped out all of our communication. We couldn't get in or out of the city. We have aging demographics here. So we have a lot of people who are in need of heat. And there was no electricity. And our fire chief, police chief—the person I was talking about a few minutes ago—was in our emergency operations center for 36 hours straight with almost no help. So after that incident, after we survived that incident, it became very clear that as a coastal community that was easily isolated, we needed to figure out how to organize the community to respond. And so that was the beginning of what grew into the organization called the Emergency Volunteer Corps. And so that has grown to the point that we have over 300 volunteers now. We have a community that understands the issues that we need to face and work together to face them. In 2016 we had a tornado, and it just hit the city of Manzanita. And so that was kind of another awakening to the fact that we really needed to work together. And depending on the outside world, it just wasn't going to happen. And our newest and most critical disaster is this coronavirus. So this has been a challenge of a different kind and certainly not one that we expected.

Wade Roush: I'm sure it's not. I understand one of the things that you did once you joined the city council and inherited responsibility for emergency response and preparedness is you got trained in this system called Map Your Neighborhood. What are the essentials of the program?

Linda Kozlowski: It's a very structured, simple program. There are like nine steps to the program. And what you do is you get your neighbors, you define what your neighborhood is, you get your neighbors together. You talk about what your, what your skill levels are, what kind of equipment you have. What will you do or what are kind of the skills that you'll need in order to be prepared. And at the point at which there is an emergency, you all congregate and meet at your neighborhood gathering site and you determine what your next steps are.  It was a great idea. It worked really well. What happened was there wasn't a lot of focus on preparedness. There was a lot of focus on reaction. So what do you do immediately after an  emergency? But there wasn't a lot of how do you prepare this this group of people for responding to events. 

Wade Roush: Yeah. My next question was going to be about which parts of that Map Your Neighborhood and Prepare Your Neighborhood program you feel like were really great to have when the coronavirus came along. Because that's a very different kind of emergency, right, from a tsunami or an earthquake.

Linda Kozlowski: Absolutely. I think the relationships were the most important part. I mean, we had worked together. We had planned together, we knew each other. That's a major part of what makes this work. So what happens is you begin to adapt. Obviously with coronavirus you can't meet with each other. I mean, it just doesn't work. And we are an aging demographic here in Manzanita. So we have a lot of people that are really susceptible to the virus. So we even feel more strongly about the fact that we don't want to actually physically meet. So we've got text groups that are working with each other. We've got neighbors that go to the store to get people's groceries. We make sure we've touched bases with each of our neighbors, particularly those that are living alone, to make sure that they're OK. So we've taken that program and adapted it to coronavirus. And it's all about taking care of your neighbors, knowing your neighbors and taking care of your neighbors.

Wade Roush: I'm really curious about how you personally, you and your husband personally prepare for emergencies. And I just wondered if you have extra supplies or gear around your house so that you're able to ride out a big storm or an earthquake.

Linda Kozlowski: One of the things that we decided to do is that in order to put all of our gear together, we actually rented a space outside of the inundation zone with all of our emergency preparedness equipment. I do have a go bag here. My husband and I both have a go bag.

Wade Roush: Would it be easy to grab one of your go bags and, like, just show me what's in it?

Linda Kozlowski: Sure, I could do that … One of the most important things is a whistle. And the reason a whistle is important is if you get trapped, your voice doesn't carry very far. So a very strong, not just a regular whistle, a really strong whistle is really important.

Wade Roush: Can I get you to blow the whistle? I'd love to hear it.

[Whistle sound]

Wade Roush: Oh my god. That's so loud.

Linda Kozlowski: Sorry, Supak. My husband just came, he thought I was in trouble. Hand sanitizer is really important. Then I have my 90 day supply of meds, which are really important. My water supply. 

Wade Roush: So those are little packets of water.

Linda Kozlowski: Little packets of water. Then I have a knife. I have a Coast Guard S.O.S. bar. And they're energy bars.

Wade Roush: Ok.

Linda Kozlowski: Then I have handy wipes. A metallic sleeping bag.

Wade Roush: Oh, that looks like a fold up space blanket kind of thing.

Linda Kozlowski: Yeah, I have a space blanket and then I have this is actually a sleeping bag.

Wade Roush: I’m amazed that it folds up so small.

Linda Kozlowski: I know, this is great. A cloth for washing. I have toilet paper.

Wade Roush: Always good to have.

Linda Kozlowski: Always good to have. I have a radio, an emergency radio with batteries and a flashlight. Another space blanket. My masks. The multi-function tool. I have cards so that I can have something to do. Another whistle and a compass. A multi-function knife to cut food. I have string. And this is to tie up so that I can make a tent. Duct tape to help. Hand warmers. Matches. Lights. Toothbrush, toothpaste, a cloth. cotton swipes, Vaseline, hand cream. Peanut butter. And I have chocolate. And those are the two things that I need to survive. Utensils. A guidebook. Emergency blankets and then I have an emergency tent.

Wade Roush: And now, just so the audience gets it, everything that you've pulled out so far. It all fits inside one backpack.

Linda Kozlowski: Right.

Wade Roush: That's amazing. I'm sorry to make you pull all that stuff out, because now you're going to have to stuff it all back in there.

Linda Kozlowski: I know. That's true.

Wade Roush: I just have a few more questions if you're up for a couple more questions, Linda.

Linda Kozlowski: I can.

Wade Roush: I think there's this popular perception of people who are into prepping and survivalism that they are somehow individualists. They're out to save themselves and save their families. And to heck with the rest of the world. But that's the opposite of what you're talking about.

Linda Kozlowski: Wade, I think I think the reality is that there are two ways to look at responding. And they're both out there. One is that I'm in it for me and I'm going to take care of myself and I'm going to prepare myself and my family. And, you know, everybody else can take care of themselves. We have chosen to go the opposite direction. We have chosen to say and our community has chosen to say, let's work together. It's more effective to work together. We're better as a community than we are individually. And I just think it's a philosophy. Because we do have people in the region that I would call preppers. And that's you know, that's fine. But we prefer to work as a community as opposed to individually. And we think we're stronger that way.

Wade Roush: From your experience of the covid-19 pandemic so far, are you more optimistic or less optimistic as far as your community's ability to deal with this pandemic and with future disasters?

Linda Kozlowski: Well, I would say after the tornado that went through Manzanita, my confidence in our ability to work together exponentially increased. That was 2016. The pandemic has brought out some kind of, some different emotion, and it's been harder to get our arms around in terms of how the community works together. We've worked really well as a neighborhood, but there are all kinds of external influences over which we have no control that make it even more challenging. People coming into the community from outside of the area, carrying covid and not wearing a mask or staying six feet apart. The fact that we have minimal hospital beds available and the thought that if there is something that spreads, we don't have the resources to take care of people if something like that happens. So, and what's interesting is I listen to national television. I hear that from a lot of communities, communities that are small and isolated. They really, it's not that they don't want people to come back. It's that they want people to come back slowly and recognize that they're coming into a community that has really been careful about taking care of themselves and has really worked with wearing masks and staying six feet apart. And to honor those responsibilities in the community that they visit.

Wade Roush: Back in New York, Britta Lokting lives much closer to the epicenter of the pandemic. I asked her whether visiting her family and reporting on the efforts in Cape Mears and Manzanita has changed the way she thinks about preparing for disasters.

Britta Lokting: So I sort of mentioned this in the piece, but my just personality and attitude towards natural disaster is like, oh, I'll just deal with it when it comes. Like, I don't prepare at all. In fact, I actually really dislike having excess of anything. So, like, I won't go buy anything until I've already run out of it. Toilet paper, toothpaste or anything like that. When I went to go visit Pete and Ellen. I would say initially I still was not swayed. I was still kind of like this seems a little over the top. And like, I'm not gonna go home and buy six months’ worth of food. And it really wasn't until the pandemic hit and we really were confined to our homes that I realized, oh, they were actually sort of onto something this whole time.

Britta Lokting: I feel like I've actually become like a very paranoid person, which I was not before. You know, when I go get packages, I wear latex gloves. And I'll go out on walks. And when I come home, I change my clothes. I no longer wear the same clothes in my apartment than I was outside. I disinfect my phone every time I come back inside. Now I have food for weeks, like maybe a month worth of food. I don't know if I could go back now to a point where I only have food for that one meal that I'm cooking. I think that I would be uncomfortable with that at this point and that I would always want food in my fridge.

Wade Roush: What do you feel like you've learned from reporting this whole story about how ready American communities are to weather any kind of disaster, whether be an earthquake, a wildfire, a pandemic? Did you come away from your reporting feeling more hopeful about the ability of communities to help themselves, or do you think that we're still just as vulnerable and just as naive about most threats as we were before?

Britta Lokting: I think that we're probably still just as naive and unprepared. I sort of think that when the pandemic ends, there will be some lasting effects and behavioral changes. But I think that a lot of how we were living before will come back. I think that we'll sort of revert back to our old ways. I just don't know if anyone is really going to take the effort on like Linda has.

Wade Roush: What you're saying, in a way, is there just aren't enough Linda Kozlowskis out there.

Britta Lokting: Yeah. I think it's a big undertaking to do what Linda has done. And I think too, because it's not just her that will be affected by the disaster, it’s really the entire coast. But if you're living in an area that is maybe not prone to disaster, it's sort of hard to mentally prepare for that. Like, maybe if you're living in a hurricane zone, yeah, you might be more prepared, but much of America isn't necessarily living in these disaster-prone areas. And because pandemics still seem, I think, very rare or far off for a lot of people, I don't know how much it will sink in.

Wade Roush: It's funny, I kind of thought you would offer a more optimistic take. I thought you would say something like this pandemic has been so traumatic and will leave such deep scars that we'll be much better disaster preppers afterwards—that you can't help but come away from an event like this, feeling like you've learned something important about the chaos and the fragility of life, right?

Britta Lokting: You do want to learn from what happened and you do learn from what happened. But at the same time, you still want some like normalcy and to go back to how it was before. So I don't know. I think there is a little bit of both. Like I was saying, I'm going to have my fridge stocked from now on. So there are things like that. But I don't know. It will be interesting in terms of like a bigger mentality of whether America does get more prepared.

Wade Roush: Yeah, well, it'll take a while for that to show itself. So, Britta, thank you so much for talking with me. This has been really fun and interesting.

Britta Lokting: Yeah. Thank you for having me. I really enjoyed it.

Wade Roush: That’s it for this edition of Deep Tech. This is a podcast we’re making exclusively for subscribers of MIT Technology Review, to help bring alive the ideas our reporters and editors are thinking and writing about. But we’re making this episode free to everyone, along with much of the rest of our coronavirus  coverage.

Wade Roush: Before we go, I want to let you know about a new virtual conference coming up June 8 through 10. It’s called EmTech Next 2020 and it’s a co-production of MIT Technology Review and Harvard Business Review. We’ll cover topics like business agility in this time of unprecedented change. How to make businesses’ digital operations more resilient. Advances driven by new technology, like machine learning and 5G. And how to leverage these emerging technologies to work better, and smarter. We’ll be joined by guest speakers such as Eric Yuan, the CEO of Zoom, Stewart Butterfield, the CEO of Slack, and Amy Webb, the founder and CEO of the Future Today Institute. Find out more and register for your spot at emtechnext.com.

Wade Roush: Deep Tech is written and produced by me and edited by Jennifer Strong and Michael Reilly. Our theme music is by TItlecard Music and Sound, in Boston. I’m Wade Roush. Thanks for listening, and we hope to see you back here soon for our next episode.