Communities Prepare for an Uncertain Future

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Scott Ziemer gathers gathers pepper from his garden. Ziemer’s background in adventure travel has convinced him of the need to plan ahead. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

It’s not hard to expect bad news, especially after watching the devastation caused by Hurricanes Fiona and Ian. And there truly is bad news: according to the World Meteorological Organization, humankind now battles five times the natural disasters we did 50 years ago. 

But there’s good news, too. In the same period, deaths from disasters decreased to less than a third of what they were, despite unplanned urbanization, widespread poverty and population growth. 

John Oprandy is the director of the recently reorganized Department of Emergency Services of Albemarle County. Photo: Albemalre County.

Better forecasting has helped, and so has more advanced fire and rescue training and equipment. There are also better ways to keep people informed by emails, voice and text. Albemarle County’s office of emergency management, led by Crozet native John Oprandy, released a bulletin during September (designated as emergency preparedness month) detailing ways every citizen can better prepare for an emergency and urging each county resident to sign up for the county’s “code red” service, which allows emergency teams to reach you with messages about bio-terrorism alerts, boil-water notices, missing child reports, and localized weather threats.

Certain kinds of disasters seem more likely than others. Oprandy said most long-time Crozet residents know where flooding is likely, but others may not. This is important because people who die in floods make up a large proportion of deaths from natural disasters. “Folks try to drive through water that to them doesn’t appear so deep,” he said. “It takes very little water to float a vehicle.” His advice: “Turn around and go back. If you can’t, then try to get up on the roof of the car, where we can come rescue you.” 

Part of the mission of Oprandy’s recently organized office is to recognize and incorporate future tools for rescue. “It won’t be long before we’ll be able to send you a drone bearing a flotation device,” he said. “That would get to you a whole lot faster.” Another high-tech solution is placing sensors that would measure rising water and instantly power signs warning drivers of danger ahead. 

The county’s September bulletin urges people to have a plan: “It makes so much sense to have a plan for how your family can get in touch in an emergency,” Oprandy said. Communication is a key part of planning, and experts suggest investing in a radio that works on batteries, so you can keep up to date on safety bulletins during a blackout.

Families should also plan for food, light, heat, water and necessary medical and sanitation supplies. “Have some supplies in your car, as well,” Oprandy said. The county’s emergency preparedness bulletin, linked at the bottom of this article, will take you to dozens of resources for communications and supplies.

Another crucial step in keeping communities safe is to anticipate the likely scenarios ahead. Albemarle County worked with the Piedmont Environmental Council and the D.N. Batten Foundation to assess future risks facing our region.

Plan ahead for health emergencies during a long period of isolation. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

On its face, the conclusion seems contradictory. We are experiencing—and will continue to experience—both drought and flooding. Heavy rains will fall, but they’ll be interspersed with periods of higher heat and longer spells of dry weather. Milder winters and less snow may sound attractive, but these conditions are optimal for pests, which in turn cause crop damage and spread disease among plants, animals and humans. And too much unseasonable warmth in the spring causes early bud break, which can then be followed by frost, a terrible scenario that our fruit growers understand all too well.

Intense summer heat is another danger to community health and safety. At an extreme level, it lowers productivity, increases costs of cooling for homeowners, buckles roads and railways and causes energy blackouts.

The report listed other changes to expect: reservoirs, pollinators, and erosion-prone slopes will be affected, as will homes, schools and businesses in the expanding flood plain, all in ways we can’t exactly predict.

But we can try. “You’d have to be naive to think we won’t have some kind of emergency in our future,” said Scott Ziemer, who lives in rural Albemarle County. Ziemer belongs to a small local group of Crozet-area preppers, people who are taking judicious steps to ensure the future health and safety of their families in case of an emergency. 

In fact, Ziemer pointed out, we’ve already experienced an event that would justify careful planning: the beginning days of the pandemic, when people were panicking and finding many products in short supply on the shelves. Even as Virginia expects record fruit, peanut and field crops this year, farmers in the West and Midwest struggle with drought, terrible heat, inflation and supply chain problems, as do the people of Europe, China and Africa.

Although the Partlows have electricity, Anna likes to figure out how to cook everything on her wood stove. This is a Thanksgivng dinner. Submitted photo.

Ziemer talked about the survival rule of threes. You can survive three minutes without breathable air; three hours in extreme heat or cold; three days without drinkable water; and three weeks without food. It’s a generalization, but people facing an emergency can use this guide to determine some order of priority. 

As a builder and an outdoor adventure travel guide, Ziemer became a judge of potential hazardous weather as well as a thoughtful observer of the many things that can go wrong. He’s well aware that things can go wrong at home, too. 

“As we see more gigantic rainstorms, there’s a greater chance we’ll be isolated for days,” he said, noting that whatever direction he might take to leave home brings him across a bridge. He’s also ready for longer periods of isolation and has food supplies for several months. Much of his stock comes from his garden; others are staples like dried beans and rice that will provide nourishment over the long haul. His family has a modest store of water, as well as a filter that removes chemicals and bacteria from creek water.

Food isn’t the only necessity considered by preppers. Many people remember the derecho that hit locally ten years ago, when five million people were without power, some for many weeks.

Although short-term energy blackouts aren’t usually dangerous in our moderate climate, they can threaten life over the long haul, especially for those who need oxygen delivery or who care for frail elderly, infants, or others with special needs. Many people have generators, but a long-term disaster might also lead to a gas shortage. 

The Ziemers have a small solar setup, not enough to fill all their energy needs, but enough to power a refrigerator. They’ve also invested in some solar lamps, have a wood-burning stove and a beautiful old cook stove. In his group, preppers also talk about first aid, cleaning supplies, clothing and assembling what’s called a “bug out” bag, in the case of an emergency that requires leaving the area, as is the case for families who left coastal Florida ahead of Hurricane Ian.

“It’s not my intention to be a fear monger,” Ziemer said. “It’s easy enough to store a little at a time.”

Many very rural families have years of experience of living with an eye towards the future and have always been self-sufficient. John Oprandy said that when rescuers battle high water to check on the residents of the areas of Sugar Hollow prone to flooding, they invariably find them well-supplied, comfortable and taking care of their neighbors.

Anna Partlow is someone who has always believed in self-sufficiency. She lives on an fairly isolated homestead in the mountains west of Crozet. She and her husband, James, require very little that they can’t raise, preserve, hunt or otherwise make for themselves. “I don’t exactly consider us ‘preppers,’ Anna said. “We just don’t like having to depend on someone else for everything.”

Anna cans venison from the plentiful deer near their property, raises a huge garden and preserves it in a variety of different ways, using an old-fashioned corn dryer on her wood stove to dry vegetables. She and James have also raised and butchered their own chickens and hogs, and helped their neighbors with supplies of meat. With a number of other old-fashioned gadgets, they’ve worked out a way to cook on the same stove that heats their home.

Many rural people look to the Amish and Mennonites for mechanical, rather than electrical, solutions to make homesteading chores easier, and items like the dehydrator, food grinders, and portable wood-fired ovens are still available. 

The Partlows have made many of the same plans as preppers, and Anna has also studied the medicinal properties of local herbs, lore that she’s learned from family members as well as books. She keeps a large bottle of aspirin as an all-purpose anti-inflammatory and pain reducer. Otherwise, herbs and teas provide comfort during minor illnesses.

“If we have a long period where we can’t get to the doctor, or can’t buy first aid products, we’ll have to make ourselves comfortable with what we have,” she said.

Like the Ziemers she has a root cellar and stores root vegetables for months into the winter. “We’ve learned that we don’t have to have everything in every season,” she said. “We’re okay with what we store, grow and make.” She’s learned how to bake almost anything, using an oven that rests on her wood-burning stove. They also have a variety of kerosene and solar lamps.

As part of its doctrine, the Church of Latter-Day Saints asks its members to have enough food, water, bedding and medicine to last for three weeks, with an eye towards stockpiling staples for a longer term, rotating supplies on a regular basis. The church asks members to stock up on things they normally eat, reasoning that a drastic change in diet in an emergency is likely to have some side effects. Also included is advice for financial security as well as traveling in an emergency. 

The material linked on the county bulletin, much of which comes from the website ready.gov, also recommends having some games, toys and books for children saved with your supplies, all of which should provide some comfort. Grown-ups need comfort, too. Anna Partlow said she would find it wasteful to store a great deal of food that doesn’t provide any nutrition, but “chocolate can always cheer us up.”

Both the Ziemers and the Partlows stress the need for cleanliness and hygiene in the case of an emergency and have thought out ways to dispose of household and personal waste if plumbing and trash disposal fails. Most preppers stockpile disinfectants, soap and paper products. “We get along fine with baking soda, bleach, vinegar, peroxide and one kind of soap we can use for everything,” Anna Partlow said.

The materials linked by the county, the church and by the national preparedness website, ready.gov., stipulate that being prepared should not be a terrible expense, but accomplished over time. And all agree that being part of a community that looks out for each other is a huge step towards future comfort and health. “It doesn’t seem like it would do a whole lot in a food shortage, for us to have a home garden,” Scott Ziemer said, “but what if everyone who can, did some gardening? We’d all be so much better off in an emergency.” 

Ziemer said he’d be glad to talk to any small groups meeting to discuss this topic, and also to help anyone interested in starting their own group. “We’re all in this together,” he said. 

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