Know your options and resources for a disaster

How prepared should we be?

Photo: Tom Hansen / NTB
In November 2022, the community of Voss, Norway, faced an unprecedented flooding disaster but came through with the proper emergency preparedness in place.

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

No one wants a disaster, but we should all be ready for one.

Norway is a reasonably safe country, which has not stopped calamities striking Norwegians at home and around the world, testing coping abilities.

In 2004, 84 Norwegians were killed in the Indian Ocean tsunami; in 2010, volcanic ash stopped most European flights, trapping people away from home; and in 2011, a devastating terrorist attack in Oslo and Utøya stunned the world. Local floods and landslides force quick evacuations, as in Voss in November 2022 and in Ask in December 2020. Tsunamis and earthquakes have previously rocked parts of Norway.

Some disasters require people to stay at home. Consider COVID-19 lockdowns! A blackout—perhaps from a solar storm, equipment failure, or deliberate physical or cyber action—could entail being on one’s own for days. Same when transport routes are cut, by an avalanche or bridge collapse, isolating settlements.

DSB (dsb.no), the Norwegian Directorate for Civil Protection, sums it up: “You are part of Norway’s emergency preparedness.” In a downloadable 12-page guide, they offer advice on being ready to deal with a disaster, starting today. Once the emergency begins, it is too late to think about being fully prepared.

Much of the guide’s material is in line with disaster science, although expanding the advice slightly would help. Details cover preparation for being self-sufficient in food, water, heat, medicine and first aid, hygiene, including tampons, and information updates. Examples are storing supplies of non-perishable food, bottled water, prescription medicine, soap and other hygiene products, and a radio and flashlight that are wind-up or battery-operated (with spare batteries).

In addition to goods, knowledge and training are essential. Having a first-aid kit is needed. It is even better when matched with first-aid skills and practice alongside the attitude and plan to help ourselves and others. The guide recommends having “Iodine tablets in case of a nuclear event.” Do we know what that means and when to take them?

Photo: Ilan Kelman
Disaster preparation begins at home by making sure that key household items are in place.

The guide wants people to “remain self-sustained for at least three days.” From previous incidents, it would be more realistic to plan for at least two weeks.

This level of household readiness does not mean becoming an isolationist prepper, bunkering ourselves against the imminent civil strife or zombie apocalypse. It recognizes that no authority can or should do everything for us during a crisis. Everyone has a duty to aid ourselves and those around us until the usual services and systems—water, electricity, gas, health, and communications—are restored.

Disaster risks will never vanish. We can reduce those risks, limiting the negative impacts of disasters. DSB’s guide is a first step, providing motivation to start immediately.

But not everyone in Norway is able to prepare for a disaster, even if they would like to. Some families cannot afford to stockpile what is needed or to purchase the equipment. Some people cannot take the time for training or it is not offered affordably or in a language they speak. Others live in contexts inhibiting them from taking initiatives due to oppression, prejudice, and denigration.

These challenges exist over the long-term, requiring long-term action to resolve. If girls’ education is not respected or available, then they grow up into women with limited opportunities. People subject to discrimination due to their sexuality or ethnicity might go into hiding or otherwise live precariously, with little scope for sheltering in place during disasters. If society does not support the independence of people with disabilities, then they have few options to help themselves before and during a catastrophe.

These situations are the baseline causes of disasters. When some people are fine as Hammerfest’s temperatures plummet below freezing while others suffer hypothermia, the concern is not so much the cold as why some people are too poor to heat their homes or purchase appropriate clothing—or do not have homes to heat.

In most instances, if people have knowledge, options, and resources, then nature’s worst does not need to lead to a disaster. Instead, we can be ready, as per DSB’s advice, so there is no disaster. Since choices are made to impede some people’s preparedness, disaster science explains that disasters are caused by society and the term “natural disasters” does not make sense. They are simply “disasters,” which we could stop.

The key is that we know how to prepare for and avoid disasters. Everyone must have the opportunity to do so.

This article originally appeared in the January 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at www.ilankelman.org and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.