Huddle up: the third and final piece in Marriott Alumni Magazine's preparedness series looks at community preparedness.
In any crowd, be it at Disneyland or at a Dodgers game with a Dodger Dog and peanuts in hand, Jeff Beaty was the kid wondering aloud “how an evacuation of all these people would work.”
He did have a bit of an atypical childhood: out of necessity, he often spent Friday nights accompanying his police-officer father to work, riding in the patrol car. This, in Los Angeles.
“That would be unheard of now,” says Beaty, who saw both the mundane and the adrenaline-pumping sides of cop life.
Beaty, who earned an MPA from BYU Marriott in 2005, has subsequently made a career of emergencies, working in local and national positions in both the public and private sectors. He’s been an emergency manager for multiple cities, a hospital, the American Red Cross, and now the Bureau of Reclamation.
That term “emergency manager” is a bit of a misnomer, though, he says—“emergency anticipator” might be the better fit.
“In my seat, you’re always championing preparedness,” says Beaty. “Being ready is the name of the game.” Ask him about community preparedness and prepare to sit down for a while.
The same goes for a host of other BYU Marriott MPA alumni who work in this space. BYU grads have held posts in the largest fires in US history, Category 5 hurricanes, and everything in between. Emergency response may put them in the spotlight, but preparedness is their life’s work.
And they want your community to be stronger, more ready, and more resilient.
Here, community preparedness experts share topics they wish were taken more seriously as well as lessons from the trenches. There are action items for every reader, no matter your station.
As brigadier general for the Utah National Guard, Tyler Smith (EMPA 2006) stepped into countless communities on their worst days, giving him a unique view across the state. In his opinion, the biggest factor behind a successful community response is “having relationships forged prior to the event.”
He explains, “Whatever the disaster event is, whether it’s a flood or an earthquake, the response is always a collaboration.” All kinds of local, state, and federal agencies converge. “The worst time to be meeting for the first time is in a disaster.”
Smith, who retired in 2022 after 36 years of military service, found that communities that had identified all of the response players, had connected in real life, and had even done practice runs (often called tabletop exercises) fared far better in managing the chaos. “Just knowing who’s who and having the network in place was such a benefit,” he says.
That network includes, of course, all the public entities—first responders, city services, law enforcement, hospitals, and so forth—but it also spans far beyond that, says Bob Kindred (MPA 1980), who worked for nearly 40 years as a city manager in Ames, Iowa. Look to your private sector or your nonprofit sector, he says. Connect with your state’s Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) board and know your state VOAD representatives. Find key employers, faith-group leaders, and volunteer organizations in your area and incorporate them in response planning. “If you know they exist, you can have them on speed dial,” he says.
He’s placed those calls. Sitting at the confluence of two rivers, Ames is at high flood risk. In one event—when an apartment complex in town became an island—Kindred called in a heavy construction company that “evacuated people in the front bucket of a big end loader.” And a construction crew carried residents out of a nursing home when the facility was knee-deep in water.
“Public entities have the responsibility to help, but I also put that responsibility on organizations in the community,” says Kindred. In an emergency, when every public resource is spread thin, “a partnership among every party is vital if the community is going to survive and if the citizens are not going to suffer greatly.”
In this vein, Kindred appeals to leaders from the BYU Marriott alumni base, wherever they work and serve, to connect with their city and county emergency managers. “There are companies and groups that have resources that can really come into play in a disaster. Having private partners prepared to play a strong contributing role can make all the difference.”
Know Thy Neighbor
This same networking needs to happen on the micro scale, neighbor to neighbor, Beaty says.
“Even if you’ve done your individual and family preparation, that is not enough,” he says. “You have got to engage in your community. You have got to engage in your neighborhood.”
This means asking, “Do I know my neighbors well enough to ask for help if I need it?” says Beaty, and further, “Who might need help from me? Who in your area is elderly, or a single parent, or living with a disability? Who will check on them? Collectively, what skills and resources, medical and otherwise, does the neighborhood have?”
Ample research has shown that people who feel connected to their communities fare better in a disaster; social ties in Hurricane Katrina boosted not only survival rates1 but also resilience and recovery.2
Recent BYU research comparing preparedness across groups, including members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is relevant here. In addition to looking at water and food stores, the study asked participants about social ties and connectedness in their communities.
The good news is that Latter-day Saints living in the United States reported high levels of community connectedness. Unfortunately, their nonmember counterparts living in the same communities did not. The difference was substantial; Church members were four times more likely to perceive themselves as being connected than other community members.3
“I think we as members often really rely on our wards to provide community,” says BYU food science professor Laura Jefferies. Jeffries coauthored the research, which was published in the Journal of Religion and Health, with colleagues who included former BYU professor Michelle Call and current BYU nutritional science professor Rickelle Richards. Latter-day Saints, the researchers suggest, might consider exerting more effort to expand their circles and share their strengths. As the authors write, “Faith communities . . . may offer valuable insights into how to create a more connected community for purposes of disaster mitigation.”4
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) surveys Americans annually on what preparedness actions they’ve taken. According to FEMA’s findings, the least-taken actions are “get involved in your community” and “plan with neighbors.”5 Too often, communities fall for the “‘it won’t happen here’ myth or the false hope that the cavalry in white hats will come over the hill and save us,” Beaty says. “The reality is that all disasters start and end locally.” In the end, you and your neighbors will be the ones left picking up the pieces.
Beaty recommends facilitating opportunities to connect and prepare. Australia has a national holiday—Neighbour Day—to bring communities together. Beaty suggests creating something similar where you live, utilizing existing national awareness events, such as the Great ShakeOut earthquake drill or 9/11 commemorations, to gather. You could also start or join a community social media page or plan with neighbors to complete preparedness training together through the Red Cross or FEMA’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) programs, both held nationwide.
“It’s one thing to say that in an earthquake 7 percent of the population is going to be critically injured,” Beaty says. “But when I divide that number down to the neighborhood level and people start realizing suddenly that they know 50 people who will be critically injured in their neighborhood, they feel more compelled to act.”
Finally, “look for creative ways to insert preparedness into your conversations,” says Beaty. Cookies are great and all, but what if you welcomed a new move-in or did Christmas neighbor gifting differently this year? “Tie a bow around a gas-meter wrench,” he says. “You will be remembered forever.”
Help Others Perceive the Risks
According to FEMA, Americans’ preparedness actions hit an all-time high in 2020, courtesy of the COVID-19 pandemic.6
It’s a well-documented finding: living through a disaster will kick you into action. Experiencing a disaster also correlates with sustained preparedness actions over time, per FEMA research.7 With such a widespread shared experience fresh in our collective minds, there is momentum for communities to seize, experts say.
For more impetus to mobilize now, consider that 73 percent of FEMA’s National Household Survey respondents believe that another disaster is likely to impact their lives. Simply perceiving risk, FEMA says, helps spur preparation.8 And there’s no shortage of hazards on the horizon.
A great starting point for any community may be filling the information gap on a few specific disasters that FEMA survey respondents simultaneously flagged both as very likely to happen and as threats for which they’ve seen little to no direction on how to respond: namely, an active shooter, a cyberattack, and extreme heat.9
This year the World Meteorological Organization predicted that Earth’s surface would reach record high temperatures within the next five years10—a rise with far-reaching repercussions in food security, water management, and safety.
“I’ve experienced this firsthand,” says Kindred, describing one record-setting flood after another in Ames that left parking-lots worth of floating cars. “The climate is changing in severe ways.”
To Paul Dean (MPA 2010), public works deputy director of Pinellas County in Florida, it’s not the frequency of the storms but their increased intensity that is concerning. “Very small storms are very quickly ramping up,” he says. “A Cat-1 or a Cat-2, in one day now, will become a Cat-4. That’s taken us by surprise. It’s something we’re still learning to deal with.”
And on the other side of the country in California, where drought has turned the West into a tinderbox, Sang Kim (MPA 1995), deputy county administrator in Butte County, California, watched the town of Paradise be reduced to foundations.
Kim says merely having an emergency plan drawn up is no longer enough. “You can have the best planning in the world, but if you’re not regularly communicating it with residents, the breakdown in the chain is inevitable.”
Preparedness procrastinators may suffer from disaster fatigue. “They’ve heard all the warnings,” says Kim. “They see it every night on the news. They reach a point where they say, ‘I’ve lived here 50 years, and nothing’s happened to me.’”
Kim recommends sending preparedness messages through multiple channels to increase effectiveness. For example, Kim encouraged his county’s sheriff to start a Twitter account to establish a channel for communicating with residents quickly. When the horrific Camp Fire whipped across the county, the number of followers mushroomed to 28,000 practically overnight. The account continues to be a valuable tool, allowing the sheriff to put out information right away.
But Kim also suggests finding an influencer—an athlete, a business leader, or someone who represents a community that you’re trying to target—who can engage people and spark some kind of action. “Who,” Kim says, “can they influence and possibly even help save?”
Make the First Step Easy
When individuals or entities take one preparedness action, they are more likely to take another, according to FEMA.11 If one readiness step begets another, try to jump-start that first step through simple, accessible, and free or low-cost means, says Dean.
Florida, he points out, holds preparedness weeks every year during which you can buy home generators, go-bag supplies, and other readiness supplies, all tax free. “It’s one of many incentives here to help our residents prepare and to promote a preparedness mindset.”
“The hardest part is just starting,” says Rick Long, the representative of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to National VOAD. An easy way to begin, he says, is to familiarize yourself with the free resources in your community—from 211 (the number for essential community services) to local safety events—and share one of those resources with someone else.
The Church created JustServe.org in a similar effort to make community service easier, Long says. The site is a matchmaker for projects and volunteers, removing some of the hurdles in volunteerism. “With this additional tool in the toolbelt, community organizations can tap into the community to a greater degree.”
It may also be easier to get citizens engaged in their community’s current issues than in preparing for a hypothetical disaster, says Eric McNulty, associate director of Harvard’s National Preparedness Leadership Initiative. “If you find out what they care about and work on it alongside them, ultimately you’re going to be achieving your objective.”
Joplin, Mississippi, is a great case study: when tornadoes wiped out half of the school buildings in the district, the superintendent got school back in session for every student in just 12 weeks. How? In the years prior to the disaster, he had led a massive community effort to try to solve the dropout rate in the schools. “The structures they put in place to work on that issue allowed them to pivot,” says McNulty. “They weren’t prepared for a tornado—they were prepared to keep kids in school. But the alliances, the network, and the buy-in they had already built allowed them to come out stronger on the other side of the disaster.”
And . . . Action!
Disaster drills are invaluable, experts say, and every community should be doing them. Beaty recommends that community planners start with FEMA’s Hazus software, a desktop application free to anyone, that can model specific risks for your area and spit out actionable measures to increase community resilience. External companies can be hired to organize exercises, and federal grants can be procured to fund them.
Whether drills are small- or large-scale, says Smith, the key is to make them as realistic as possible. “It can’t be just going through the motions,” he says. “You need it to create something in you that you have to respond to, to give you that feeling of it going from white to red in an instant.” The goal of such exercises is to reveal capability gaps, the holes in your response.
“We do 12 a year,” says Seth Perrins (MPA 2002), city manager of Spanish Fork, Utah. Each of his departments takes one month and presents a scenario, such as a finance office cyberattack, a downed power line, and of course—the big one in Utah—an earthquake.
When a call reported an active shooter at the local high school, Perrins’s city had already prepared for this scenario in a drill. Perrins arrived on scene grateful to learn that officers had already entered the building, as staged beforehand, acting without delay.
The goal of drills is to reveal capability gaps, the holes in your response. After the exercise, Beaty suggests creating an After Action Report and Improvement Plan (AAR-IP)—a document that records observations of an exercise and includes future recommendations—a critical component to improving readiness. “This is typically a ‘no-fault’ analysis focused on assessing what systems worked well and what didn’t,” Beaty says. “The AAR-IP identifies gaps in planning and the functions or systems that may need improvement, because just when we think we have learned it all, the next disaster reveals something the community didn’t see or expect.”
In community preparedness and emergency response it’s crucial to remember that “some people have dinghies, and some people have yachts,” says Beaty.
In Ames, city officials identified all the low-lying flood plains beforehand. “We knew we had a homeless encampment down by the river,” Kindred says. When flood danger was high, “we immediately sent the police to warn them and help evacuate them.”
Likewise, experts say, intentional plans should be made for the elderly, those with special needs, and other vulnerable community members.
One demographic is often overlooked: children. Almost all preparedness information and drills are geared toward adults. “We don’t typically involve children,” Beaty says. But it’s very likely that you won’t be with your children in the event of a disaster—they’ll be at school, at day care, or somewhere else. “But following a disaster, the first question for many adults is, ‘How am I going to get to my child?’”
Beaty recalls a California earthquake he experienced as a high schooler: the entire student body was made to evacuate the building and then was locked out on the football field and left for an entire day in the hot sun, before parents showed up one by one. Parents and guardians need to ask what plans are in place for their children from the organizations that will watch them when families are apart. What are the evacuation, shelter, lockdown, communication, and reunification plans? “Those are legitimate questions that grown-ups can ask. And children and their grown-ups should also be talking about the types of disasters that may occur in their community and what they may face and practice age-appropriate responses—take the scary out of them, to the extent possible.”
Beaty points to the Red Cross’s Pillowcase Project as a great starting point. Named for the pillowcases Loyola University students used to carry their personal items in their Hurricane Katrina evacuation, it’s a youth preparedness program offered nationwide, both in person and virtually.
Another underappreciated population is first responders. “First of all, we want to get people to safety, but then we want to look at those that are out in the trenches doing the rescuing and the hard work and focus attention on keeping them going, keeping them strong,” says Long.
The School of Hard Knocks
While drills are instructive, Beaty says, “the realm of the unsafe is sometimes the best teacher.”
For example, the Camp Williams National Guard training site used to have its own fire department, says Smith. When a massive fire broke out, they learned the hard way that the internal department’s radios were not compatible with all the other fire responders’ radios. “It was a huge blunder,” Smith says. “Without the means to communicate, you lose the most vital capability required for success.”
Wise communities also learn just as much from other communities’ experiences as their own, experts say. After Hurricane Ian devastated Fort Myers, Florida, Dean quickly realized his own Pinellas County, the adjacent and most densely populated county in Florida, had a capability gap for coping with the aftermath of hurricanes. “We’re talking millions of tons of debris,” he says. And it’s not just the kind you chip up and burn; it’s flooded cars and boats stuck in confounding places. “The amount of space you need to hold and process it—it’s one thing to clean up, but one of our big takeaways was we don’t know where we’re going to put everything. I mean, we have 60,000 boats registered in the county,” Dean says. He’s already contracted with private landowners to use their space as storage in the event of such an emergency, augmenting the county’s own 800 acres of open space.
Request the notes taken from other communities’ disasters, says Perrins, and document your community’s successes and gaps. “Documentation is so, so boring, but you’ve got to write it down. Doing that sounds simple, but it’s actually really hard in the thick of it and especially at the end, when you want to be done with it all.”
It all leads to a more refined emergency plan, Smith says. “You have to have some sort of structured plan written out for when things go south.” How will warnings and crucial information be relayed? If medical personnel will be stretched thin, who can be mobilized? Where will equipment, such as generators and tractors, be procured? What is your mutual-aid city? “It takes about three days for national responders to arrive,” says Smith, “and even that can be optimistic when you throw the chaos of an emergency into the mix.” The best-laid plans are those that bank on the community going it alone until help can arrive.
The best planning may also lead to successes worth sharing. As the drought in the Western United States intensified, Perrins began hearing from worried residents. “We got to share that we have been preparing for this day for 20 years,” says Perrins; the city installed meters on pressurized irrigation water years ago, a step that dramatically changes consumption habits. “We’re 25 percent below the state per capita water average. That was a fun message to share.”
The most important piece in community preparedness, says Kim, will always be personal preparedness. “The reality is no government is large enough to respond to every family in every community. I would double down, triple down on family preparedness.”
Personal preparedness means living within your means, building up a family storehouse, making a plan on how to leave and reunite, and preparing emergency kits, says Long. It’s positioning yourself to be part of the solution in a response.
“There’s occasion when we’re the ones being rescued,” Long says of Church members, “but the majority of the time, we’re the ones actually helping to do the rescue. We’ve got the food storage and the network of people who care for each other in place. What that does is free us up to be able to go out and serve the greater community.”
That service is needed. Nationwide, volunteerism is slipping. A US Census Bureau and AmeriCorps survey recently reported a 7 percent dip in formal volunteer participation—the biggest decline since the survey began 20 years ago.12
Gratefully, Long says, in National VOAD—which marshals the collaborative power and resources of more than 70 volunteer organizations—the Church has a reputation for getting thousands of volunteers to respond to an emergency: “The Church can quickly deploy that many people. We show up in force.”
“I sometimes think disasters bring out the best in us,” Kindred says. “Disasters are the best opportunity you are ever going to have to minister. Even those who don’t want to be ministered to will appreciate whatever we can do in their hour of need. It’s true in the Church, and it’s true in our neighborhoods too.”
Written by Brittany Rogers
Illustrations by Eric Chow
About the Author
Brittany Rogers, a freelance author, lives in American Fork, Utah, with her husband and three children.
- See Danaë Metaxa-Kakavouli, Paige Maas, and Daniel P. Aldrich, “How Social Ties Influence Hurricane Evacuation Behavior,” Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction 2, no. CSCW (November 2018): article 122, doi.org/10.1145/3274391.
- See Brenda L. Murphy, “Locating Social Capital in Resilient Community-Level Emergency Management,” Natural Hazards 41, no. 2 (May 2007): 297–315, doi.org/10.1007/s11069-006-9037-6.
- See Annie Wagner, Michelle Lloyd Call, Laura K. Jefferies, Dennis L. Eggett, and Rickelle Richards, “Comparison of Household Perceptions and Practices of Food and Water Emergency Preparedness Between Latter-Day Saints and Non-Latter-Day Saints in the USA,” Journal of Religion and Health (19 March 2022), doi.org/10.1007/s10943-022-01535-3.
- Wagner, Call, Jefferies, Eggett, and Richards, “Comparison of Household Perceptions and Practices.”
- See 2022 National Household Survey on Disaster Preparedness (NHS): Key Findings (Washington, DC: Federal Emergency Management Agency, November 2022), 10, 12, 14; see also “Results from the 2022 National Household Survey on Disaster Preparedness,” November 28, 2022, community.fema.gov/PreparednessConnect/s/article/Results-from-the-2022-National-Household-Survey-on-Disaster-Preparedness.
- See 2022 National Household Survey on Disaster Preparedness, 5.
- See 2022 National Household Survey on Disaster Preparedness, 11.
- See 2022 National Household Survey on Disaster Preparedness, 11.
- See 2022 National Household Survey on Disaster Preparedness, 21, 24, 25.
- WMO Global Annual to Decadal Climate Update (Target Years: 2023–2027), (Geneva, Switzerland: World Meteorological Organization, 2023), 2, 7.
- See 2022 National Household Survey on Disaster Preparedness, 11, 18; see also “Results from the 2022 National Household Survey.”
- Volunteering and Civic Life in America Research Summary (Washington, DC: AmeriCorps, 2021), americorps.gov/sites/default/files/document/volunteering-civic-life-america-research-summary.pdf