How do you prepare for disaster when you think no one will be there to help?
General Russel Honoré is a cigar-chomping military man. Not the kind of guy you’d expect to take on an environmental cause. But one experience changed that.
The General was in charge of evacuating New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. He saw elderly people get left in their homes. And he saw the very government he served failing to save people in poor and black communities.
He heard these kinds of disasters were predicted to become more common because of climate change. He grew up around oil country. Environmentalism wasn’t his thing. But preparedness was. And so he set out on a new mission: Help people be their own first responders, as we face more frequent disaster.
A few years ago Brad Redrick went to one of the General’s talks.
Up to that point, Redrick had mostly been doing work around gun violence. He’s from Greater Grand Crossing on Chicago’s South Side. It’s the kind of community Honoré says suffers most in disasters. Redrick learned that climate change would likely mean more frequent and severe floods, and that the city’s infrastructure and response system weren’t sufficiently prepared.
So Redrick started knocking on doors, trying to figure out where people lived who might have a hard time evacuating on their own. He held meetings where they learned what kind of food and tools they should have in case of disasters. He calls his project Disaster Preparedness Initiative (DPI) 60619, after the area’s zip code. He’s had some successes, but it’s been an uphill battle, so we invited Redrick to speak directly with General Honoré.
The Takeaway's John Hockenberry facilitated the conversation. A separately edited transcript and audio recording of their conversation are below.
John Hockenberry: Does flooding scare you, Brad?
Brad Redrick: Absolutely.
What scenarios have you imagined there in Chicago?
BR: We've been warned that with the way that the rain patterns have changed, that our intake system doesn't, you know, doesn't get rid of the water and then based on how the water falls or what not, we could be flooded. And it happened in a neighborhood in the north of Chicago. So it's a real, real scenario there - a possible scenario - for pretty good sized flood.
Where's your neighborhood?
BR: It's on the South Side of Chicago, in the Greater Grand Crossing community.
Do you think of yourselves as on your own?
BR: As far as... ?
Disasters, climate change...
BR: Yeah, for the most part. For the most part. Yes.
So if you think of yourselves as on your own, what do you have to do on your own to prepare and to think smartly about the kinds of things that could happen?
BR: You know, that's what I'm learning now, is just how to do this. It's been very difficult. I'm surprised at - seems like people get bored. It's hard to keep this exciting.
How do you change that, General?
General Russel Honoré: If the predictions work over the next decade the way scientists are talking, we're gonna face major disasters and unfortunately, the dilemma he is facing is representative of what we get in data from Gallup organization as well as from the Red Cross and FEMA: only about 15% of Americans actually dedicate much time to disaster preparedness.
BR: And then not being an official, I think they tend to even listen to you less.
Sounds to me, General, like Brad wishes he had a couple of stars on his shoulder to get people to listen to him...
GH: The concept Brad has is one that works. In spite of what the media portrayed on who did what in New Orleans, most of the people's lives that were saved were saved by neighbors. Because government isn't good enough to immediately respond to a major disaster like a Katrina and a Sandy. And that's what Brad is up against in this community, trying to create community awareness. We're faced with issues of rising seas and water levels. We are gonna have disturbances in our heat and when you change the earth's temperature, you change crop productivity. We're in the front of a global disaster. And the ultimate idea is you need to be prepared to be your own first responder.
So Brad, how do you be your own first responder?
BR: Well by first having your own plan set up and then working close with your neighbors.
GH: Let me say this: I think the majority of people who died in New Orleans were from that vulnerable population: elderly, disabled and poor. And you know what John, we found them alone in their homes. Everybody thought somebody else was gonna take care of them, and nobody took care of them. And over 1500 died.
Have you ever had that experience, Brad? Finding somebody home alone?
BR: We had a neighbor that passed - during the last big snow storm in Chicago, about three years ago, he went out to shovel his snow and they found him a couple days later, frozen in the snow.
You take that personally?
BR: Absolutely. And so - that impressed upon us the fact that we've got to build a, like a database of who's around us, what their conditions are. Because of this initiative, I've found a couple of neighbors are bedridden, they're depending on services to come and take care of them, but if a snow storm comes, the service people can't get to them, then who does it fall on? So -
And you've got a map of who's a shut-in, who's not, who's doing what?
BR: We have designs on setting up something like that, block by block.
Who's in your network of responders?
BR: Currently our network of responders are basically block club leaders.
What about neighborhood businesses?
BR: We did have a grocery store in the neighborhood whose owner came to one of our meetings and when we were talking about looters and keeping things under control, she told us we could, if there was an event and it was a disaster, an emergency requiring folks to get food, that we could break into her store, and she would not prosecute. And so that was real nice, a nice agreement to have. And then she ended up going out of business.
Oh my goodness.
BR: Unrelated - because there was a fire and the landlord was not good about fixing the store up and she just couldn't make it. See part of this difficulty is due to the economy. In Chicago, we've been hit hard with a lot of closures of businesses and what not and a lot of foreclosed residences.
It sounds like, General, that Brad's facing a flood of economic malaise there in his neighborhood that sort of shuts the neighborhood down and makes people even more vulnerable and powerless. Any advice?
GH: Oh absolutely! We will reach out to our friends in the Red Cross to make sure they can reach out to you because we've got to optimize when we have a citizen like you, that's helping drive this culture of preparedness in communities. Because I'm telling you, what's coming with the climate change and the impact of it - every community is going to need to be prepared.
GH: We've got unforeseen issues with impact of heat on crops. You know when we have problems with crops, John, it drives up the price of food. it creates global problems.
Brad, do you have the General's number on your wall there, next to the phone?
BR: No, I don't.
Well that's because who has phones on the wall anymore, right? You got your cell phone there. You got the General's number in your cell phone?
BR: No, no I didn't...
GH: We'll get it to you right here in a minute, Brad!
Alright, alright, good. So we're all set. And give a shout out to the people around the country who are listening: how they can get into the same spirit that you two are into. General, you're used to snapping people to attention and I mean - you know that voice? You have that voice, don't you?
GH: I got that voice! We can do that.
Alright let's do it -
GH: GET UP, MOVE. GET READY. Be prepared. Be your own first responder.
Can you do some of that Brad?
BR: Well you know when I do that, then people tell me, you know that that's a little mean, or whatever, and you gotta talk to people, not as militaristic with them. That's what they tell me.
Well Brad and General Russell Honoré, thanks so much.
BR: You're certainly welcome.
GH: Thanks, John. Thanks, Brad, let's be in touch.
Heat of the Moment is a long-term project about climate change, led by WBEZ Chicago.