Emergency Lessons – Get To Know Your Neighbors

This article is one of a series of posts that emerged due to the 2017 wildfires that ravaged California wine country near our home.

Communities usually come together when an emergency hits. There’s safety in numbers and assisting one another increases the ability of all to survive a hardship.

The time to build a community is not when disaster is knocking on your door. The time to do that is now! Getting to know your neighbors builds a bond of trust with people you may rely on in the future when an emergency occurs.

Who in your neighborhood needs extra assistance to evacuate? Who is that person loading up a car with your neighbors belongings? Who nearby has a specialty tool you need to make an emergency repair? These sorts of questions can only be answered by getting to know the folks in your neighborhood.

When we moved to Sonoma my wife and I looked around for a neighborhood group that organized happy hours or other events. There was none, so we started our own. We spread some flyers around the neighborhood that said we’d be in our front driveway with a snack and some wine and anyone else was willing to join us. This low level of effort led to monthly events with sometimes 50 people showing up. We continue to host them to this day.

Getting to know the neighbors

An online neighborhood email and contact list was developed to help organize things. How does this tie into emergencies? When the Sonoma wildfires were raging and threatening the city many neighbors evacuated. They used to contact list to keep in touch to ensure those who remained were safe and that our neighborhood was still there. Thankfully, we all were.

Personal emergencies could be a factor as well. Two neighbors left early one morning for a flight to Europe. At the airport they had a sinking suspicion that they had failed to close their garage door when they left. They contacted my wife who walked a short distance to their house to confirm they had indeed left it open and quickly closed it for them. Personal emergency avoided, they were able to enjoy their vacation.

So reach out to your neighbors, get to know them, organize a contact list and perhaps bring more of them on board with some common sense emergency preparedness steps.

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A Fungus Among Us

Typically, the Bay Area gets a lot of rain showers throughout the winter. The near constant moisture in the air and soil has caused an explosion of mushroom growth in our yard.

Two of the larger examples to be found.
They’re everywhere! They’re Everywhere!

Are any of these edible? The only safe answer is no! Let’s just go with that.

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Merry Christmas 2018

Merry Christmas to one and all from the Barron household. Curry, in particular, would like to share a word or two.

Have a Merry Christmas, or else!
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Emergency Lessons – Leave The Lights On. And a TV

This article is one of a series of posts that emerged due to the 2017 wildfires that ravaged California wine country near our home.

This is is a fairly simple idea.  When forced to evacuate your home lock up and try to make your home looked as occupied as possible.

As if natural disasters were not devastating enough on their own, there is a small minority of people whose selfish acts compound the damage done to peoples’ lives when they loot areas under emergency conditions.  Still, it’s foolish to risk one’s life for possessions that can the replaced.  Get out of harm’s way when an emergency strikes.

So how can the odds be improved to avoid being a victim of both a disaster and human cruelty?  Tilt the balance ever so slightly in your favor.

Looters are often opportunists and realize they may not have a lot of time in a given area before they have to move on.  A dark, obviously unoccupied home is an obvious target.

What’s not a target is a well lit home with noise coming out of it.  Leave some lights on, both inside and outside the house.  And leave the TV or radio running to provide some noise.

Sure, if they did a bit of snooping they could probably determine in short order no one was really around.  But if there are scores of dark houses around that present tempting targets then any moment spent researching your home would be time wasted.

Now, there is a potential downside to this strategy.  For areas with mandatory evacuations police may sweep the area looking to clear people out of harm’s way.  What will they do with a locked house with lights and a running TV?  Will they break a door down?  That’s a good question and one for which I do not have an answer.

Ultimately, this is a choice you’ll have to make on your own.

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Emergency Lessons – Photograph and Video Everything in Your House

This article is one of a series of posts that emerged due to the 2017 wildfires that ravaged California wine country near our home.

Whatever level of preparedness you apply before a disaster, there is a chance that much of the contents of your home could be lost.  Somethings are irreplaceable (see the post on preserving family photos), but many are not.  If you have homeowners insurance (and you should) then replacing those replaceables becomes an exercise in documentation.

Writing down the entire list of everything in your house is obviously a dull task.  A nice shortcut is to photograph or video everything in your house.  This works better than a written manifest anyway since it can be provided as documentation in case the insurance company has doubts whether you possessed certain items at all.

Video has some advantages over individual photos because it provides a continuous flow of images that provides context.  A photo of a large LED TV on an anonymous wall, somewhere, may not provide enough context to prove that was your TV on your wall.

There’s no need for a complicated camcorder.  Any modern smartphone will do.

Once you’ve gathered up your photos and video there’s an important step to take.  Store that data somewhere other than in your house!  This should go without saying given a previous post on the topic of storing computer data outside of the house but I thought it worth mentioning again.

Some articles on the subject have recommended storing the data on a thumb drive that’s included in your go bag.  Not a bad idea, but also not ideal if you are forced to flee before you can grab your go bag.  Always have a copy stored somewhere far from home that you can access from anywhere.  If your computer is backed up to the cloud then storing a copy of the video on it will ensure it’s uploaded somewhere far afield, and presumably safe.

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Emergency Lessons – Make a List, Check it Twice

This article is one of a series of posts that emerged due to the 2017 wildfires that ravaged California wine country near our home.

The community of Glen Ellen, north of Sonoma, was hard hit by the 2017 fires.  Jack London State Historic Park was in the path of the rapidly spreading fire when the curators took quick and decisive action.  They loaded up irreplaceable artifacts from the site and shipped them to Sacramento for safe keeping.  How did they know what to do so quickly?  They made a list beforehand.

In a matter of two hours that first Monday morning, parks staff went room by room and cleared out items of importance indicated on a pre-made list, one created in the unlikely event of just such an emergency.

Jack London’s Study

That’s effective prior planning.  Can you imagine the confusion and bad decisions that would have been made had they been forced to evaluate and prioritize in the chaotic moments when the fire was closing in on the site?

The contents of our houses are not as historically important as those from Jack London’s house but they are certainly important to us.  So why shouldn’t we plan ahead with our own belongings?

A recent bestselling book, The Checklist Manifesto, proposed the simple checklist as a solution to many complex problems we face in everyday life.  Airplane pilots and even surgeons have benefited from being able to follow well documented, complex steps in the form of a checklist.

Though throwing things in a car to vacate a disaster area doesn’t require a medical degree or pilot’s license, it does represent a challenging and stressful situation.  What’s most important?  One must think fast, but the proper decisions to be made require a slower, more methodical thinking (Thinking Fast and Slow).  A checklist prepared beforehand provides the best of both worlds.

What should the checklist include?  It’s a simple to-do list of things to collect in the event of an emergency in priority order.  Construct this list and order it such that the most important things are listed first.  If you have a list of 15 items but only have time to collect 5 be sure that in the end you will be certain that the decisions made where clearly the right ones.

Do not shy away from having a long, detailed list.  Don’t think that you’ll obviously remember when the time comes.  You’ll likely remember your dogs or cats.  But what about some of their food?  Write it all down.

Online task managers, such as Remember The Milk, allow for the creation of lists in which items can be arranged in an arbitrary order.  This is handy because your ordering of items on the list is likely to change the more thought you put into things.  Once finalized, the list can then be printed out.  Place a couple of copies around the house to ensure that one can be found at a moments notice.

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Emergency Lessons – Never Let Your Gas Tank Hover Near Empty

This article is one of a series of posts that emerged due to the 2017 wildfires that ravaged California wine country near our home.

Emergencies often involve large migrations of people.  That means more people on the road than normal and that means more gasoline consumption.  In the midst of an evacuation due to an emergency your ability to top off the car’s gas tank can not be counted on.  Chances are you’ll encounter long lines at the filing station, if they have any gas left at all.

This 1979 gas shortage line is similar to what happens during emergencies like hurricanes coming ashore.

What this means in terms of disaster preparedness is that you should not generally allow your gas tank level to fall to near empty.  Letting your car’s remaining mileage fall to 10 miles of less means before empty in an emergency you will not be able to vacate an effected area very effectively.

What’s the “right” time to fill up your car?  That’s tough to say.  It will be highly dependent on your car’s overall range and how far of a drive you’d expect to reach safety.  I’d say being able to always drive 100 miles without having to fill up may be a good rule of thumb but your mileage (pun intended) may vary.  For some, that may mean refilling when the tank is 1/4 full.  For others it may be something else.

Extra fuel in your garage can be of help, as long as your starting point for evacuation is your home.  If you have a gas can for the lawnmower you have an extra bit of fuel you can access when needed.

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Emergency Lessons – Scan All Family Photos

This article is one of a series of posts that emerged due to the 2017 wildfires that ravaged California wine country near our home.

In the aftermath of the 2017 Northern California Wildfires a local news site posted a poignant story showing scraps of photos salvaged from homes lost in the fires.  Human memory is frail enough, but when physical reminders are lost forever the past becomes more distant still.

Most cameras these days are digital and saving those photos off site is easy enough.  Photos on smartphones are portable and photos already stored on computers can be backed up online.  But older photos are another story.  Photos of the grandparents from 100 years ago tucked away in several boxes in the attic are probably irreplaceable.  Losing them to a fire forever is not something you should leave to chance.

You can include the most precious of photos as part of your go bag or filing case.  But you may very well have more photos that need to be saved than you can reasonably gather in a true emergency.  The solution is to make copies and store them offsite, preferably outside of the city in which you reside.

There are a couple of ways to go about making this happen.  Many printers these days have scanning capabilities built into them and most can scan photos with acceptable resolution for the task at hand.  If you have a printer/scanner already, the upside is that the process won’t cost you a dime.  The downside is that this process can be tedious and can take quite a bit of time depending upon how prolific your family has been with their cameras over the years.

There are options to trade off time for money.  Several companies exist to digitize your photos and even home movies.  The cost for these services can be pricey.  Depending upon the vendor, the type of service package selected and the number of photos to be scanned the price can vary between $0.20 up to $1.00 to photo.  It pays to shop around and do the math if you plan on taking this route.

A possible benefit of the higher cost from scanning services is that many of them can also do some cleanup of scratches or other imperfections.  The amount of damage that can be undone is not infinite, but scans of older photos may come out looking much more crisp and clear than the original.

Once your photos are scanned it’s imperative you ensure they remain safe.  Sitting on a single computer in your home does not increase the safety of your family memories.  Now is the time to back up those photos on your computer using one of the automated backup services mentioned in a previous article or using an alternative storage service such as Google Photos.  Placing them online also opens up the possibility of sharing them with other family members who may be able to fill in missing details such as who the handsome guy that’s obviously not Grandpa hugging Grandma in 1913 is.

As you look through family photos spanning multiple generations and recall the stories behind them you better understand the many difficulties they faced in life and somehow survived.  By scanning all family photos so they survive regardless of the emergency you face you’ll help ensure that future generations retain those stories and mementos.

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Emergency Lessons – Backup Your Computer To The Cloud

This article is one of a series of posts that emerged due to the 2017 wildfires that ravaged California wine country near our home.

More and more of our daily lives are recorded and tracked on our personal computers.  In an emergency situation the family TV can easily be replaced if it is lost without much of a fuss.  In fact, the TV you buy as a replacement will likely be better than the one it replaced.

One could make the same argument for the family computer as well.  But the data on that computer is another story altogether.  In some cases the data on that computer is irreplaceable.  It a fire destroys your house and takes the computer with it, all of the data it contained is lost for good.

Unless you make copies of that data.  Businesses have known about the importance of backing up their data for decades now.  Individuals can do the same by performing periodic dumps of their data onto another hard drive.  But there are some security holes in this strategy.

What do you do with the backup you created? Store it in the closet at home?  That’s fine for a hard drive failure.  Maybe even theft of the computer, assuming the thieves didn’t empty your closet.  But what if your house burns down and you forgot to take the backup drive with you?

Or, what if you got tired of the process of backing up your computer again and again and put it off for six months or more?  Even if you grab the backup you’ll have lost six months of memories and work.

The only way to really ensure that your data is secure from both natural disasters (that would destroy your home) or your own procrastination (because backing up computers is really boring work) is to automatically back up your computers into the cloud.

Several companies have already worked out how to automatically mirror your computer’s files onto their servers silently and continuously.  Created a new project file for work or took photos of the kids?  Almost as soon as they hit your computer’s hard drive they are queued up to be uploaded safely offsite from your home.

Generally, the backup services look for less busy times when your computer’s on to package up files that have recently been updated, encrypt them for your privacy and uploads them to server farms for the ultimate protection of your data.

There have even been cases where backup software has been used to track down lost or stolen laptops.

I personally use BackBlaze and have been very happy with it.  Carbonite and iDrive are two others that provide similar services.  Prices in a nutshell run at about $5 a month.  When you consider how much time you might spend per month setting up a manual backup and moving that backup drive away from your house for complete safety, it’s a great bargain.

Need to leave the house on a moment’s notice?  Get a little more peace of mind knowing that your irreplaceable data has already been set up in a secure location miles away from the emergency threatening your home.

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Emergency Lessons – Store Containers of Water

This article is one of a series of posts that emerged due to the 2017 wildfires that ravaged California wine country near our home.

Not all emergencies call for getting out of town fast.  In some cases the emergency is more of a shelter in place scenario.  That means ensuring you have many essentials handy for what might be an extended period of disruption.

One of those disruptive events might be a loss of municipal drinking water.  It’s even possible that a functioning water system might be transporting water that’s unfit to drink, so having some good fresh water as an emergency backup is important.

If you have water delivered in 5 gallon jugs for a water cooler you’re already ahead of the game.  Having a few more full jugs queued up can provide a bit of a buffer until an emergency situation abets.

Your water delivery guy may wonder what you’re up to.

It’s important to make sure you cycle through those jugs in sequential order, using the older jugs first.

If you don’t get delivered bottled water or don’t want to mess with so many jugs there are some larger containers that can be used to store water on a longer term basis.  Twenty gallon plastic emergency water drums are a good balance between size and ease of movement.  No you won’t be carrying full containers, but they can be rolled around and tilted over fairly easily.  We have two such drums and bought them recycled at a discount.  The drums were used previously to transport soda syrup, so they had a bit of a rootbeer odor to them until we rinsed them and aired them out well.

With drums of water you’re not thinking of using them on a regular basis outside of an emergency.  You tend to fill them and then leave alone for extended periods of time.  How then do you ensure that the water doesn’t get unsafe?  I recommend using Purogene water treatment in the drums to ensure nothing unhealthy grows in the water over time.  According to the instructions on the bottle, 1 oz. of the product should be good for 30 gallons of water.

What does the water taste like with the added preservative?  I honestly don’t know.  I’ve never tried it.  But then, this water is intended to be used in an emergency when there is nothing else available.  Quick frankly, it doesn’t matter if it tastes good or not.  It just has to be safe.

How much water should you store per person?  Well, that really depends on how long the emergency lasts and how many people you need to keep hydrated.  So, it depends.  For my wife and I we maintain two 20 gallon drums of water in the garage in addition to the smaller emergency punches of water that are in our go bag.

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