Neighbors on the Westside are showing how community can come together for the sake of preparedness.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Wallace Baine

WALLACE BAINE: Why this Westside neighborhood’s DIY crisis management plan needs to become a thing

The county’s CERT office said that the fires and the pandemic brought about a spike in interest in neighborhood self-reliance in emergency preparedness. While that interest has begun to sag in many areas, one group of neighbors on Santa Cruz’s Westside is helping to set a standard for what such planning should look like.

Quick, who’s your next-door neighbor?

Guy who plays that one Pink Floyd album over and over again? Woman who can’t keep her Pekingese quiet? Couple who always leaves their recycling bin on the street a day longer than everyone else?

Wallace

If we Americans are being honest with ourselves — not exactly a famously American character trait — we should admit that we mostly know our neighbors through the prism of our annoyances with them.

Many of us might talk a good game when it comes to getting to know the neighbors, with idealized visions of chill block parties and dishy coffee klatches dancing in our heads. But our day-to-day behavior often tells a different story. Real-estate agents know the truth: The more space away from and less potential contact with neighbors is nearly as desirable as an ocean view.

But isolation from neighbors is an indulgence, like too much cake or booze or TV. It’s seductive and comfortable, but one day, especially in a crisis, it might demand a heavy price.

The good news is that more and more people, at least in Santa Cruz County, are realizing that connecting with the immediate neighbors, like regular exercise and laying off the carbs, is worth the effort (and frustration and awkwardness) in the long run.

That’s what happens in the aftermath of such traumas as the COVID-19 pandemic, the CZU fires, and even the 2020 presidential election. Crisis often delivers the realization that, despite the fences and gates and fetishization of privacy, humans are social animals, and knowing who your neighbors are is not merely a question of happiness and fulfillment, but survival.

A circle of friends on Walk Circle.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

One neighborhood on the Westside of Santa Cruz is a telling example of what can happen when neighbors make it a priority to be neighborly. Since the pandemic and the fires, this neighborhood put into practice a plan, not to exchange casseroles and hedge trimmers, but to build a cohesive unit for the benefit of all in case another, even more catastrophic, crisis emerges.

The program is known as Map Your Neighborhood, and it falls generally under the rubric of disaster preparedness. It assumes that in the event of some crippling disaster — fires, floods, terror attacks, earthquakes (yep, we’re due for one of those) — emergency personnel, from police to utilities, are going to be overwhelmed and won’t be able to respond quickly. Into that vacuum can come neighbors trained and prepared to help neighbors. Call it DIY crisis management.

Administered by the county’s CERT program (that’s Community Emergency Response Team), Map Your Neighborhood is essentially about gathering and exchanging information.

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I was a rookie reporter back during the 1989 Loma Pieta earthquake, and the afterimage that has stayed with me all these years later is, in the minutes and hours after the quake, people everywhere standing around in their front yards, not sure what to do or where to go, waiting for some kind of Superman to show up. The same phenomenon could play out today (allowing that people would be staring at their unresponsive cell phones in a way they could not in ’89).

All of us living in earthquake country know that we should be aware of where our gas and water shut-offs are. But Map Your Neighborhood ups the ante: You should know where your neighbors’ shut-offs are as well. You should know who in your neighborhood is vulnerable and/or alone, or who has medical or mobility issues.

You should know generally who has useful skills or equipment, who has a generator that could keep someone else’s vital medication refrigerated. Who is good at calming children or pets? How many fire extinguishers, flashlights, and chain saws are in the neighborhood? Who knows something about electricity, structural engineering, treating minor injuries?

If these folks can do it, so can others.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The Westside neighborhood that has adopted the Map Your Neighborhood plan first drew its circle conservatively. (There is an ideal number of people to participate in a plan, above which things get unwieldy and ineffective.) Many of them invested in MURS radios, two-way, limited-range walkie-talkie devices that work when cellphones might not. And they met regularly to assess their needs and resources. In November, they’re even planning a kind of “fake earthquake” rehearsal.

“We’ve created this kind of island of sanity on our street,” one of the neighbors told me. “All of us are looking at the news, and what’s going on in the country, in the world. And it’s making a lot of us very anxious and feeling isolated. To those I’ve spoken to, this is like an antidote.

“It’s sort of like, Oh, OK. Instead of feeling powerless, about what’s going on in the country, and around the world, there’s something very immediate right outside our door that we’ve built, basic trust and goodwill, and a basic plan, because no one can predict what’s going to happen, except it will be chaos.”

Instead of feeling powerless, about what’s going on in the country, and around the world, there’s something very immediate right outside our door that we’ve built, basic trust and goodwill, and a basic plan, because no one can predict what’s going to happen, except it will be chaos.

The county’s CERT office said that the fires and the pandemic brought about a spike in interest in neighborhood self-reliance in emergency preparedness, but in recent months that interest has begun to sag again. CERT offers free training in a number of emergency management skills.

This kind of neighborhood reengagement doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing thing. Sure, training sessions in CPR and two-way radios and regular neighborhood meetings, all that can be a big ask. But even establishing a common Google doc with the 10-to-20 households closest to you, exchanging information about who has what or who needs what would be hugely beneficial in a crisis.

The more fundamental problem here is that this kind of outreach goes so against the grain of deeply seated American habits and values. The current in contemporary life flows strongly toward the freedom to be isolated and act solely on individual desire. The pathologies of social media have flourished in that isolation. The country’s ugly political stalemate is a result of the widespread defiance against the it-takes-a-village and no-man-is-an-island truisms that many of us take as hard-won wisdom.

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Most of us fall short on this score. I, for one, am never going to win Neighbor of the Year. But to the degree that the scaffolding of modern life — social media, mass entertainment, remote working, commuting, internet technology — is a giant house of cards, when it all comes crashing down, that hand you reach for from the rubble is probably going to be your neighbor’s. Shouldn’t you know more about them than their backyard musical tastes?

To learn more about free CERT training or Map Your Neighborhood, go here.

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