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Reflecting on the Thomas Fire and Community Preparedness

Evacuation Without a Resulting Disaster Is a Blessing

Photo: Jeff Koterba, Omaha World Herald, NE

Like many in Santa Barbara, Montecito, Ventura, around the country, and around the world, I have been personally affected by the increase in natural disasters occurring as a result of human impact on the Earth and climate-related changes. Like many, my family and I were evacuated because of a concern that heavy rains would cause dangerous mudslides and debris flow as happened last year following the Thomas Fire in my beloved hometown. The most recent January storm of this year wasn’t as severe as officials expected. The evacuation lasted from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. the same day, January 15. We had booked into a hotel, where we stayed for the evening, returning home the following morning.

While most were pleased to return home after eight hours away, some residents felt inconvenienced by the unnecessary evaluation. After all, an evacuation typically incurs an unexpected expense of money and time. However, I would encourage people to look at situations like this as a rehearsal or drill. I am deeply appreciative for the thoughtfulness of the emergency officers who worked so hard to keep us safe, allowing us to return home only once the danger subsided.

Be patient. When a situation does not result in a disaster, it is a blessing.

According to the International Disaster Database, located in Belgium, the number of natural disasters occurring worldwide is drastically increasing. The reoccurrence of climatic disasters such as floods, droughts, local storms, heat waves or cold waves, and wildfires have grown in frequency and intensity. In 1970, 78 natural disasters were reported. By 2004, the incidents had increased to 348. According to AccuWeather, since 1990, on average there have been more than 200 million people affected by natural disasters annually. According to experts, the vast majority of this growth is due to climate-related transformation. They explained that when the metaphysical composition of nature transforms, the severity of these natural disasters magnifies.

Last year, Santa Barbara and its neighboring county experienced firsthand the destruction and devastation of the Thomas Fire and its aftermath: debris flows caused by heavy rains in burn areas. Many students at Antioch University Santa Barbara, including my MBA students, were affected by the disaster and directly involved with recovery operations. My family and I were evacuated from home for about two weeks. After we returned, we were stranded in our home for a number of days due to a collapsed access road, isolated, with no electricity or water. Finally, we were evacuated again for another few weeks. This type of experience was common among members of our community. Loss of life, injuries — many pets died or were lost as a result of the fire and its aftermath. Something that has not been discussed enough is the stress of living through an event like this, which affects us on many levels. The sustained stress, fear, and worry are difficult to recover from.

About a month ago, Antioch Santa Barbara MBA hosted an event to reflect on the experience. We brought government and grassroots leaders together to discuss the traumatic events and to begin a conversation about preparing for the future. Rob Lewin, Santa Barbara County’s retiring director of the Office of Emergency Management, was the keynote speaker. He spoke about concerns for the future in light of rapidly changing climate extremes and impressed on the audience the importance of being prepared.

Our goal as a community is to grow our understanding of how we can better manage these unexpected events. As the saying goes, let’s not waste a crisis. Given the statistics, we can’t avoid natural disasters. As we can’t avoid them, it is our responsibility to learn more about these situations and work together to minimize damage, loss of property, and loss of life. We have seen that disasters can occur without much notice. However, as we join together in community we create new solutions to cope with our changing world. The following is a list of articles that will help families and businesses be more prepared in the future:

How to Cope with Natural Disasters

Expect the Unexpected

Home Safety Tips for Natural Disaster

Anna Kwong is MBA Program Chair, Core Faculty, and BA Program faculty at Antioch University Santa Barbara. She has more than 25 years of experience in business, leadership, and management in various types of overseas trading and joint ventures. In 1985, Anna started a global computer firm. Her professional background also includes international business management, leadership, and trade.

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