Rural residents must take active role in seasonal disaster preparedness plansWritten by Emilee Gibb
“Especially in Wyoming and other areas of the Rocky Mountains, we’ve seen a lot of people moving into areas that were traditionally unpopulated or just populated by ag producers,” said Natrona County University of Wyoming (UW) Agriculture and Horticulture Extension Educator Scott Cotton while discussing rural disaster preparedness in a recent webinar.
He explained that the transition of more residents to rural areas creates challenges in disaster mitigation that require residents to take a proactive approach.
“Rural residents, as they always have, have to take a little larger role personally in disaster mitigation,” said Cotton.
The main goal of disaster mitigation, which is reducing the impacts and the chances of a disaster occurring, is preventing emergencies from developing into disasters, said Cotton.
“First, we should mention that an emergency is something bad that happens and there are resources capable of responding to it. A disaster is an event that happens that exceeds the capabilities of our resources,” explained Cotton.
The types of disasters seen in rural areas are typically intuitive to residents and may include fires, wildfires, floods, tornados, earthquakes, hurricanes and disease outbreak.
It is important for residents to consider multiple evacuation routes out of their property, particularly in the event of wildfires that can rapidly change direction, said Cotton.
“For those who live in wildfire areas, I recommend going to the Wyoming Forest Division’s Firewise materials,” said Cotton. “Firewise provides information on where to stack firewood, how to keep the right composite materials on houses to reduce fire, guidelines for vegetation management and a number of other things to help keep a disaster from occurring.”
Maintaining power can be as simple as purchasing an inexpensive generator and wiring a connection on the outside of the house, Cotton explained.
“We won’t run all of the circuits probably, but we need to run our heater fan, water pumps and probably lights. If we have those three things, we’re probably good,” he said.
Water is another top priority for rural residents to consider with preparing their property for disaster.
“Water is a key thing for surviving disasters. Backup water could be as simple as having life straws in a box where we can take water that’s contaminated and pull it through carbon and ceramic filters to make it potable and drinkable,” continued Cotton.
Cotton also advised that landowners have the equipment needed for the site’s dominant risks, such as plows, snow blowers or boats.
The first priority for emergency responders is human health, said Cotton.
“Often as not, they don’t have the resources or don’t get around to animal risk for a considerable amount of time. It usually falls to the owners,” he continued.
To quickly recover from disasters, it is critical for animals to have legal identification and records.
“During winter storms, wildfires and floods, we see animals displaced as much as 60-70 miles sometimes, and it’s a little difficult for authorities to tell where they came from and for producers to prove ownership if they don’t have those documents,” stressed Cotton.
Cotton also advised that animal owners have alternative shelters and multiple feed locations in the event that animals get trapped away from their primary shelter.
Disease outbreaks can be a side product of other disasters, such as flooding or blizzards, explained Cotton.
“When one group of animals moves into another group of animals without an isolation period, they can carry issues with them,” he said.
It is extremely important to plan multiple options for each disaster type, especially concerning how to transport animals, said Cotton.
“Our encouraged guideline is to have enough equipment that we can move our horses to safety within one hour,” he said. “Often, they do not let people back into a site to make more than one run, so we need to think about what we’ll have to do.”
If producers have livestock on the range that cannot be accessed, Cotton suggested making an agreement with neighbors to care for any animals in each individual’s respective strike zone during the disaster.
Cotton noted that disaster mitigation ultimately comes down to rural residents’ ability to respond and survive, which is impacted largely by community involvement.
“Part of the ability to respond is reducing community risk,” said Cotton.
Emergency response alert signals are often used in towns to notify residents. However, many of the signals can not be heard outside of town. In many cases, their range can be expanded with mobile units or if towers are built on private property.
“In some cases, we’ve seen farmers and ranchers out in rural areas actually volunteer space on their property to put up additional towers so that neighbors would be warned if something were to happen,” explained Cotton.
It is also a wise decision for rural residents to sign up for alert texts and email services.
Cotton advised community members to keep contact information for neighbors and local officials in a fireproof and waterproof box, as well as in their mobile phone.
“Check to make sure others are okay. That’s something we can do to increase recovery and survival, even if it’s not someone we usually socialize with,” said Cotton. “If they don’t respond and we have time and means, try to get someone down there to do a welfare check on them.”