September 10, 2020

Unnatural Disasters

by How to Save a Planet

Background show artwork for How to Save a Planet

As this summer has made clear: from hurricanes to wildfires, climate change is exposing more of us to extreme weather. This week we hear what it's like to survive a life-changing disaster, get tips on how to prepare — from a disasterologist — and learn why you should never call a disaster “natural.”

Call(s) to action

  • Build a go bag or preparedness kit. You can check out for some tips on how to build your own bag. Remember it's a guide - not a rulebook - so think through what you will really need in a disaster. Kendra packed a spare pair of glasses, just in case, for example. 
  • Create your own disaster plan. The kit is only the first step in disaster preparedness. While building your bag also think through your disaster plan. You can check out to think through things like if you had to evacuate what your route would be and where you would go. If you have children, , helps you incorporate your kids into your disaster planning - which is important because they will be going through this with you.
  • Prepare your home for your disaster. We'll link to specific tips on doing this in the additional reading, but prepping your home for the inevitable increases the odds it will survive. If you're a homeowner it's worth checking out what your insurance policy says. If you are a renter, it's worth getting renters insurance, though it's typically less comprehensive than homeowners insurance. 
  • Find out what your local government and community organizations are doing to prepare for disaster. This is everything from attending meetings that your emergency managers are holding (and if they aren't holding them, why not?) And if you want to go even further consider getting community emergency response team or CERT training.

Where to Listen


ALEX BLUMBERG This is How to Save a Planet. I'm Alex Bloomberg. 

AYANA ELIZABETH JOHNSON: And I'm Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. 


And this is the podcast where we look at what we need to do to address climate change and how to make those things happen.


ALEX: So, Ayana, you know that thing you just said.  

AYANA: The tagline, you mean? 

ALEX: Yeah, the tagline. This is the podcast where we look at what we need to do to address climate change and how to make those things happen-  that word address.

AYANA: It's not like the sexiest verb is it? I know, we've discussed this. 

ALEX: We have discussed it. I wanted to use a different verb 

AYANA: Solve. 

ALEX: Solve. 

AYANA: You wanted, solve

ALEX: I wanted solve


ALEX: But you pointed out there was a problem with the word solve. 

AYANA: Yes, because it's not possible. And so, you know, as the buzzkill scientist cohost, I, um, chimed in to say, it's already here. We can't actually make it go away, but we have still this range of possible futures still available to us. And if we work really hard and have great policy and listen to scientists and all do our part, we could have a better possible future than we would otherwise have, which is literally the worst tagline of all time. So we went with address. 

ALEX: So we packed all of that  meaning into the humble – somewhat wishy washy – word address and that is what we have. But the point i s simply you can't solve something if the effects are already here — and the fact that the  effects of climate change are already here has become increasingly obvious over the last few months in the United States 



We begin with those out of control wildfires, scorching, California 

Hurricane Laura slamming ashore. as a monster category four

Firefighters are scrambling to contain at least two dozen large fires in the middle of a historic heatwave. 

Seeking relief in the waves as temperatures soared up to 125 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Just how many homes were right in the path of this fire. 

ALEX: So what's happening here in the United States. What's being talked about in those news clips we know is consistent with climate change. A warming planet means more extreme weather, and here in the United States that means more frequent heat waves, more intense wildfires, more damaging hurricanes and more severe flooding. And of course, all of this is happening in the middle of a pandemic. 

AYANA: And if you're sitting there thinking, “Oh, but this won't happen to me where I live never has extreme weather like that.” Please think again. Climate change means wild storms and other disasters are appearing in places where we've never seen them before. And so part of what we need to do to address climate change is to prepare for the changes that are already here. 

ALEX: Address. 

AYANA: [laughter]

ALEX: So today on the show, how to prepare for a world with more extreme weather. Disasterologists, artisanal marshmallows, and a conversation with a woman who's lived through one of the most extreme weather events a person can face. That's coming up.



ALEX: So to understand what it's like to live in a world where extreme weather is increasingly common, we decided to talk to someone who has lived through a major hurricane. 

AYANA: So we got in touch with Christine Nieves Rodriguez who lived through Hurricane Maria and wrote an incredible essay about it. 

ALEX: That essay – it so happens – is in an anthology that you co-edited Ayana.

AYANA: It is. Yes. 

ALEX: Don't be shy. Let's tell the world. It's called “All We Can Save: Truth, Courage and Solutions for the Climate Crisis.” It's got a ton of really incredible essays in it. And I'll just put a quick plug. You can preorder it now. It comes out on September 22nd. 

AYANA: 41 essays, 17 poems. Some incredible original illustrations 

ALEX: And you've been working on this book basically since as long as I've known you, as we were sort of preparing this podcast, getting ready to launch it, you would be like pinging back and forth between sort of like doing interviews for the podcast, and then at one point, you and your co-editor had like all your manuscripts set up in a conference room and were sort of laying everything out. It's been a real labor of love, and it's been really cool to see all the time and effort you guys have put into it. So I'm excited that the world will get to see it.

AYANA: Awwww. Thanks Alex. On behalf of my co-editor, Dr. Katherine Wilkinson, and I thank you. 

ALEX: Well, it's also been a great source of story ideas for us, including this story we're about to tell, featuring Christine Nieves Rodriguez. 

AYANA: Christine's is the final essay in our anthology. It's the note we wanted to end the book on. And when we get to the end of this episode, I think you'll understand why, but let's start with introducing her. Today, Christine runs a climate change-focused nonprofit in Puerto Rico, but back in 2017, she had just moved home to the Island after many years away. 

ALEX: She had only been back for about nine months when she got word that a big hurricane was headed toward the island. Now, Christine had just lived through Hurricane Irma. Hurricanes were a part of life in Puerto Rico, so she thought we can deal with this.

CHRISTINE NIEVES RODRIGUEZ: The wisdom and the history of having experienced hurricanes before it gives you a kind of like muscle memory. Like you already, you've done this so much, you know what to do. But we had no idea what Hurricane Maria was going to be like.


In Puerto Rico, people speak about pre- and post-Maria. I mean, Maria, marks the beginning of an era.

AYANA: The night of the storm, Christine, her now husband, Luis and Luis's cousin, Omar, were in Louis's childhood home in Mariana – a community about an hour's drive from San Juan, Puerto Rico's capitol. Mariana is a hilly region known for its lush forests, 

ALEX: Christine, Luis, and Omar had done all the usual things you do to prepare for a storm. They filled the car with gas, gotten cash, the normal checklist, and then they'd gone to bed. 

CHRISTINE: And around 11 or so essentially the power went out, and we were awakened by just the sounds of, of the storm. 

AYANA: What did it sound like? 

CHRISTINE: Oh my  goodness. Let's see. It was like a deafening, deafening sound. It was just like WOOOH. Just like, it felt like I had a giant tornado on top of me sucking everything in, but also simultaneously throwing everything against the door. It was just like POOOHHH. Just like glass. Like the sound of, of sharp objects just exploding, and then the volume of the wind got so loud inside the house, and I could almost feel the glass was essentially just flying around with the wind, but then everything was shaking. And then there was this moment when my husband put his hand on the concrete wall and he felt the house shake. And that's when he said, “Holy. Okay. This is…” That's when he realized our lives might be in danger. We actually need, you know, plan B.

AYANA:  Christine remembered a story. She'd heard about a woman surviving a hurricane by locking herself in a closet. So she did a quick inventory of the rooms in her home. The smallest enclosed space turned out to be a tiny windowless bathroom on the lower level of the house.

ALEX: So Christine, Luis and Omar grabbed the dog, a very unhappy cat, a bottle of wine, and a guitar and drums and headed into the bathroom. 


AYANA: And they played bomba music to keep themselves calm and to drown out the sounds of the storm


AYANA: For hours as night turned into early morning, they hunkered down in that bathroom. 

CHRISTINE: But there was a moment when – even though everything was felt muffled because we're in there – it went a little bit quieter. It was still there, but a little bit quieter. And that's when Omar, he opened the door, and we walked out, and I mean everything is flooded completely and, and there's stuff everywhere. And we walked through the hallway to the, the furthest, um, bedroom that had a window overlooking our garden. And when we got there, it was already morning. And I saw, I watched Luis cry, just, just watching him overlooking a landscape he couldn't recognize anymore. 


AYANA: What had been lush green surroundings were essentially gone. Massive trees that had been there for so long were lying down in the mud. 

CHRISTINE: Everything he grew up with had just vanished, not even one leaf. It was just bare and confusing and you could see things you couldn't see before. I mean before we were completely enclosed around a barrier of trees that were so tall and lush. You couldn't hear noises coming from anybody from neighbors. And when we walked out, I realized we had three neighbors just down the road. [CHRISTINE LAUGHS] Just on the other side. Well, there's people that like right there. 

AYANA: Oh, hi.

CHRISTINE: I can like, I can be like, “Hey, whatcha you cooking today?” I had no idea. But the destruction was so much, and we couldn't even comprehend the material loss we had gone through. It was the natural loss that hit us most because you're, you don't, you're not used to that kind of, wow. This was so powerful that even nature couldn't stand. It couldn't stand it. Even, even the, the, the soil and the trees. 


AYANA: The storm was over but nothing was working. No radio. No cell service. No electricity. They were completely cut off.  

ALEX: They did have some food in the fridge, and for a couple of days they ate that, cooking what they had over open fires outside. When the food they had started to rot, they supplemented their diets with coconuts from the downed palm trees all around them. 

AYANA: But coconuts only go so far. They needed to find more food. 

CHRISTINE:  There were several issues, right? To get to food, you need transportation, but then you couldn't get transportation because there was a shortage of gas. Oh, and then in order to get, to get gas, you needed cash, but then there was also a, communications were down. So then ATMs weren't working.

AYANA: And the roads were probably full of debris. 

CHRISTINE: And the roads were...I mean think about all the was like boom, boom, boom, boom. You had four different obstacles before you get to that. 

AYANA: And even if you made it through that gauntlet you could mostly only buy dry goods, because there was no electricity, which meant no refrigeration. And no cell service meant limited connection to the outside world, so they had no word on when power might be restored or when help might arrive. 

ALEX: Christine, Luis and Omar would see helicopters flying overhead, but the helicopters never stopped. And so, after two weeks, they decided, “We need to drive into San Juan to get some information.” On the way there, they finally ran into an aid truck. 

CHRISTINE: They gave us, essentially six little bottles of water of like the small 10 ounce bottles, four cans of Vienna sausages, Skittles, and like a Nutri-Grain. This is per family. That was the food we were given.

AYANA: Oh, no.

CHRISTINE: There, there was this, that breaking moment. I think it was the Skittles. I think when I saw the Skittles, I was like, “You got to be fucking kidding me. Like this is atrocious. 


AYANA: Like this is actually not what we need most right now. 

CHRISTINE: That's when we realized, “Oh my God, they're gonna wait for us to die before like we, we, we're not, we're not going to just stand idle and wait for food. I mean, this is the food? This, this food is going to kill us. 


The hurricane was this moment of me seeing like, “Oh my God, the way we've created our lives, if, if one thing collapses, all of them collapse around it. And then your life turns into a survival game of just trying to...just trying to stay alive. It was, it was like dystopian future. I felt like all of a sudden I'm in Hunger Games, but I didn't know how to hunt. 

ALEX: So, quick summary of the plot of “Hunger Games”. It centers around a young woman who lives in a dystopian future where children are forced to fight to the death. The last child standing wins food for their home community for a year. But then, along the way the main character learns that if we're operating as individuals, we end up destroying each other. If we come together, we survive. 

AYANA: Christine and Luis, of course, also realized this. And in fact, a couple days before this pivotal Skittles moment, they had approached a big event center in the middle of town, which hosted these big festivals that Mariana was famous for. Christine and Luis had asked if they could use the facility to set up a community-wide kitchen, but the center organizers had said, you’re crazy, how can we cook when we don’t have either food or electricity. 

ALEX: But as Christine and Luis were on their way back from that trip to San Juan – the one with skittles – they came across a community mutual aid society. And what Christine saw there changed what she thought was possible.

CHRISTINE: When I stopped there, what I really, it was what I... like the thing that I needed, and I just saw color. There were people with guitars and there were, there was kids were coloring and the teenagers were helping the grandmas and the abuelas. And the rules were so clearly stated. It wasn't rules. It was agreements. Like here, we respect each other. And if you need food, right, you can, you can get food in exchange for your time. You can come here and spend time with us or you can bring whatever food you can not cook and we'll cook it. And we'll add it to everything that we have. Kind of the stone soup metaphor if you've heard it or the stone soup story. Or you can give money. And the process. I just saw so much happening. And people were laughing, and when I saw people laughing, I was, it was like this moment of, of, it was like medicine for me.

AYANA: Christine took out her notebook and started writing down how this mutual aid society had organized things, and bolstered by this vision of what was possible, she went back to the event center in Mariana. And this time, the center said yes, “You can make a community kitchen here.” 

ALEX: So now they had a kitchen to use, but they still needed, you know, electricity, and water, and food. But Christine had been making these occasional trips to San Juan, where there was still cell service and going on Facebook Live telling everyone she knew how bad things were in Puerto Rico, how supples weren't getting to the people who needed them. 

AYANA: And now with the center on board, she could reach out to her network on Facebook and say that if people had resources to offer they could send them to this location. And the event center was actually already pinned on Google Maps. That’s how big a deal it was as a community hub. So it was easy for people to send stuff there. And food and supplies did start flowing in. 

CHRISTINE: Some church found out that we were doing this operation, and that first week on Friday, we had this church drive over a huge truck unannounced. A truck comes in, people get out of their cars and make a human chain and start getting food out of this truck, into our kitchen. We're just like, “Okay, well let's keep doing this. We have food for another week.” And that's how we operated. You never knew if you were going to have enough food, if food was going to go bad. Because of that, it was very immediate. “Okay, we need a generator.” And I would, again, go to San Juan or find a way to get internet connection, and then someone would show up with a generator. We had no idea how we were going to be able to cook and do dishes every day, but then this one man would spend hours driving down the hill with a pickup truck and a cistern filling up the cistern, driving up, and then spend hours waiting for the cistern to empty. And he would do that a couple of times a day for older people that were staying at home and for us. 


And the kitchen opened, and when the word spread, the first day was 125 people. And then the second day were 200. And then by Friday, we had over 300 people. 

ALEX: They had escaped The Hunger Games phase, but things were far from normal. In many ways Puerto Rico has never fully gotten back to normal. It would still be six months before people in Mariana had water, and around 9 months before they had electricity. During that time, the kitchen was essential to the survival of the people there. It ended up feeding people for almost a year and half after the storm hit. 

AYANA: So, what’s the main lesson from Christine’s story? For me, it’s that even if you do have a functional government, after a disaster there is a period of time where help just won’t get to you. 

ALEX: You’re on your own, and the US government’s disaster response has been getting worse and worse, so, the time you’ll likely be on your own is getting longer.

AYANA: And so, if you find yourself in Christine’s position, and chances are getting higher that you will, what should you do to prepare? And how prepared is my co-host, Alex? That’s coming up after the break.  



AYANA:  Welcome back to How to Save a Planet. As we heard in the first part of the show, disasters are increasingly becoming a common part of life. And we wanted to know, given this reality, what could we do to be better prepared. 

ALEX: And so we turned to the person on our team best equipped to answer that question. Kendra Pierre Louis, a senior reporter on the How to Save a Planet team. And Ayana, you know how we have this channel where we share messages with each other,

AYANA: Mm hmm

ALEX: and for months, you know how Kendra has been posting notices – starting way back in May about like how hot and dry the weather is out West, and how it’s perfect conditions for a really bad wildfire season. 

AYANA: Yeah, and how warm the water is in the Atlantic and how that means that we're looking at a really bad hurricane season, possibly the worst on record. 

ALEX: And I was like, if I'm honest, I was sort of like, why is she always posting those things? Like it to me cause I was like, well, it might happen, but it hasn't happened yet. But then of course, everything that she was posting about, you know, in April, May and June came exactly true. Like we are having one of the worst hurricane seasons in the Gulf. We are having one of the worst wildfire seasons out West. Everything that was sort of like conditions predict X, X has exactly happened.

AYANA: Thermodynamics gets ya every time.

ALEX: [Alex laughs] Exact, well that exactly. So I talked to her about this, and we had this conversation and I was like, “Kendra, it was like you were telling the future.” And in a very kind way she was like, “No, you dummy. I was just remembering the past.” 


Like I I've been a climate reporter for 10 years, and I now understand cause and effect, and I know that 

AYANA: And this is the math.

ALEX: this is the math. If the water's really warm in May, it means we're going to have a bad hurricane season. And if it's really dry and hot out West, it means we're going to have a really bad fire season. That's just facts. It's just physics.

AYANA: It's not just that Kendra sees that these things are coming and just sits and waits for them to arrive. She actually has taken a lot of steps personally to prepare. As someone who gets text messages from her over the last year or two, seeing how she takes steps based on this information to make sure that, that she's not caught unprepared when these things actually happen.

ALEX: And as I’m sure you know, Ayana, she’s on a mission to make sure that other people aren’t unprepared either.


ALEX: Including me, and so she set up this video call to try to get me to the prepared place where she is and, you know, she's a long time veteran reporter. She’s worked for the New York Times. And so when she sits down to talk to you, she doesn't start with softball questions. She just dove right in.

KENDRA PIERRE LOUIS: So do you have a disaster bag? 

ALEX: As my son says, a what now?


KENDRA: A disaster bag or preparedness kit.

ALEX: I have a backpack that has pens in it usually.

KENDRA: What would you do if there was a hurricane? 

ALEX: If I had to leave in a rush, I have nothing to grab. I would...I would just get my phone and my wallet and I mean my children first if they were here. I would get my family and then my phone in my wallet if I could, and then I would be out the door. But I don't...I don't have a bag. Is this what you are doing? You are calling up to shame me?


ALEX: And wait, should I be, like are you telling me that I need a disaster bag? Is this what the point of this call is?

KENDRA: I think you need a disaster bag. You need something that you can grab relatively quickly.   


KENDRA: Do you want to see my disaster bag? I'm actually petting it lovingly like it's an animal.


ALEX: Yes, let me see it. 

KENDRA: I can turn it around, so I can actually unzip it. I'm sure it's not as heavy as I’m making it sound.

ALEX: How heavy is it?

KENDRA: It's like 45 pounds. So inside, there's just stuff that you need to last a while, so you know so a spare outfit, a spare pair of glasses, because I have terrible vision, toiletries, my passport as a backup ID for in case I need to flee the country. 

ALEX: So you if you're...put yourself in the position where you're using this bag, what is happening all around you. Like describe the scene right now if this...if this bag… if you need to go get this bag. 

KENDRA: I'm generally imagining a scenario where it's going to be kind of a pretty epic hurricane, and it's going to happen during COVID. If this was a non-COVID year, I would have packed this bag differently. And I have some time to get out, but not a ton of time to get out. And I need to go some place where I can socially isolate. Right? So, like I might head up to my friends in Vermont or I might go, you know, West, depending on whether or not I have access to a vehicle. But I can't just, like, show up and turn up in their house and hang out in their living room. Right? Cause normally that's what you would do, but during Covid, that's not a great thing to do. So I’m assuming that if I have to evacuate I can't just crash on a friend's couch, but maybe I can set up a tent on their front lawn. So, I packed a tent, a sleeping bag, and perhaps most importantly your some cash. 


ALEX: How much emergency cash, if it's not too personal a question?

KENDRA: I can count. I have 50, 70, 90, 110, 130, 150, 170, 180. I'm down to 188 because I kept raiding it during Covid for take out money because I wasn't going to the ATMs. 

[Alex laughs]

I kind of want to have a thousand, which it sounds obscene.

ALEX: Oh my God.

KENDRA: But like the thing that I think about a lot is like when I lived in New York City during Sandy, I lived in an area that wasn't super heavily affected by Sandy. But the ATMs stopped working.

ALEX: Right.

KENDRA: Cause they literally ran out of money. It wasn't even that we didn't have the other issues, but the banks weren't refilling them and so, like getting the cash when I can get the cash, just seems to make the most sense.

ALEX: Right.

KENDRA: And then I have food. 

ALEX: And what do you have in there, what kind of food?

KENDRA: Marshmallows for a treat.


ALEX: It's all marshmallows. The entire bag is marshmallows.

KENDRA: Not just marshmallows. cinnamon churro marshmallows. These are like the golden Cadillac of marshmallows.


ALEX: Just because you're leaving Brooklyn doesn't mean you have to leave Brooklyn.

KENDRA: I technically live in Queens, Alex. I resent that comment. People in Queens know what a marshmallow is like. We have better food than Brooklyn for the record, and I will stand by that.

ALEX:  Clearly, judging by your go bag. Alright.

KENDRA:  Patagonia Salmon.

ALEX: Oh my God. This is the...


KENDRA: This is actually like...It’s kind of pricey, and I would eat it even if I wasn’t camping? 

ALEX: This is the most artisanal go bag I've ever seen. 

ALEX: How many days of food do you have?

KENDRA: So the official recommendation from Ready. gov is 72 hours. I have about a week's worth of food, 10 days.

ALEX: What else you got?

KENDRA: So the official recommendations are that you're supposed to have 72 hours worth of water with you. But like, how do you carry 72 hours worth of water? 

ALEX: Right.

KENDRA: So instead, I have three sort of – this pains me as a climate reporter it pains me – three bottles of like – what are they – 16.9 fluid ounces of water.

ALEX: Okay mm hmm. 

KENDRA: But then I also packed my they’re iodine pill like drops in there that purifies water. And then I have a water filter that's really good at purifying water, so I can refill on the go.

ALEX: Got it. Okay.

KENDRA:  It does have to be fresh water, but, you know, that's what the Bronx River is for.

[Alex laughs]

KENDRA:  And then stuff to cook. So this is a camp pot, a camp cup, a camp stove. You attach it to propane, and it sits on top, and then the pot sits right there, but yeah.

ALEX: That is a fossil fuel.

KENDRA: It is. I'm sorry.

ALEX: That’s alright.


KENDRA: But what I have on the other side that is not a fossil fuel is a solar panel. 


KENDRA: So I can charge my phone. 

ALEX: Oh my God. Does that really work? 

KENDRA: [Kendra laughs] Yeah.

ALEX: That's so cool. That's amazing. You literally have a solar panel in your to go bag. How long does it take to charge your phone with a solar panel? 

KENDRA: Like an hour or so to get it fully charged. It does depend on how sunny it is, but you can also use it while it's charging. So you don't have to get it fully charged. 

ALEX: That is amazing. So the scenario is the storm is here. How much time do you normally have to evacuate?

KENDRA: Yeah, so it depends on how good the storm tracking has been. One of the things that's been happening because of climate change is that there is an increasing number of storms where they they get way more intense at the last minute. So they thought it was like a Category one or Category two, and then it intensifies at the last minute and becomes a Category three, four or five. 

ALEX: Oh. 

KENDRA: So like that predictive capacity has gone down because the storms are behaving somewhat differently than they have traditionally. But the other thing to remember is that a category of a storm – one, two, three – it's just the wind speed. It's not the water, and water is the deadliest part of a hurricane. 

ALEX: Right. 

KENDRA: So a Category five matters only in the sense that like your property probably won't withstand it.

ALEX: Right.

KENDRA: Like so you need to leave because you can't...your property can't withstand it, but generally the truism is run from water, hide from wind. 

ALEX:  Wow. How does having this bag make you feel?

KENDRA: Ummm, better. It just makes me feel a little bit more in control, probably at a time when we're feeling wildly not in control. Just like knowing that if I have to leave, I can leave, and I'll have the things that I need pretty quickly makes me feel better. There are some things that like I probably should add. I don't have any coffee in there yet, which is a problem because I'm addicted to coffee. [Kendra laughs]

ALEX: That would be the first thing I'd put in. Literally coffee. Coffee, then my children's social security cards.


ALEX: This is good. This is making me want to do it. I have gone from being a person who didn't want to have a to go bag because, I don't know, for I think all the emotional reasons that people don't prepare go bags. They don't like living in the world where they’re a disaster refugee to think it through. But somehow talking with you about it turns it from this thing that like on some sort of emotional gut level, I just don't want to think about to something that I'm just sort of like it's a cool, interesting puzzle. Like what would I want to bring? If I had to bring something, what would I put it in this bag? And it sort of like turns it from something that feels like a depressing – I don't know –  thing to think about to a mental video game that you're trying to win, sort of. 


KENDRA: Yeah, I think for me thinking of it very much in the context of camping has made it a lot easier for me. 

ALEX: Yeah. 

KENDRA: With a little bit of zombie horror flick thrown in. [Kendra laughs]

ALEX: Right, if it was “Walking Dead”. What kind of a to go bag would I want if The Walking Dead was real. 

KENDRA: Yeah, in that case I should probably pack my hatchet.

ALEX: Right. Exactly. 



AYANA: So, that was very illuminating to listen to this conversation between the two of you.

ALEX: Thank you. We're all now the three of us together. Me, you, Ayana, and you, Kendra.

AYANA: Well, my main takeaway is that Kendra is extremely polite and let you get away with saying “to go bag” instead of go bag as if this is like takeout Chinese food,


as opposed to like a survival kit.

ALEX: I kept calling it a to go bag didn't I? To be clear, if it was to go, I would be completely covered. I would have nothing to worry about.


AYANA: I'd like a, excuse me, I’d like a to go bag. Could you just like express delivery? I'll give you an extra tip. Yeah, mmm hhh. Some soy sauce, double, double fortune cookies.


ALEX: That's right. Go bag. Noted

AYANA: So are you going to make one?

ALEX: I am going to make one. I'm going to make one, and I'm going to make it a big project with my family.

AYANA: Oh, that's fun. Well, I'm really glad you're going to make a go bag. And it's something I've been meaning to do also.

KENDRA: The fact that you guys are talking about making your go bags, is great. Because one of the things that I learned is that you shouldn't buy a premade preparedness kit or go bag. Because the thinking through of the process of making one is almost as important as the bag itself. So you're thinking about like what circumstance you'd use the bag under and what your contingency plans would be. 

ALEX: Right, that makes sense.

KENDRA: And you don't get that if you just go on Amazon and buy like a meals, you know, military rations and like an emergency blanket. [Kendra laughs]

ALEX: So besides making the go bag, though, is there anything else that we should be thinking about?

KENDRA: So yeah, so there is one really important thing to mention. I learned about it from Samantha Montano. She's an assistant professor of emergency management at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, but she tends to call herself a disasterologist.


ALEX: Uh huh.

AYANA: A disasterologist…

KENDRA: And she's like. She's like, definitely, yeah, pack a go bag. It's a good thing. But that like your go bag is your first step. 

ALEX: Yeah.

KENDRA: So you know the lesson that Christine learned in Puerto Rico and going through Hurricane Maria.

ALEX: Right, the Hunger Games lesson that it's harder to survive on your own.

KENDRA: Yes. Um, so dr. Samantha Montano, the disasterologist, she says research backs that up.

SAMANTHA MONTANO: There's like a saying in a disaster research that one of the best things you can do to prepare for disaster is to bring your neighbors a basket of muffins.

KENDRA: But what if I hate my neighbors. 


SAMANTHA: That's not good. You know what. Making amends, making amends with your neighbor might be a good thing to do. It's kind of a joke, but it's getting at this really important point about social networks and, how social networks can be leveraged during times of disaster. 

KENDRA: For example, afteran earthquake or a windstorm like the one that happened in Iowa, it's your family or your neighbors that are going to be the first ones on scene to dig you out. And that extends to your online networks too. I don’t know if you all were paying attention during Harvey in 2017. Harvey was this incredibly slow moving storm, and just like Hurricane Maria, was incredibly wet. It dumped something like 127 billion tons of water on Texas.



KENDRA: And watching the storm track was bizarre because it like went out and everyone like kind of had this breath of release and then it came back on shore and it was just endless water. It just wouldn't stop raining. And so these people who thought they'd like survived the hurricane ended up stuck in their homes ss the water was just slowly like going higher and higher and higher. And they didn't order evacuations, and emergency 911 was overwhelmed. And so there were all of these sort of like informal community groups that took over, and they were using social media as a huge part of that. So people would tweet like I'm at this location and the water's up to my third floor. I'm at this location and I'm on my roof. Can you come get me? And then all of these, like the Cajun Navy is one group, all of these volunteer rescuers really informally we're going out and rescuing people. There was an app that you could use where like people could act as impromptu dispatchers from really far away.

ALEX: Wow.


KENDRA: To kind of coordinate efforts because official emergency management channels were just so overwhelmed that that was the only way people could get help.

AYANA: So your disaster bag is not enough in this context for sure? Right?

KENDRA: No, I mean, we joked that your Twitter following actually might save your life, [Kendra laughs] which is a really grim thing to think about, but yeah. 

ALEX: Right, so you have to think about yourself and just your individual needs – what you need in your individual bag – but also about who is around you.

AYANA: Your community.

ALEX: Yeah.

KENDRA: Yeah, and it's a huge part because you know, one of the biggest questions that often happens with hurricanes in particular is why don't people evacuate? And a main reason why people don't evacuate is because they don't own a car.

ALEX: Right. 

KENDRA: So if you don't own a car or if you have a car and you can't afford to put gas in it, or you have whowhere to go because you can't afford a hotel room, you're less likely to evacuate.

AYANA: Or you don't have people nearby to stay with or all your people are also evacuating cause they're your neighbors.

ALEX: So if you do want a car, you want to sorta want to find out the people around you who don't. And if you don't have a car, you want to find out the people around you who do.

KENDRA: And who has space in their car. Right? Because you know, Alex, you have a family.


ALEX: That's right. We could fit one more person. 

AYANA: I would happily sit in the back seat in the middle between your two kids. They’re very cool. 

ALEX: And what strikes me as we talk about this, Kendra, is that a lot of times, what predicts how bad the disaster is how prepared people are for it. It's less about how bad the actual weather is and more about just sort of how prepared people were and how they acted in response to it.

KENDRA: Yeah, that's why a lot of disaster experts like Dr. Montano avoid the term natural disaster.

ALEX: Avoid the term natural disaster entirely.

KENDRA: Yeah, they like to say natural hazard if you're talking about a hurricane or, tornado, but they don't like the term natural disaster because it, it kind of skips past the fact that humans are kind of responsible based on where we build our homes or our behaviors into turning that into a disaster. If a hurricane hits a beach that nobody lives on, it's just weather. 

ALEX: Right. 

KENDRA: It doesn't matter how big or catastrophic that storm is. It's just weather.

ALEX: Right, the thing that makes the nature, the disaster is human beings and where we've built and what we're doing there. 

AYANA: Right. 

ALEX: And so if we accept that these natural hazards are increasingly a part of our lives, then we need to organize our lives around them.


AYANA: And that brings us back to Christine Nieves Rodriguez in Puerto Rico. I promised we'd come back to her at the end of this episode, and that’s because of the importance of what she is doing now. Christine is leading her community in preparing for future extreme weather events so that they won’t always mean extreme disaster. After experiencing the completely insufficient government response to Hurricane Maria, they started building their own disaster response plan beginning with a map of the area’s resources.

CHRISTINE: We said, “Well, what we need to do is we need to know where everyone lives that is sort of more vulnerable.” So that's when we started creating a essentially a community emergency mapping. I remember every single party or festival like after the hurricane, every single, every time there was something that would bring people together, we had a huge map on top of several tables, and people would come over with little flags that had different information identified, and they would say, “Okay, this road has a very… it's, you know, very dangerous when there's...because it floods,” or like, “This person needs additional help.” But then also know where are the things that were assets like whose house has solar energy or where are the kitchens or where are the bodies of water? With this plan, we could go to the agencies and say, “This is how you do your job in relationship to us. This is what we need. Don't bring us bottled water because we have water filtering towers here. If you bring water, will just create waste for us. What we need is X, Y, or Z.” 

A friend, a reporter who came over early on and started asking me questions, you know, what were we envisioning out of this? And not knowing what I was saying, because honestly there's no way I could have known, I said, This is not a disaster relief or disaster response operation. This is a community, re-designing, rebuilding, redeveloping on its own terms. And we can do this.We can build differently.”


ALEX: Right now, there are not nearly as many people as there should be thinking about how to build differently. There are relatively few Kendras and Chrstines, who know they have to prepare for what will happen in the future because of what they see now. And unfortunately, there are lots of people like me, pretending like maybe physics won’t work this time. That hotter oceans won’t make more hurricanes, melting ice caps won’t raise sea levels, and hotter drier climates won’t lead to more wildfires. So, I’m calling on those of us like me

AYANA: And me.

ALEX: We should stop doing this, and instead prepare for the world that we already know is here. 

AYANA: Yeah, it’s a sobering new reality that we’re living in. And to prepare for this brave new world, we have some concrete recommendations for you. What you can do as an individual, as a family, and with your community. 

ALEX: And just one note, there’s a big part of this equation that we haven’t talked about in this episode, which is what kind of disaster preparedness should be happening on a even higher level – the state or the federal level. And of course there is a lot that should be happening at those levels that a lot of smart people feel like is not happening.We are definitely going to be talking about that in future episodes of How to Save a Planet.


For now, here are our recommendations for you and your community from our very own in-house disaster expert, Kendra Pierre Louis. 

KENDRA: Thanks, Alex. So, everything I'm going to say will be in the episode notes. One of the first things you can do is pack a go bag. If you go to, they will have tips on what to pack, but remember that it's a guide and not an all encompassing list.  So there are things on there that you may not need, so don't pack them. And there are things that aren't on there that you might need. So it's really about thinking through what you will need in a disaster, which is why, according to Dr. Montana, it is so important to build your own disaster bag rather than sort of buying one of those pre- built preparedness kits you can find online. It's not just what you put in the bag that matters but the whole process and thinking through it, and the contingency plans that you develop while building that bag. 

Speaking of contingency plans that's the second thing you can do. You should check out for some help in thinking through your disaster preparedness plans.  And if you have children helps you incorporate your whole family into your preparation. And that's really important because kids will be going through these disasters too.

Once you have your go bag and your plan, you should also check out your home. Is your home prepared for the hazard that it’s likely to face? If you're in fire country, have you removed shrubs and plants to create defensible space so firefighters are able to protect your home? If you're in an area that's prone to flooding, have you installed sewer backflow valves to make sure that during a flood event, this sewer doesn't backflow into your home.

And we are only as strong as your community. Is there something that you can do to help make your church or your community center more prepared? FEMA actually has an entire guide for protecting your congregation. And if you want to go even further consider getting community emergency response team or cert training. Really hold your local government sort of accountable for helping you through a disaster.

All of these details will be on our website and in our newsletter. So sign up at

ALEX: Thank you Kendra, and one more reminder / plug. You can check out Christine’s essay in the book my co-host, Ayana, co-edited called “All We Can Save”. It i s available for pre-order right now. Christine’s essay is called “Community is Ou r Best Chance”. And if you get that book, there is a special bonus, Kendra Pierre Louis also has an essay. It’s called “Wakanda Doesn’t Have Suburbs”, and when I read it, I remember thinking like this essay sort of perfectly encapsulates the ethos of this entire podcast what we’re trying to do here. It’s really fantastic, and so check out the book. Over 40 essays. It is well worth your time.

AYANA: Thanks Alex, and let’s kick it back to Kendra to take us home with the credits. 



How to Save a Planet is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. You can follow us at how2saveaplanet with the number two on Twitter and Instagram, and email us at 

How to Save a Planet is hosted by Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Alex Blumberg. Our reporters and producers are Rachel Waldholz, Anna Ladd, and me, Kendra Pierre-Louis. Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney. Sound design, mixing and original music by Emma Munger, with additional music by Bobby Lord and Catherine Anderson. Our fact checker this episode is Claudia Geib. And thanks for listening. We’ll see you next week!


More Episodes