Drawing of a toolbox. Inside the box are five people, a hammer, wrench, book, heart, and water flask
©Aaron Titus (2017), reprinted with permission.

Elegant Community Preparation

Are preparation trainings simple or elegant? Simplicity and elegance may seem similar, but they handle complexity differently. Simple solutions place a burden on the end user. In contrast, elegant solutions internalize complexity away from the end user. For example, compare a telegraph with a telephone. A telegraph is a simple circuit over a wire, yet using a telegraph is complex because users must know Morse code. Users can only communicate one-on-one within a certain distance. Telegraphs have no voicemail. The telegraph may be simple, but using it is complex.

In contrast, a telephone is elegant. Using a 12-number dial pad, users can talk with almost anyone across the globe. However, the systems that run telephone exchanges are exceedingly complex. Because they internalize complexity, the phone is elegant. Other examples of externalizing complexity (simple) versus internalizing it (elegant) include:

  • A hand saw versus a chainsaw,
  • A mid-nineties GeoCities website versus a modern search engine, and
  • Pencil and paper versus a calculator.

The Complexity of Preparation

Too often, preparation is taught simply, which overwhelms students. Small differences between neighbors in family situations, health, pets, etc. require radically different solutions. There are more ways to prepare than there are atoms in the universe. Many studies, including one published in 2019 by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, acknowledge that communities often are not fully prepared. After decades of work, preparation remains complex because communities frequently use simple instead of elegant solutions. However, I propose a simple process that can internalize the complexity and make preparation elegant.

To begin the process, group preparation factors into three categories: preference, familiar, and novel factors.

Preference Factors

Preference factors are subjective qualities of individuals, families, and communities. They are not objectively measurable, and experts cannot account for them when teaching others. For example, indoor plumbing might be optional for someone, while access to high-speed internet is non-negotiable. Preference factors include:

  • Risk tolerance,
  • Degree of comfort required,
  • Priority of resilience, and
  • Problem-solving style.
Familiar Factors

Familiar factors are objective aspects of a person’s daily experience. These can be so familiar that they may be second nature or common knowledge, such as a person’s native language, nationality, family size, health, and living conditions. For example, familiar factors for an elderly Spanish-speaking widow in poor health, living on the 34th floor of a Manhattan apartment building with a small dog, would have a considerable effect on how she prepares. A young family living in a suburb prepares very differently. However, familiar factors are so second nature that a person does not need to think about them consciously. Experts who try to account for familiar factors risk coming across as condescending. Familiar factors include:

  • Environment, location, and geopolitical conditions;
  • Cultural and religious influences;
  • Baseline access to resources;
  • Living situations and conditions;
  • Health;
  • Season-specific needs;
  • Coping strategies and solutions; and
  • Likelihood of a disaster occurring.
Novel Factors

Novel factors, such as disaster type and extent, are also objective but not a part of daily experience. For example, a tornado has objective attributes, such as wind speed and scope of damage. However, because most people do not encounter tornadoes regularly, they are not familiar enough to intuitively understand their power, nor how these factors should influence their preparation. Consequently, factors like the type, extent, and duration of a disaster are novel. Because of their unfamiliar nature, novel factors may cause more fear, uncertainty, and doubt than preference or familiar factors. Novel factors include:

  • Type of disaster,
  • Extent of disaster,
  • Disruptions to resources,
  • Duration of disruptions, and
  • Motivation to act.

A minor change in preference, familiar, and novel factors can completely change a person’s preparedness strategies. With countless combinations of these factors, preparation can be extremely complex, with each person preparing differently.

Some current practices of high-level principles may be too abstract to be actionable, checklists can be overwhelming, and hazard-specific preparation continues endlessly. Doomsday preparation may create more heat than light. It is well-documented that too much focus on disasters can have adverse effects that make people question what to do and how to react when a disaster occurs. An elegant approach offers individuals and communities the tools to solve problems and organize what they already know, thus overcoming the preparedness overload.

Tools to Help Prepare for Everything

Preparing for everything can be broken into two components: First, prepare for disruptions, rather than disasters. Second, prepare together as communities.

Social connections are more important to both survivability and resilience than any other single factor. In July 1995, a short but intense heat wave crippled Chicago; 739 people died in Chicago’s deadliest event in history. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg analyzed who died and why. Latinos, who made up 25 percent of the city’s population, represented only two percent of the fatalities. Because this group tended to be poorer and sicker than the general population, sociologists expected they would fare worse than average, not better. Instead, their Black and white counterparts died at much higher rates.

With apologies to Eric Klinenberg for simplifying his ground-breaking research, people with better social connections fared better. Researchers found that the Latino community has a culture of strong family values, vibrant public spaces, and a lively commercial street life. This culture promoted social and family ties, which meant that fewer elderly Latino residents were forgotten.

In contrast, other groups’ social ties were not as solid. Elderly residents who lived in thinned-out neighborhoods with little street life were less able to maintain family and social connections.

Even in the most vulnerable communities, most people do not need experts to help them meet their daily needs or navigate their daily lives: 0.2% of the U.S. population is homeless; 11% are food insecure; and less than 3% need rental assistance. These numbers are, of course, serious. But they also mean that the majority of the population are preparation experts because they know how to meet their daily needs and are already doing so. They are more likely to lack a way to organize what they already know, which can have life-threatening effects when a novel factor is introduced.

Community leaders accustomed to creating lectures, programs, and pamphlets must first realize that residents are experts on their own communities and capacities. Instead of experts telling them what to do, facilitators could help create a collaborative learning environment of mutual respect to prepare for “disruptions,” which in turn prepares them for any disaster.

Facilitators would facilitate discussions rather than lectures because participants can account for their own familiar and preference factors. That leaves the novel factors, including the type and extent of disaster, resource disruptions, and motivation to act. Converting disasters into disruptions neutralizes the fear, uncertainty, and doubt of novel factors. Table one illustrates various disasters and the disruptions they are likely to cause. Please note that each “X” is illustrative and is not meant to be definitive. The reader may add or subtract Xs as they feel comfortable.

Table 1. Disruptions caused by various disasters, emergencies, and stresses (Source: Aaron Titus, 2024).

The left column of Table 1 contains two novel factors, an abbreviated list of disasters (i.e., type of disaster) grouped by external regional, external local, and personal and family (i.e., extent). The top row includes another novel factor: disruptions to resources (or basic human needs). The grid indicates that some disasters, like chronic illnesses, would probably not disrupt shelter. Others, like a flood, can cause disruptions across the board.

Individuals have little control over most disasters, or they would ensure bad things never happen. However, translating disasters into disruptions can transform the fear, uncertainty, and doubt of disasters into a tool of empowerment. For example, turn Table 1 ninety degrees so the disruptions are on the side, and the disasters are on the top. Reading the grid this way, it is apparent that preparing for a power outage partially prepares for house fires, floods, tornados, ice storms, hurricanes, and earthquakes. Likewise, preparing for a disruption to emotional and spiritual needs partially prepares for many of the disasters on the list. Preparing for a few disruptions can prepare someone for any disaster. Unlike disasters, individuals have considerable power over how they respond to the disruptions they cause. This change in perspective (or simply rotating the table) motivates residents to leave negative novel factors behind and act.

That leaves just two novel factors: disruptions to resources and duration of disruptions, which Table 2 addresses. This example of a facilitator worksheet can help residents brainstorm coping strategies and solutions.

Table 2. Brainstorm coping strategies and solutions as a community (Source: Aaron Titus, 2024).

Prepare Together

Elegant community preparation involves preparing together. Based on more than 100 years of disaster sociology, social connections are more important to survivability and resilience than 72-hour kits or working infrastructure. Preparing together is an act of resilience. Learning from one another and strengthening community connections, rather than listening to a lecture, is an indispensable component of preparation:

  • Gather a community group, friends, or family.
  • Facilitate a discussion where participants brainstorm solutions for each disruption.
  • As others share ideas, have participants write down strategies that work for them; ignore ideas that do not work.
  • Do not lecture.

Preparing together offers communities appropriate solutions, stronger relationships, and a more complete plan. The approach can work within any community – in cities, suburbs, rural communities, mountain towns, etc. Communities should prepare for disruptions together to elegantly prepare for everything. Equally important, they should analyze other programs and ask: Are they simple or elegant?

Aaron Titus

Aaron Titus is the executive director for Crisis Cleanup. This disaster relief collaboration platform has documented $1.8 billion of volunteer service by 2,600 organizations after more than 230 disasters in 48 states and 7 countries. He is the past president of Mountain West Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (VOAD), a 13-state coalition of relief organizations, the founding chair of the Boulder County Long Term Recovery Group (Marshall ROC), serves as the co-chair of Boulder County VOAD and serves as an officer in Colorado VOAD. Aaron is the author of “How to Prepare for Everything” and facilitates workshops across the country. Aaron received his J.D. from the George Washington School of Law and his undergraduate in Architecture from the University of Utah.

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