When I first spoke to Luna Mohammad in June of 2020, we were still in the relatively early days of shelter-in-place, full-on disaster mode. At the time, she was in the relatively early days of crafting Monterey County’s Community Resilience Plan, a document meant to go deeper than just emergency preparedness and response, but the coping and recovery meant to help people return to normal in the wake of disasters.
Now, it’s 16 months later and we’re still in a global pandemic and nothing feels quite “normal,” and Mohammad’s draft plan, which, clocking in at 102 pages with a seven-page list of references, reads less like a disaster response plan and more like a guide to create a healthy, vibrant community. It turns out the things that make us the most resilient in the wake of disasters are also the things that make our neighborhoods good places to live: Things like safe housing conditions and good mental health care enable better, faster resilience after emergencies.
“The best time to look at community resilience is when we’re looking at a disaster,” Mohammad said last year. “It magnifies our vulnerabilities and our opportunities. Every disaster magnifies all of our strengths and weaknesses.”
The draft plan offers a blueprint for how to address those weaknesses. Some suggestions are concrete and relatively easy to implement, such as Monterey County’s Office of Emergency Services holding regular office hours (this will start, via Zoom, in December), creating a medical reserve corps and improving the county’s evacuation zone system. Currently, the zone that corresponds to your address changes depending on the disaster; a proposed new map would include fixed zones, so you can look up your address and memorize it (the zones as proposed are awaiting final approval, and you can still provide public comment).
Some are more abstract, such as working with faith leaders as conduits for communication during emergencies or improving cell coverage – a heavy lift that requires multiple agencies and private industry to achieve.
Then there are the deeper, structural issues – the underlying inequities that were always there and that Covid laid bare and that every disaster, whether it’s a fire, flood or earthquake, reveals.
“Disasters often work as microscopes, exacerbating the adversities that already exist within a community. On an individual level, those who already lack the social, physical, material and economic support to manage their everyday lives are often the ones most vulnerable to the extra adversities that disasters bring. On a community level, disasters can worsen issues such as homelessness, poverty and discrimination that were already present… Housing conditions are deeply intertwined with disaster outcomes.”
I did not expect a plan by a disaster coordinator to be yet another indictment of Monterey County’s housing crisis, but there it is.
The draft resilience plan does not begin to propose a fix for the deeper structural and socioeconomic issues, and Mohammad does not purport to be offering solutions. But she thinks it’s important for the plan to at least acknowledge they exist.
“We know every social problem we have is going to grow with every disaster, and climate change is going to ensure we see more disasters more frequently,” she says. “We have to, at a minimum, know our issues. There are issues we can’t solve. But there are issues where we can take baby steps. The hope is to note those big issues and take whatever steps we can.”
Part of what county emergency planners know about those big issues comes from a survey that received surprisingly low response; Mohammad hoped for at least 4,000 responses, but received just 324 in a 15-month period, not enough to be statistically significant. Per that small sample size, it all comes back to housing, with 59 percent of respondents citing cost and availability of housing as “the top area needing improvement.” (You can still take the survey, and comment on the draft plan, online.)
The draft plan is available for comment until 10am Thursday, Oct. 27, when the Monterey County Disaster Council meets to discuss it, and likely to recommend adoption.