Bicycles in Disasters

In the days or even weeks after a major disaster, the government isn’t going to help you. I say this as a longtime government emergency manager. Whatever happens, you’ll need to fend for yourself at first.

People living in rural areas have always known this, and urban dwellers are beginning to understand it again in the wake of 9/11 and Katrina. Large disasters are becoming more common. At the same time, we continue to increase our reliance on fragile public infrastructure like cell towers, natural gas lines, electricity and gasoline. And in our current economy, there are barely enough police and firefighters to answer daily calls for service in most cities. Independent disaster response is paramount.

Emergency planners, professional and amateur alike, are starting to figure out that bicycles can—and need to—be an integral part of disaster preparedness and response.

Simply owning a bike and using it regularly increases your ability to deal with any kind of disaster.

By riding a bike, there’s a good chance you are fit and healthy, prepared for physical and mental challenges and able to recover more quickly from injuries. Daily bike riders learn how to manage unusual circumstances, like improvising a way to carry a large load or using found objects for a roadside repair. Being able to think outside of the box is an important skill to have after a disaster.

A person can cover considerable distances by bicycle even when roads are closed to cars and mass transit. When roads begin to open, bikes still have the advantage since congestion and traffic jams are common after disasters. Plus, gasoline might be expensive or unavailable.

Best of all, daily cyclists tend to build community with like-minded souls. It is community that gets people through disasters when the government is busy elsewhere. The camaraderie from riding every day in every kind of weather binds people on bikes together through conversations about equipment, route tips, and stories of close calls with cars. When we read bike blogs, attend cycling events, and join in group rides, we expand our social circles. When worse comes to worse, having neighbors and friends that you trust and care about will serve you better than the three days of food and water and ten rolls of plastic sheeting you’ve been stockpiling in your now-flooded basement.

Alone, survival can be a scary prospect. But together, we can transform the outcome of a major disaster for the positive.

My advice to a cyclist who wants to be prepared for a disaster is this: make a plan!
Educate yourself about the natural and technological hazards that exist in your community, so you know what disasters you might face. Talk with friends and family about what you plan to do and where you plan to go after a disaster. Pack a bag and

Think like a cycle tourist
Have an evacuation plan that describes where you will go and what route you will take. Have several ‘contingency’ routes and destinations just in case. Take some camping trips with a fully loaded bike to get familiar with those routes. Think about where you will find food, water, and shelter. Learn basic maintenance and get the tools you need so your bike won’t let you down in a pinch. Experience will help you make good gear choices and give you confidence to leave when you need to leave instead of hesitating.

Pack a bag
Put together a “go bag” in case you need to leave by bike in a hurry (it might also come in handy for last-minute vacations). For your bicycle this should include tubes, a patch kit, zip ties, a multi-tool, pump, and lights. In general, pack as though you were going on a bike tour. Prepare evacuation-specific items as well: prescription medications, extra ID, important personal papers like bank account numbers and the deed to your house or your rental contract, insurance information, contact information for out-of-area friends and relatives, and cash.

Understand your capabilities
A large part of disaster preparedness is mental. Know your limits as a cyclist and let them inform your planning. If your plan requires you to ride from Portland to Boise but you rarely ride more than 20 miles at a time, you might find yourself in trouble when the time comes to put your plan into action.

Be flexible
The best plan is worthless if the underlying assumptions change. That might mean that the best course of action doesn’t include your bike. Pay attention to your surroundings, remain calm, and be responsible for yourself. Don’t hesitate to ask questions. Use all the tools that you have at your disposal. Keep looking for solutions.

Build community
Most important, build and support a cycling community. Whether you use your bikes to get out of dodge or to get around the rubble and deliver supplies, a group of people working together will be more successful than any individual on their own.

This post can also be found in Disaster! Taking the Lane Volume 9 which is available as of February 27, 2013 and can be purchased here for $5!