The Value of Human Relationships in a Grid-Down or Survival Event, by J.C.

There is an often-overlooked type of disaster preparation, which everyone can make a regular part of their lives, that has the following characteristics:

It costs nothing, except time. It can reap benefits every week, year in and year out. It comes in really handy in a grid-down or other scarce-resource event, and it helps the prepper out in unexpected ways and pays dividends when you least expect it.

I am talking about human capital– the network of relationships we form in our community with those public servants and elected officials that may, in the future, have interactions with us during a survival situation. There are many kinds of networks that can be exploited this way. They include elected officials, public works department employees, judges, law enforcement personnel, and utility workers. Relationships with these types of people at the town, county, and state levels can prove to be very valuable in a disaster event.

Strategies to form these relationships take many forms. For example, I have made it my practice to get to know the public service workers, both major decision-makers (department heads) and also those at the worker level, in my home town, county, and even at my state level. During my occasional interactions with the various levels of government, I have made a real effort to get to know them. One way to accomplish this is to pay my property taxes in person and strike up small conversations with the clerks in the office. I’m not asking for favors, not complaining about the high rate of taxation, but I’m just making sympathetic chatter, really.

Another strategy is to visit the public works garage or depot for your area and make it clear you have a question on behalf of an elderly neighbor. Maybe it is a clogged storm drain the neighbor is concerned about or leaf bags that you are picking up for the neighbor so that they don’t have to drive over themselves. You win twice this way; you do a good turn for your neighbor AND you form a relationship with the public works guys.

Several times a year, our community conducts open houses– a “National Night Out” or other type of public event. The local police, fire, and ambulance services usually have a booth or table at the event, so I am sure to stop by, ask a question, and make a positive impression.

I attend town council meetings a few times a year and know most of our council members by first name. I also get to know the housing, fire, and health inspectors, not just in my town but in my county, too.

I belong to a business chamber of commerce organization, which employees can join, not just business owners, and I make sure to attend a mixer every few months or so. My goal is to have my name and face become “slightly familiar” to the authorities, in a positive format.

From time to time I volunteer to serve on my community’s civic boards, such as the school system’s education foundation. Who cannot respect a citizen that raises donations for the school children?

Leaving positive impressions with these people has many benefits:

First, in everyday life, events happen where a little courtesy on the part of an official smooths my way and helps make everyday chores easier. Examples include the time the fire inspector wanted me to add an additional smoke detector in the home I was selling, and he took my word that I would install it later that day instead of forcing me to get a re-inspection that costs an additional charge. Also, there was the time I got some advice from a Superior Court judge on how best to approach the prosecutor about a minor traffic violation. Another time the street sweeper made an extra pass down my block because I reported the sweeper’s omission in a positive (not snarky) way.

Another “dividend” that I accrued related to police services not normally given to the general public. When I wanted to apply for a concealed carry permit, I needed to send in a fingerprint card. Our local police do not normally perform that service, preferring to direct the public to “official vendors” that require payment, appointments, and the inconvenience of driving to an office complex on the other side of the county. In my case, I paid a visit to the clerk at our police station, who knew that I had been appointed by the mayor to serve on the town’s all-volunteer Economic Development Commission. She asked a detective to take five minutes of his time to help me, and presto, I was fingerprinted without a fee or appointment!

Second, during a disaster or SHTF event, that’s when the relationships you form may become most valuable. Consider a local or regional weather event that leads to a grid-down condition. Perhaps a hurricane or snowstorm has downed power lines. Perhaps a fire has caused the shutdown of power generating plants or substations feeding the grid. In this event, local commu are likely to be severely limited or non-existent. Even if there is a television or radio broadcast from a nearby major city that you are able to hear or see (by way of your battery-powered radio or generator-powered television), there is likely to be no usable local information. Which streets are closed? What areas are affected? Are there governmental or local organizational relief efforts being staged for certain neighborhoods? The national or regional news networks and broadcasters will likely not have that information.

However, a local or county government emergency response is likely to be in place and operational to some degree. In this situation, the local officials will be more apt to have detailed information on the locations of shelters, the status of relief efforts, and so on. You are more likely to hear that information from your contacts in the government offices you have been cultivating, if you are perceived as a sober, mature community supporter. In fact, word of mouth from these officials might make the difference between you being at the food or water distribution point in the right place at the right time, or missing the relief workers and their supplies. Supplies in the earliest days of an event are usually very limited. Those who wait for radio announcements frequently arrive at the distribution points after supplies have been exhausted.

During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, I put these strategies to good use to make sure my friends and family were well-cared for and able to minimize the inconvenience from the 11 days without power in our neighborhood. I learned from a neighbor, who was a member of our town’s elected board of education, that a fire house in our neighborhood had been designated a water distribution point for citizens that had been flooded out, or lost power to operate well pumps. I was able to discover the times, protocols, and quantities of supplies available– information that was not publicized anywhere in the media that was operating. This information was not available through any media– not the national news outlets on TV, not the radio station broadcasting from the large metropolitan city 45 miles to the north, not even the “state” radio station, nor the “local” radio station broadcasting from the county seat a mere six miles from our town. I was able to contact family members and friends that needed the water with the information that made their life easier.

Similarly, when a church nearby set up a collection point for donations to assist the flood victims, the way I learned about it was from a member of a local political organization that was responsible for the elections in our county. Because it was a “private relief effort”, there was no official way the information was publicized initially.

I then used the information about the water distribution to pick up cases of bottled water that I kept in my vehicle. I am a real estate broker, and I needed to check on rental and commercial investment properties that we manage for out-of-state landlords throughout the towns affected by the storm. During the storm, and in the weeks and months following, the local police and Emergency Management personnel blocked off access to neighborhoods affected by flood waters. If I needed access to those neighborhoods for business, I usually drove up to the officers manning the roadblocks, broke the ice by offering them a bottle of water, and explained my reason for requesting passage into the area. Officers tasked with manning roadblocks for an entire shift usually run out of beverages sooner than planned. Sometimes, stores are not open nearby to go to during a break from their post.

In all cases, I was waived through the roadblock. A small courtesy and a “vaguely familiar face” smoothed the way to allow me to get my clients’ needs served during a disaster scenario. Presenting the appearance of a helpful professional frequently pays dividends. One can easily imagine this strategy paying off in a snow emergency or other natural disasters.

I am not trying to give the impression that my strategy will get you off the hook after you commit some egregious violation or cause some problem. Nor should you expect favors from the police or emergency workers that run counter to the law. Frequently, though, during times of uncertainty and stress, such as riots, disasters and such, an officer has discretion that may be of a benefit to you and your needs. In such cases, the cultivation of these relationships may make the difference between your needs being met and your request being declined. The goal of the building of these relationships should be for you to be perceived as a community asset– an “insider” if you will– and not to be perceived as a problem. If you frequent town council meetings to rail publicly against the policeman’s pay, the mayor’s perks, and the salary of the public works staff, then you can forget about any sympathetic benefit from them when the SHTF. By all means, if you feel that way, and want to do something about it, be sure to vote for the candidate that wants to cut needless public programs and slash bloated salaries. Just don’t announce how you voted at the town council meetings!