Archive for September 2nd, 2008

Sharon Astyk Adapts In Place: An Expose'

Sharon September 2nd, 2008

This is a guest post by writer Mynda Ubis-Ness, a lead reporter from the Canadian Environmental Magazine “Salacious Green.”  Mynda writes “I asked Astyk for an interview about her newly released (on store shelves today) book, but it became very clear shortly after I arrived at her farm that there was a much bigger story here – she’s not really what dozens of readers have come to believe she is.  The public has a right to know how she’s misleading us!”

Contacted to defend herself against these allegations, Astyk replied, “Ummm….”

Mynda: May I call you Sharon?

Sharon: Of course – everyone does. 

Mynda: Sharon, your writings make you seem to have it all. You have the perfect, dream homestead.  A supportive family.  A brilliant, loving husband.  Four beautiful children.  Delicious, homegrown food.  You homeschool, farm and write, as well as preparing for peak oil and climate change.  And yet, the reality is a little different than the perceptions, right?

Sharon: Of course it is – we’re normal people, in fact, on the lazy side a lot of the time.  You saw the three foot weeds in the “perennial garden” on the way in, right?  Want to see the seedlings that the goats got at?  The perfect children are out there whining at the brilliant husband, who is snapping at them because he’s trying to get a field scythed and keeps stopping to take people to the potty and get them glasses of water.  And as soon as I’m done with you, I will go clean the goat and chicken poop off the milking stand. It isn’t very Martha Stewart.

Mynda: Yes, I was surprised, nay, shocked, to find that the house doesn’t seem to be the paradise I’d imagined it to be.  Don’t you think it is unfair to other people, especially women, that you make it seem so easy, let them think that you are the sustainable Martha,  when in fact, this place is…dare I say…kind of a dump.  I mean look at those rolls of rusty fencing, and the firewood that hasn’t been stacked.  There’s chicken poop on the walkway and do I hear those children *complaining* about egg collection?  I thought they loved to do their chores.

Sharon: Well, we’re rather fond of our dump, but yes, you could say that.  I keep meaning to get the fencing put away.  And sometimes the kids do like to do their chores, but sometimes they don’t want to, and we make them do them anyway.  But I never claimed I was a perfect housekeeper, or mother – in fact, I keep saying I’m not.

Mynda: But you must admit, others take your protests to be merely polite form – but I look around and think “I’ve never seen a cobweb that big.”

Sharon: We always say “It isn’t just a home, it is an ecosystem.” 

Mynda: And you do claim, don’t you, that you mostly eat local and homegrown food.  But looking in your refrigerator (she opens fridge door) – look here, I see mustard from France, limes, and…what’s this?  (Mynda opens chest freezer) – I am shocked!  Shocked and appalled!  Popsicles.  Not organic, local juice popsicles.  But artificially flavored and colored popsicles.  Oh, and are you claiming that wasabi peas are locally produced?!

Sharon (weakly) Well, the french mustard was a presesnt from a friend of mine who went to France.  And yes, there are the popsicles – I know we should make them from local juices, but well…sometimes there isn’t time.  And umm…the wasabi peas are from (she sneaks a look at the package) umm…Virgina, which means they aren’t that non-local…  We try to keep our junk levels down to a minimum, but we do allow ourselves about 5% of our food purchases to be non-local and non-sustainable.

On the other hand, this corn is corn I dehydrated.  And look, over here – see the beets?  And the jars of pickles….

Mynda: About those pickles – you are a food storage and preservation expert, are you not? 

Sharon: Well, I’m writing a book about it, and I do teach classes, but there are still things I’m learning myself.  Why?

Mynda: Aren’t there supposed to be labels on the jars?  Didn’t you write something about demons gnawing your entrails if people don’t label *before* the date on these jar lids.

Sharon: Ummm….

Mynda: Moving on. Let us see your emergency evacuation bags.  You have written about those, I think?

Sharon: Yes, here they are, hanging on the hooks in the closet.  Well, all but Isaiah’s, since he was pretending to go down the Oregon Trail with his – I think it is up in his room – somewhere. 

Mynda: May I look inside?  Hmmm…jacknife, food, water, directions, photocopies of ID, matches….very nice.  (She opens another bag)  I was led to believe that your youngest child was 3, no?  Is that not him out there, a very tall, solid young boy, nearly as big as his 4 year old brother? 

Sharon: Yes, of course, that’s Asher.

Mynda: Then why are the clothes in this bag for a 12 month sized infant, please? 

Sharon: Ummm….yes, updating the emergency bags has been on my list for a bit now. 

Mynda: Moving on.  You advise everyone to have concise, written records of what they’ve done, what and where they plant, and everything they’ve done.  Can I see your records?

Sharon: Well…some of them are here ( after rummaging for a while, she hands over a sheaf of crumpled papers marred by a spill that appears to be grape juice)

Mynda: Let’s see, a garden plan from two years ago, a picture of an alien drawn by Simon, two old grocery lists, the immunization records of a cat from 1997 (is this cat even still alive?), an inventory of canned goods, and a doodled picture of a gentleman’s…Good gad…that can’t be your husband – no one is that…!?

Sharon (turning bright red and very much on her dignity) “That, Mynda, is actually a picture of a projected possible peak in natural gas and oil futures.”

Mynda: (skeptical) – Of course it is…well… this is a family magazine.  Regardless, these records seem incomplete.  As well as a bit disorganized.  Where are the rest of them?

Sharon: Well, uh…upstairs, I think.  Somewhere.

Mynda: Lead the way.  This will be an excellent chance to show everyone your composting toilet set up.  I’d love to see it.

Sharon: Well, there it is.

Mynda: But that’s just a commode in the bathroom. And not a clean bathroom at that. Don’t you have something more, well, photogenic for the magazine?

Sharon: A lot of what I do to save energy and adapt in place is kind of hard to take pictures of – not doing things isn’t nearly as photogenic as doing things. 

Mynda: Well, perhaps we’d better see the garden then.  Certainly that will make a good photo spread.

Sharon: Well, if you take a picture of the corn from this angle, and don’t show the lambs quarters going to seed in the middle, it almost looks like I keep my garden weeded, right?  Or maybe you could just take a very close up photo of this nice squash here.  No…not the 3 foot zucchini…  That’s umm… a seed saving experiment.  That’s right, I’m trying to maximize my production of zucchini seed.  Oh, and over here, come look at my beautiful comfrey and horseradish plants.  Yes, I absolutely planned to have the comfrey interplanted with the potatoes.  That has nothing at all to do with my laziness in rooting out the comfrey weeds – they are actually important guild plants in permaculture.

Mynda: Really.  With potatoes?

Sharon: Oh yes.  And look at that buckwheat…it isn’t it beautiful.  Of course I grow buckwheat seed.  Don’t you?  No, of course I didn’t forget to scythe it down at the flowering stage and let it go to seed.  Oh, sorry, there are a lot of thistles here, aren’t there. 

Mynda: You recently wrote about how you weren’t really “preparing” but living your life.  So tell me – how much of, say, your laundry do you actually do by hand. 

Sharon: Well, there are time constraints of course….maybe 5%?

Mynda: What about food – how much of your food do you actually grow? 

Sharon: About half our produce, and much less of our grains, 2/3 of our meat and 1/3 of our dairy.  And most of the rest is local.

Mynda: But I’m sure, like most of your readers, I thought you grew all your own food.  Don’t you worry you are misleading them?

Sharon: Sometimes.  It isn’t my intent to do it, but I write a lot of posts, and not everyone reads them all. Every so often I attempt to reassure people that my life is just as screwed up as theirs.  But not everyone gets that message, and sometimes I think I come across as more authoritative than I intend to.

Mynda: Don’t you think your readers deserve to know all the details of the harsh reality?  What about the cloth toilet paper?  What percentage of the time are you wiping with cloth?

Sharon: Oh no – I read the Times Article about NoImpactman – no way I’m talking toilet paper with any reporter. Sorry, I reserve the right not to answer that.

Mynda: Ah, you have secrets.  It all becomes clear.  No pictures.  Weeds.  No discussion of cloth toilet paper.  I spotted a pile of plastic star wars toys over there – what happened to your “cloth, wood and no television tie in toy rule?”  I see the dogs eat purchased dog food at least part of the time, and I hear the children asking for television.  Tell me, “Sharon” if that is your real name – aren’t you ashamed of yourself, pretending to be a leader in sustainability.  Did not the above mentioned NoImpactman publically state that the three best things you can do for the environment are to stop watching television, stop eating meat and stop driving.  And yet you kill and eat your chickens, let your children watch television and drive places.  And then there are those four children.  And you call yourself an environmentalist!

Sharon: Well, now that you mention it, I do pretty much fail on all those criteria.  Can we go back to talking about toilet paper?  Please?

Revisiting The Brother-In-Law on the Couch: Consolidating Housing in Hard Times

Sharon September 2nd, 2008

For those who are new to my blog, the title above refers to an older post I wrote, one that became mildly famous. In it, I argued that the face of peak oil, climate change and the coming hard times for most of us may well look like our family members losing their jobs, homes and coming to live with us.   Quite honestly, I think the reason this has gotten so little discussion in the peak oil and climate change community is that many of us are far more troubled by the idea of actually having to live with our relatives than we are with more extreme scenarios (raiders taking our food, not ever being able to get toothpaste again). 

I’m not going to go over territory I’ve already covered, so please take a look at the post if you are interested and aren’t familiar with it already (an abbreviated version is in _Depletion and Abundance_ if you happen to have it lying around ;-) ).  But I did want to talk about the concrete realities of living with (or preparing to live with) extended family.

We did this for a while – Eric’s grandparents came to live with us on our farm, and stayed with us until their deaths (unfortunately, this was not terribly long – we miss them very much).  Now this was very much a planned consolidation – we bought the house with the intention of having them come live with us.  It was also very much wanted – but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t come fraught with drama – both with other family members, and among those of us doing the living.  Doing it on the fly, out of necessity would have been 10 times harder.

Which brings us to rule number one – consolidate earlier, rather than later.  If you know it is coming, get the process underway.  This won’t work for everyone, in every situation, but if you are facing peak oil with your 80 year old mother living in another city 150 miles from any of her kids, start talking with your siblings about getting her closer.  No, she may not want to.  And you may not want to.  But with the exception of families that have abandoned all ties, dealing with this now is going to be 1000 times more pleasant than trying to get your mother into your home in the midst of an energy crisis and a blizzard.  If you know you are the one who your feckless sister is going to come rely on when she dumps the next stupid boyfriend, start planning where she’s going to sleep.  And, if say, you are the governor-of-Alaska-cum-nominal-and-possibly-temporary-vice-presidential- nominee and have a 17 year old pregnant daughter, make sure that between your speeches to the right-wing/family-values crowd you are allotting space in the governor’s mansion (don’t get all excited about moving yet) for your daughter, her fiance and your new grandkid.   

If you know that elderly parents, disabled relatives or people with kids are likely to end up needing you, now is probably a good time to begin adapting your house not just to living with your own personal needs in mind, but to living with other people.  Installing those shower bars, putting in an additional composting toilet in that extra closet,  getting the kids used to the idea of sharing a room – these are things you can start now, if it looks like they are coming.

It can be quite hard to persuade people to adopt such arrangements in advance of necessity – privacy is such a strong issue, and most of us see such arrangements as fundamentally defeatist -that the ideal has us owning our own, living autonomously as a nuclear family or individual as much as possible.  The fact that this is our ideal should, however, come under scrutiny - most of human history was not spent this way.  On the other hand, this fragmentation of families and communities is enormously profitable for capitalism.  I’ve said this before in more detail, but we should be somewhat suspicious of our sense that we need the huge spaces in most American houses for reasons of actual privacy – less than 75 years ago, the average American had sufficient privacy with about 250 square feet per person.  Now the average is above 850 square feet per person.  Is it really true that we have some biological need for that level of privacy?  Or is it more likely that just as we’ve been sold a whole lot of other things, we’ve been sold this idea we can’t live in close quarters, and should regard this as a move of last resort.  Not that the “room of one’s own” doesn’t have merits – but Virginia Woolf was not talking about a 1000 square foot great room ;-) .  

Figuring out how such family members can be integrated into your lives is another thing that you can do now.  What role are they going to have in your household?  How are all of you (and just because you are providing the home doesn’t mean you are off the hook on this issue) going to compromise to keep everyone happy and working together.  Being the homeowner gives you some priveleges, such as establishing basic home and safety rules, but tyranny is neither nice nor a good idea, unless you want to live in constant conflict. 

It is also worth remembering that in many cases, the arrival of family may not be an imposition on you, but your salvation – more and more of us are already struggling to pay the mortgage and keep up with the other bills.  The only way we may be able to heat homes and keep payments up is by bringing in others to contribute.  Or we may only be able to get a home by buying out a share from a family member in the future.  Even if you don’t need them now, the post-peak reality is that there’s going to be a lot more work – the things we used to use energy for now will be done by people.  The nuclear family, or single life are probably not especially optimal for this scenario.  So the ”this is my house and you’ll do as I say” thinking should probably be left at the door with anyone you want or need to live with. 

It isn’t always clear that the person with the best “homestead” skills will necessarily be the most useful person – if they can’t get along with others, are so caught up in other issues that they can’t utilitize their skills, or even if what is most needed is not another person who knows how to can food, but someone who can hold down enough of a job to keep the mortgage payments coming.  It isn’t always clear how things will work in hard times – keeping one’s options open for the people who matter to you is always helpful.

It probably goes without saying that all of us would prefer useful, helpful, kind people we get along with - those magic  cousins who are professional gardeners and cabinetmakers, and their grown son who can lift a refrigerator straight over his head and never complains about anything.  Instead, you will probably be getting the real cousins – an overweight computer programmer who doesn’t like to go outside because of all the bugs, his testy wife who spends two hours a day doing her hair, their surly teenager who wants nothing to do with any of you and an elderly, snappish and incontinent dachshund.  I’d throw you a pity party but I’ve got relatives of my own ;-)

The challenge here is to find the good and useful skill set and the fine traits underlying the obnoxious ones.  Sometimes this is simply not possible, but often, it is.  The computer programmer may not be great at outdoor work, but may be tireless at tending and teaching the young kids in the family.  His wife may not shine in the mornings during hair doing time, but is great at organizing a new business and is willing to do the cooking.  The teenager may not want much to do with you, but set to finding ways to save money on food, may come up with a plan that keeps everyone eating.  And perhaps the dog will heroically scare off a burglar someday ;-) .

 Some of this is, of course, less likely than others.  Some people are just twits.  But that’s another argument for taking in the less twittish parts of your family early on – thus, you can say to your sister in Peoria, “Sorry, I’ve got Mom and Uncle Gus and cousin Leo.  That means you get Leona and the three little devils…er…darlings.” 

It will help, in all of this, if you can find ways to structure you house that give everyone some space and privacy – although not necessarily as much as they were used to.  That might mean knocking down a wall to make dormitory-style accomodations for four girl cousins, or at least hanging curtains so that families can have a little privacy.  If you can divide family space by floor, or by using seperate entrances, it may make the transition to closer quarters easier.

Much of the advice in my previous post (and the original BIL in the couch post) applies to living with people now, whether you want them or not.  Honestly, though I think a large part of the practicalities are personal to the people involved – they cannot necessarily be predicted.  What is important is that people be respectful, that they work on making roles for one another, and that they spend their time looking forward, instead of at what they once had.  Honestly, many of us spent some of the happiest times of our lives living closely with others – in service, at college and after becoming independent. Simply determining that such relationships could be positive, the symbol not of a loss but the reclamation of something might help ease the pressure and anxiety we fear about them.  At least until the dachshund arrives ;-) .

 Sharon 

You Made Me a Pallet on the Floor – Preparing for Short Term Refugees

Sharon September 2nd, 2008

Well, I was broke and so dissatisfied/Yeah I was broke and so dissatisfied/I was broke and dissatisfied/I damned nearly died/And then you made me a pallet on the floor/Yes. you made me a pallet on the floor/Yes, you made me a pallet on the floor/When I had no place to go/You opened up your door/And you made me a pallet on the floor. – By Doc Watson (My favorite version is by Mississippi John Hurt)

After recent events, does anyone really need convincing that they may someday need to be prepared for friends, family, or strangers you want to help to arrive at their doorstep in need?  All over America, people were fleeing – floodwaters in the Midwest, wildfires in California, and now Hurricane Gustav?  The pace of “natural” disasters is rising rapidly, and that means more evacuations, more people in crisis – and in a crisis, you go to those you know will care for you – or if there is no one, you are cast forth on the kindness of strangers.

This is the last week of the Adapting-In-Place class, and we’re moving on to talking about our relationships with our larger community.  I’m going to spend today exploring the question of what those who are prepared to stay in place can do for those who can’t – this post will concentrate on short term refugees, evacuations that may bring large numbers of people to your house for a few days, weeks, or a month, before they are gradually transitioned to independent life.  My next post will expand on my previous writings about “The Brother In Law on the Couch” and talk about more extended relationships – those that are measured in months or years, or those you wish/need to make permanent.  Finally, I’m going to talk about how communities can and should deal with refugees – those who take shelter in your area, not because they have community ties, but because this is their only choice.  But those are for later – right now, I’m going to explore the practicalities of dealing with people who arrive, often on short notice, sometimes after experiencing great trauma or physical harm, and who first and foremost need, as the song goes, “a pallet on the floor.”

Only you can know how many people are likely to see you as a potential refuge, and how many you are prepared to accept – my own feeling is that in a short term crisis, many of us can make do with fairly tight conditions for some time.  Moreover, while some people tend to take a hard line and say, ”You didn’t listen when I told you to prepare, so I’m not going to help you” this is a tough stance to maintain when you have to shut the door on an injured family member who approaches you for help.  I suspect most of us, whatever internal resentments we have, will sigh and open up.   Me, I’ve never even pretended I would take a hard line.

Now is the time to do some counting.  And when you count, remember that your family (and again, as always, by “family” here, I mean biological and chosen – the people who count in your life and count on you) has family too – that is, you sister’s partner may not be able to evacuate without bringing her elderly mother along, and your brother in law may show up on your couch with *his* brother in law, his sister and their two kids.  Yes, it may seem strange to count that way, but if the situation is dire enough – if all the motels are fully, if they’ve been through hell – what are they going to do?  Abandon those who matter most to them?  In one sense, it may seem like this simplifies the idea of “extended family” – in other ways it may complicate it.

Most short term crises that require mass evacuation are regional – but it isn’t inconceivable that larger scale crises could occur.  And if your family and friends are comparatively concentrated, you may have large numbers expecting to rely on you, especially if they know that you are the “prepared one.”  It is also worth remembering that such arrivals don’t necessarily require a natural disaster – it is possible that in some families, someone’s sense of shame might mean that you didn’t learn about a foreclosure, divorce, abusive marriage or eviction until they need a place to stay *right now*.

Ok, first of all, how can we prepare in advance for the population of our homes to double, triple or quadruple?  Some of us can’t, much.  Either we are operating so close to the bone that we don’t have any reserves for this hypothetical or we have so little space we can’t prepare much.  But since the average American has over 600 square feet per person (and yes, I know many of you have much less than average), there probably is room for many of us to make preparations for such a contingency. 

In order of priority, I’d say the preparations should go like this:

1. Food – having more food in storage is a good idea for many of us anyway, and it is important to remember that in a crisis, you may be better off than others, but not able to engage in normal activity – the stores may be closed at your place too, the power may be out, or you simply may not be able to afford to buy food for 17 – while your visitors may have left without cash.  Having some simple-to-heat-up foods is a good idea for evacuation bags, but may also be wise for those first hours when refugees are arriving and simply need to be fed.  Remember, if a crisis is widespread enough, or the evacuation notice short enough, you may be on the edges of the crisis yourself and without power or other resources.  My long term goal is 1 year’s food for 12 - double our numbers.  I suspect most other people, with smaller houses and newer to food storage will settle, perhaps for adding another month’s worth of food – but all of it helps.

2. Beds – How many people can you sleep now, if you tighten and consolidate sleeping arrangements?  It should go without saying that children can be moved out of their beds to sleeping bags on the floor, the parents’ bed or consolidated into sleeping together to allow older adults more comfortable arrangements.  If you have the space, acquiring more beds is well worth it – replacing couches with sleeper couches or futons, adding these to extra rooms, acquiring extra mattresses that can be stored, trundle style under beds, etc…  These are often inexpensive or free (people give away futons, matteresses and old sleeper couches all the time on my local Craigslist) for the hauling and can make your experience a lot more pleasant and comfortable for everyone.

Once you are maxed out on beds, the next step might be the proverbial pallet on the floor – a tatami mat, carpet remnent, or camping pad with a sleeping bag or set of blankets on top.  Air mattresses are ok, as long as you have the tools and time to fill them manually, since power may be out.  Futons can be double layered in many cases – making the bed more comfy while they aren’t needed, with the extra pulled out and moved to the living room when needed.

Extra blankets, sheets, towels and other bedding are often cheaply available at garage sales – and thanks to an AIP student’s tip – one good way to store them is between the mattress and boxspring of your bed, laid flat. 

3. Medical supplies: We’ll talk a bit more about medical issues in a second, but at a minimum, refugees are likely to be exhausted, stressed out, and have a wicked headache.  At worst, they may have been burned, may have walked for miles, have serious injuries, be starving or dehydrated, hypothermia, heat stroke or have been without needed medication.  And again, it is worth remembering that your place may not be free of consequences either – just because you are *safer* doesn’t mean the power is on and the hospital isn’t packed, on skeleton staff and miles away by foot.   While you can’t meet every need, being able to evaluate the situation and if not too urgent, provide for basic problems – painkillers, a splint for a sprained ankle, warmth, rehydration, bandages – these are things that are useful to be able to do. 

 4. Clothing, baby stuff,  toys, and other optional extras:  This is one of those things that can usually be finessed, so I put this on with the recognition that most people may not need to worry about it much.  If you have to, your mother who is 5′ and weighs 93lbs will wear your 5 sizes too big clothes, as will your 11 year old nephew.  If worst comes to worst, your 6’3, 300lb cousin may not fit into your 5’9, 145 husband’s clothes, but there’s probably some big guy in your neighborhood who can spare a sweatshirt and pants. 

But if you have the space and energy to deal with it, it isn’t a bad idea to do a quick evaluation of who might end up your way, and pick up flexibly sized (ie, stretch waists, cotton t shirts, sweatshirts and sweat pants, cardigan sweaters) clothes that might meet the basic needs of those most likely to come your way.  Everyone will be happier if they are warm and wearing clothes that neither expose intimate bits nor leave them freezing or frying, and the clothes they travelled in may be unusable.  My suggestion for this would be bag-sales, often held on the last day of large rummage and garage sales – that is, people want to get rid of stuff, so around me they offer “fill a bag for X tiny sum” (often 50 cents or a dollar) – and the bag is often a garbage bag!  (This is also a good place to get interesting fabrics for patchwork quilting, old sweaters for unravelling to knit with, and felted sweaters that can be cut up to make felt mittens, oh, and clothes for you and your family.)  I’m not sure I’d devote a lot of energy to this – but it isn’t hard to get sizes for people you love (mention birthdays) and if you keep a list and run into cheap clothing in quality, having an outfit or two (shoes included, if possible) for any likely refugees will make things go smoother. 

The same is true of baby things, a few toys, and any special needs items for medically fragile and disabled family members.  No, we can’t plan for everything, but if there are a lot of pregnant women and young kids in your family, bag sales that offer cloth diapers and small clothes, some toys to distract the kids (these are also useful when they come to visit) and a few children’s books can go a long way to making things nicer.  But if you don’t have the space or the time, this is when neighbors are to be called upon.  A few decks of cards or board games might be smart as a way of organizing and distracting a large crowd who is also listening in terror to bad news or watching their beloved home be washed away on tv.

Ok, let’s say, prepared or not, your family is here, now.  What do you do?

1. Triage their situation.  What do they need right now?  Medical care?  Food?  A place to rest.  While some evacuees may arrive in a good situation and mood, most are likely to be extremely traumatized, and as mentioned above, some may be injured, in shock or otherwise in serious trouble.  We will assume that you already know minimal first aid, and how to evaluate someone’s conditions.  If the hospitals are operational and can be reached, and aren’t a greater risk than staying home, someone should be deputized to take the injured for treatment. If not, get out that collection of medical books, and make people comfortable, and do what you can for them.  Learn to recognize the signs of shock.  Warm the cold and cool the hot gently.  Rehydrate them.  Pay particular attention to children and anyone unable to articulate their situation. 

If someone is in serious medical condition, but cannot get to the hospital, do what you can to stabilize them and begin working with your community to arrange transport as soon as possible.  Know which of your neighbors are doctors, nurses, EMTs or other practitioners and call on them if needed. 

If someone arrives ill with some obviously contagious (and serious) illness, you will need ot make arrangements to isolate them immediately, and to assign someone to care for the sick person, who will also remain in isolation from the rest of the household.  You will need, at a minimum, a room and ideally a bathroom (although a bucket toilet and plenty of water will do), as well as lots of bedding, gloves and masks if you have them, bleach to disinfect, and a place for the caregiver to sleep.  If there is a group and the illness is highly contagious, you may need to quarantine a whole group – so thinking about how to allocate space (people who are not sick but have been exposed should be kept seperate from those who are actively ill, to reduce the dangers).   

2. Start out by being a refuge, a place to recover.  The first hours or even day is no time to begin laying down anything more than the minimal necessary rules – provide as much quiet as you can, food, a chance to talk about the experience or the option not to, as comfortable an environment as possible, support and kindness.  Feed everyone something comforting if possible – soup, or something else familiar and not to difficult to digest.  If possible, you might give up your room at least for the first 24 hours to allow adults who are exhausted a chance to sleep.  Continue to keep an eye on children, who may express their feelings about the experience in unexpected ways.  This period may need to last longer for those who have been seriously injured, or for those who are quite elderly, medically fragile or disabled.

3. If the situation goes on for more than a day or two, you are going to have to begin the work of actually living together.  Especially if there are a lot of people in close proximity, this is likely to be annoying at times – everyone is likely to need time and space when they are not around each other.  Visitors may seem ungrateful or demanding, while you may be impatient and frustrated that your life is so disrupted.  The first and perhaps most important thing you can do is to take some deep breaths and recognize that for now, you are stuck with each other, and that fighting and expressing every feeling you have will not help you.  Courtesy is what is wanted here, and in most families, a polite measure of shutting up.  There are some extended families that can lovingly and respectfully discuss their disagreements even at the worst of times, when everyone is under enormous psychological stress – they do not constitute anything even remotely like a statistical majority, however.  I’m going to suggest that in the very short term the appropriate way of handling most of our emotions is “suck it up” – I realize that this flies in the face of the conventional psychological wisdom that self-expression is good for you, but in this case, we are attempting to achieve the greatest possible good for the maximum number of people.

This is also *NOT* the time to discuss and try and resolve old problems.  Table them for now, and to the extent it is possible, decline to revisit them even with determined family members.  Any discussion that begins “You always…” is probably a bad one to have now.

So how do you live together in the long term - this is obviously a longer subject than can be covered fully in one post but some strategies.

1. Post the rules you really care about – write ‘em out, post them publically, and enforce them equitably – yes, I know you understand that your kids are acting out because they are under stress, while you SIL’s kid is a little monster all the time.  Tough patooties – everyone has the same rules, barring inability to understand or inability to physically obey them. 

But resist the attempt to be a complete control freak, or make sure that your life runs exactly the way it always has.  If this is something you suffer from as a matter of personality, do your best to suspend it.  Yes, it is appropriate to make rules about lengths of showers and washing out your breakfast dishes.  No, your house isn’t going to be as tidy, your kids aren’t going to be as well behaved and things are going to be abnormal for a while – too many restrictions lead to mutiny and failures and more crisis. 

2. Give everyone as much space and privacy as humanly possible.  Everyone is likely to be feeling cramped and sick of one another – so try and give everyone a break when possible.  Someone has to go grocery shopping?  Be gracious – take your kids and theirs and leave the other couple alone for a short while?  Plan on being outside as much as humanly possible, given risks and climate. 

Remember, your spouse or kids or housemate may be having a lot of trouble too – give them some space as well.  Send the kids off to playdate, let the boyfriend run the errands alone.

3. Bring in more people – really.  You and your family in a tiny lifeboat alone may be awfully tough – so invite the neighbors over – yes, they take up space too, but they’ll talk to your Mom for a while so you can do the dishes, and maybe they have a suggestion for a local apartment or a senior center event that people might want to attend.  Giving your family other people than you to talk to is good.

This goes doubly and triply for children.  If you aren’t used to kids, you may think that the idea of inviting three neighbor siblings over to play with the three kids you’ve got invading your house may sound like hell on earth.  But six kids may be easier than three bored kids, who want you to entertain them and have nothing to do but express their trauma with their parents and relatives.  Bring over the neighbor kids and they may suddenly disappear out into the yard or the basement to entertain themselves and give you some necessary breathing space.

4. Let people know what you like about this, and them.  There may not be much, but there are good things about an extended in-house camping trip with your family.  They are likely to be feeling vulnerable, like they are a burden.  They may be tiptoeing around you, or in fear that you’ll throw them out and they will have nowhere to go.  Letting people know that even though this is annoying, you love them and appreciate that they do the dishes and keep the kids quiet in the morning so that you can sleep in, that you like having them around and wish the visit could be under better circumstances is good – especially, (but not exclusively) if it is true.

In many families, giving people useful work and a way to contribute will go a long way to relieving the sense of burden.  Let them make dinner, let them help you fix the roof, let them do something for you, if they can.  Part of generosity is not making people feel overly beholden –  do what you can to allow people to feel part of your family, routine and as though they are participants.

5. Expect trauma and fear to manifest themselves.  People who have lost their homes, or don’t know whether they have one, people who may be missing family members, people who have been through hell and back are messed up.  You would be too.  They are likely to be angry sometimes, weepy, afraid, oversensitive.  They may do stupid things.  The kids may seem badly behaved, act like much younger children, be hostile or fearful. 

As much as you can, chalk up the difficulties to this, even if you have your doubts.  Give them the same benefit of the doubt you’d want in the same situations.  Make clear that some responses are utterly unacceptable – there will be no violence, no alcohol and drugs.  For those who seem to be moving into pathological responses to trauma, get them help as fast as you can.

Ok, how do you bring this situation to a logical conclusion?

If the problem disappears on its own – the rain comes and reduces the wildfire risk, the floodwaters receed and the house is still ok, the disaster was largely averted, it may be as simple as helping them pack, giving hugs goodbye and waving as they drive back to their normal lives. But what if it isn’t like that?  What if the house was burned, the area contaminated and uninhabitable in the long term, what if your family members refuse to ever go back, for fear that it might happen again? 

Then you need to help them get established somewhere else.  Some people may be able to take the initiative on this themselves, or the living conditions may be all the incentive they need, but the elderly, those who are very traumatized or people who simply aren’t go-getters may need help settling in.  You may need to devote some time and energy to helping them find an apartment, apply for needed services, look for a job.  If yours is the only car, phone and computer, you may need to share more than you’d like.  Remember, it is for a good cause. 

If this is a crisis that is sympomatic of our larger one, now is probably a good time to encourage your family members to think about that for the long term – to suggest that instead of rebuilding somewhere wildfire prone, they consider a safer area, to suggest that if the relationship is good, maybe they stay near you (or if it is bad that they relocate to some distant city with opportunities ;-) ).  Now is a good time to think about how to avoid this happening again.

You may, at some point, have to be blunt, and after a reasonable grace period, it is appropriate to tell people “look, we need to get you settled in a place and the kids enrolled in school, so I expect you to start looking for next month, if that’s possible, and I’ll expect you to take that part time job you were offered while the kids are in school, and start paying rent.”  In some small number of cases, you may need eventually to evict people who have moved from “refugee” freeloader.  If this is the case, all adult permanent relatives should agree, and send a consistent message “we were glad to have you while we could, but we simply can’t anymore.”  Do try not to punish children for the sins of parents, however.

Will all this advice make the sudden descent of 19 of your closest friends and relatives seem like unmitigated bliss?  Probably not.  But it may make the thought manageable, and might help us shift from thinking about how overwhelming it might be to how grateful you are that you can help, that your loved ones are safe, and that they probably will be leaving soon ;-) .

Ok, on to when they don’t leave….

 Sharon