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You Can’t Just Blindly Obey the Authorities During a Disaster

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Author of What to Eat When You’re Broke and Bloom Where You’re Planted online course

We talked yesterday about the horrifying coincidences surrounding the devastating tragedy on Maui. But one thing that I can’t get out of my head is the fact that, in this case, many of the decisions made by the authorities were NOT in the best interest of people trying to survive the fires. You can’t just blindly obey the authorities during a disaster if you want to live.

The thing that particularly stands out to me – the thing that could affect any of us in a wide variety of emergencies on a one-to-one level – is that there were barricades meant to prohibit people from evacuating on certain roads away from the fires.  The people who bypassed the barricades survived. Many of the ones who turned around have not yet been found or have perished.

The AP reports a chilling story:

As flames tore through a West Maui neighborhood, car after car of fleeing residents headed for the only paved road out of town in a desperate race for safety.

And car after car was turned back toward the rapidly spreading wildfire by a barricade blocking access to Highway 30.

One family swerved around the barricade and was safe in a nearby town 48 minutes later, another drove their four-wheel-drive car down a dirt road to escape. One man took a dirt road uphill, climbing above the fire and watching as Lahaina burned. He later picked his way through the flames, smoke and rubble to pull survivors to safety.

But dozens of others found themselves caught in a hellscape, their cars jammed together on a narrow road, surrounded by flames on three sides and the rocky ocean waves on the fourth. Some died in their cars, while others tried to run for safety.

“I could see from the bypass that people were stuck on the balconies, so I went down and checked it out,” said Kekoa Lansford, who made several trips into town to look for survivors. What he found was horrible, Lansford said, with dead bodies and flames like a hellish movie scene. “And I could see that people were on fire, that the fire was just being stoked by the wind, and being pushed toward the homes.”

The road closures — some because of the fire, some because of downed power lines — contributed to making historic Lahaina the site of the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century.

We want to think that in a life-or-death crisis, the folks in uniform waving us on or stopping us are there to legitimately help us. We generally assume they have our safety in mind and are privy to more information about the disaster than we have. We’d like to believe that if there’s a barricade, it’s for our own safety and that there’s some unknown, even worse hazard beyond it. Because of this, most of us would be prone to follow directions in such an event.

But what if that isn’t the case?

To be absolutely clear, I’m not accusing the people manning those barricades of deliberately inflicting harm on the people of Lahaina. I cannot be privy to their reasons, and they’re certainly remaining mum about the many catastrophic mistakes that were made.

The lesson here is that in life-and-death situations, we must use our own best judgment. We cannot always rely on the judgment of others. Whether bad decisions are made with evil intent or due to a lack of acuity, the end result is the same. People die.

I’ve written before that in an emergency, survival is about surviving. It’s not about figuring out the grand conspiracy or identifying the culprits plotting behind our backs. It’s about living through the horrible event and keeping your family alive. You can spend time thinking it all through later.

In the case of Lahaina, I can’t tell you why those barricades were placed where they were, that sent people turning back into the fire. I have spent many hours thinking of the anguish and terror of those who faced that inferno, and I can’t get that out of my head. People died who could’ve lived if it had all been handled better.

The fine line between blind obedience and  reasonable cooperation

When I lived in California, in the middle of wildfire country up in the mountains, we had two close encounters with wildfires. Cal Fire has an extraordinary crew of wildland firefighters, the brave men, and women who move to a camp near a blaze and spend every waking moment out there trying to get it under control. I never had a single doubt that their mission was first to save lives and second to save property. They did an incredible job at it, and considering the vast amount of acreage that has been consumed by wildfires over the past decade, it’s astonishing how few people have died. The ones who died either got caught by surprise by a rapidly moving blaze or ignored evacuation orders.

There, I had trust in our firefighters and emergency personnel. I would have followed their instructions to the letter because I believed in them. They’d proven we could trust them.

But it seems like this could be an outlier. Perhaps it’s because, in California, we were so accustomed to natural disasters that the response is so good. However, we can look at authorities in other areas and see that often the response is NOT like this, and people’s lives are not so valued.

Everyone remembers the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when some responders were reported to have joined in the lawlessness, looting and raiding, taking people’s weapons, and failing spectacularly at saving the victims of the disaster. (The officers were later cleared of looting charges, but for some murky reason, still suspended from their jobs.) Also, the leaders of New Orleans gave officers permission to shoot looters on sight. Would you feel that following the emergency directives from authorities such as these were unquestionable? I wouldn’t. I’d want to get as far away from them as possible and avoid them like I would any other threat in the aftermath of a disaster.

In another Louisiana incident, a massive flood saw the Cajun Navy, a group of well-organized local volunteers who had boats, prepare to rescue those trapped by the rising waters. They were turned away repeatedly because they didn’t have permission to rescue people but finally, local law enforcement accepted their help. But the good vibes didn’t last long when the government stepped in, wanting to charge Cajun Navy rescuers for licenses to help people. The government got in the way at every turn in the aftermath of this disaster and I wouldn’t have trusted one of those “authorities” any further than I could throw them.

We’ve seen mismanagement of disasters again and again and again.

You are your own first responder.

While I wouldn’t go so far as to say, “never trust emergency workers,” I’ll say this. The only person you can really trust to have the whole-hearted best interests of your family in an emergency is you. This is why you must be prepared in the following ways:

1.) Understand the emergencies your area is prone to experiencing. Where I live now, tornados are the threat. I’ve lived in wildfire country, hurricane country, and blizzard country. In each of these places, I took great care to understand the forces of nature I could face and to make a plan to survive these events.

2.) Know your area. I have always spent time driving around my area and learning multiple routes away from it. As a long-time Jeep owner, I used to traverse the side roads in California and find different ways down the mountain I lived on with my family. I’ve always enjoyed a drive (though with the price of gas, this gets a bit harder), and I’ve always tried to quickly learn the ins and outs of where I lived.

3.) Trust your gut. I really hesitated before writing this article because in many cases, the local authorities really do want to help people. They want to save lives and may have further information that you do not, which would make the route you’re going unsafe, like a bridge being out or something like that. In most situations, I do think that following instructions is probably the best course of action. But not in all of them. Clearly. You are a prepared, intelligent person. Emergencies are something you spend a lot of time thinking about and researching. If your every instinct is screaming inside your head, “No, this is wrong!” listen to it. If there’s time, ask questions to see if you’re just missing information. If there’s not time to get more information, you have to move past your social conditioning to follow the instructions of authorities and do what you have to do to save your family.

The people who were willing to disobey were the people who lived to tell the tale.

What are your thoughts?

Have you ever been in a situation in which authorities were giving bad instructions? How did it turn out for those who obeyed? What about those who didn’t obey? Would you be willing to bypass blockades and barriers or would you be hesitant to do so? Do you think authorities should always be heeded during emergencies?

Let’s discuss it in the comments section.

About Daisy

Daisy Luther is a coffee-swigging, adventure-seeking, globe-trotting blogger. She is the founder and publisher of three websites.  1) The Organic Prepper, which is about current events, preparedness, self-reliance, and the pursuit of liberty; 2)  The Frugalite, a website with thrifty tips and solutions to help people get a handle on their personal finances without feeling deprived; and 3), an aggregate site where you can find links to all the most important news for those who wish to be prepared. Her work is widely republished across alternative media and she has appeared in many interviews.

Daisy is the best-selling author of 5 traditionally published books, 12 self-published books, and runs a small digital publishing company with PDF guides, printables, and courses at SelfRelianceand You can find her on FacebookPinterest, Gab, MeWe, Parler, Instagram, and Twitter.

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