Doing Our Best to Prepare for the Worst: An Interview with Leah Karlberg

leah article

By: Erin McGinn

Photo credits of: NeighbourLab

Vancouver is overdue for an earthquake. We all know it, but what are we doing about it? Are most residents aware of the risk that earthquakes pose to them? Do they have the connections in place to pull each other up when they get knocked down?

I interviewed Leah Karlberg, the Community Development Lead for the organization Neighbour Lab, to find out what they are doing to help us during the coming earthquakes. Neighbor Lab aims to encourage emergency preparedness through industrial design and community cooperation.

The company was created in 2018 by Stephanie Koenig, Emi Webb, Leah Karlberg, and Adele Therias. “We all sort of came together around this idea of preparing for something like an earthquake but how that also helps up build resilience for other scenarios, even like a day to day crisis… The same things are necessary,” Karlberg explained.

In an earthquake, so many things can go wrong, yet our communities can still reorganize and will still look out for one another. It’s one reason that people and their societies are so resilient. This is something Neighbour Lab aims to encourage. “Resilience is about environmental sustainability and it’s about things like climate change but, it’s also about the lived experience and who we are as individuals and the community and how we can be stronger together. By focusing on resilience, it allowed us to work on something that’s meaningful and that we were excited about but also something that could look different in each community,” Karlberg explained.

leah 2In preparing for the worst, they have decided to focus on the key connections that need to be formed in the relative isolation that initially occurs post-crisis. For, when the bridges go down and telephone lines are overwhelmed, you still have your neighbors. Figuring out who has skills or supplies that they could share with the community and who might need help is a process that could save lives in the event of a disaster. Karlberg advised, “We would need to have those connections in place before hand in order to work together afterwards.”

She then explained their local Resilient Neighborhood Walk Series. The series was designed to help people better understand their communities’ strengths and weaknesses. The walks, sponsored by the city of Vancouver, were hosted in Grandview Woodland, Kerrisdale, Mount Pleasant and Riley Park. “Each walk was roughly two parts. The afternoon was roughly two hours long and the walk was roughly and hour but it was a really slow pace stop and go along the way hearing from local organizations … then the second half of the afternoon was a mapping activity, refreshments and a time to chat between neighbors,” she continued, “We were mapping sort of the lived experience of the neighborhood. What people felt was their community and what resources and skills they had identified within it.” Essentially, people came for some useful info, home-grown initiative, and a good bit of exercise. “And all of them had really awesome turn out. We were over the top impressed about how engaged people were, how many people were excited to talk to each other and share the information they knew,” she added with excitement.

leah 3When I asked Karlberg to share some of the tips they went over, she recommended looking into Vancouver residents’ closest disaster hub, “that’s a Vancouver based program operating out of 25 designated community centers. Well, 25 community centers have been designated but only 4 of them are playing with what that programing could look like but, definitely need to know where the nearest one near you is.” The Vancouver disaster hubs provide a place for people to meet in an emergency where they can receive and offer help. They even provide housing for those whose homes would be too unsafe to stay in.

“I would encourage people to also get to know what risks naturally face Vancouver. Like how high the risk is that we will probably be hit by a damaging earthquake in the next 50 years. There’s a one in three chance of that…” She moved on to some of the possible hazards, “maybe you live in a zone that’s prone to liquefaction… or maybe you live in a building that’s sixty years old and probably hasn’t been built to the same seismic codes as today and that’s something that you want to be aware of” Liquefaction is when normally solid soil destabilizes and temporarily acts as a liquid. The act of destabilizing the ground can damage buildings and even make them collapse. This is caused most often by earthquakes.

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Source: Greater Vancouver Regional District: Earthquake Analysis (2006)

Karlberg also advised residents of Vancouver to get a backup supply of food and water.

It’s important to think of many contingencies, because as she said, “who knows what the reality will actually look like…” Even though there is much uncertainty, Neighbour Lab is one of the groups trying to prepare Vancouver as best it can.

Karlberg further explained, “The neighbor hub is small scale infrastructure that is sort of co designed alongside a community… for example, block watch organization or a group of neighbors and each neighbor hub offers the unique resources that the community chooses and decides upon.” They often serve as convenient meeting spots and equipment storage – another way Neighbour Lab encourages neighborhoods to equip themselves.

To explain what being prepared can actually do, Karlberg recalled a class called “Natural Hazards” that she had taken at the University of British Columbia. There is a point when a natural hazard like an earthquake or tornado can come through, where people are so well planned that it has little effect on them. “The human aspect and the fact we are in the way of this natural event is what makes it a disaster. So, in some scenarios where we are able to build strong infrastructure and able to have polices and codes in place that natural even may not even result in a disaster…That class really made me rethink wow even though we call it a natural hazard it’s really like a social hazard in a way.”

Now gushing, Karlberg said, “I want everyone to be making neighbor hubs and getting to know their neighbors and doing those things that need to happen to make Vancouver more resilient. Like, I think it could happen. Yeah. I don’t know. I’m just so excited about it all.”

Next, Neighbour Lab plans to cooperate with The Thingery, a lending “Library of Things,” to renovate their existing sites and make it even more useful both in the event of a disaster and during daily use.

To the people of Vancouver, Karlberg emphasized, “What I’m trying to say is that you don’t have to be an expert to do something.”

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