Use Nextdoor to prepare your neighborhood for disaster

The service helps you organize your neighbors into a social network, but sharing emergency-preparedness information customized to your area may require a free site-building service such as Google Sites.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
5 min read

We don't know where, we don't know when, but we do know for sure that disaster will strike. The only thing we can do is prepare for a day we hope never arrives: the day something turns our world upside-down, as Sandy has done for so many people in New York, New Jersey, and other parts of the East Coast.

You can help your neighborhood get ready for whatever calamity fate may have in store by creating a neighbor social network that links to emergency-preparedness information customized to your locality. The free Nextdoor private social network launched recently with the goal of building "stronger and safer neighborhoods around the world." Nextdoor lets you alert neighbors to a lost dog, recommend local stores and services, or organize a garage sale or other neighborhood events.

The service also lets you share information about recent break-ins or other crimes in your neighborhood and even organize a neighborhood-watch program. You can attach PDFs and other files to posts that your neighbors can open or download, but because it's a social network, Nextdoor isn't designed to present detailed information about emergency kits, family preparation, and accommodating neighbors with special needs.

Like most communities, our town has a local emergency-preparedness office that provides information about threats specific to our region. Since we're in California, that means earthquakes, wildfires, and floods, as well as chemical spills and power outages, among other dangers. (See below for a list of emergency-preparation resources.)

There are dozens of pages of information on the emergency office's Web site, much of which doesn't relate to our neighborhood. In one evening I converted the disaster-prep information provided by my local fire department into a simple eight-page Google site. Then I linked to the site from the Crime/Safety section of the Nextdoor private network I created for our immediate area.

Nextdoor private networks are intended to bring neighbors together in many more ways than merely emergency preparedness. Likewise, there's much more to disaster preparation than reading information on a Web site. It would be just as easy to send my neighbors a link to the emergency site via e-mail.

The key is to have the Nextdoor neighborhood network I created serve as the framework for neighbors getting to know one another a little better and maybe helping each other now and then, without having to wait for disaster to strike.

Applying for a Nextdoor neighborhood requires a couple of hoop jumps
Before you can create a Nextdoor private network you have to select your neighborhood to ensure it's available. You zoom into the neighborhood on big Google Map, click a starting point for drawing the boundary, and then click other points on the map to complete the perimeter. Nextdoor lists the number of homes in the area you selected and prompts you to fine-tune the selection.

Step 1 in creating a Nextdoor network: choose the neighborhood boundaries
The first step in creating a private Nextdoor network is to establish the perimeter of your neighborhood. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Once your neighborhood boundaries are set, you're prompted to enter a name for the network, which will also be used in the site's Nextdoor subdomain, such as "my-street.nextdoor.com." Once the neighborhood you choose is given the green light, you have to confirm your application in one of two ways: either have a code sent to you by mail that you enter to activate your network, or charge one penny to a credit-card account.

Nextdoor verification process
Before you can establish your Nextdoor neighborhood network you have to enter a code sent to you via postcard or charge one cent to a credit-card account. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

You then have access to the network, and you and any neighbors you've signed up can post information in such categories as recommendations, buy/sell/free, events, and photos, but your network isn't established yet. You still have to recruit at least nine neighbors within three weeks to reach the minimum number required to make the network permanent.

Nextdrive lets you invite neighbors to the network by e-mail, Facebook, and postcard; you can also print auto-formatted flyers and cards from the site. Other options let you change your e-mail notification settings, create private and public groups, supply a mobile phone number to receive alerts on your phone, and adjust your neighborhood boundary.

As with any social network, the more you and your neighbors participate in the neighborhood network, the more benefit you'll derive from it. Nextdoor promises to protect your privacy, such as blocking your street address, and it also lets you mute particularly boisterous neighbors (if only muting them in real life were so easy), but it's understandable that you and your neighbors may hesitate to provide personal information.

On the other hand, these are people who you may see on a daily basis, and some of them may know a little bit about you already. Nextdoor could be the beginning of a beautiful neighborly friendship.

Find emergency-planning information on government sites
Among the best resources for information on disaster preparation are U.S. government sites such as Ready.gov from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Emergency Preparedness and Response site, and a site with the same name from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. An example of more localized information is the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management's 72Hours.org, which poses the question, "Are you prepared?"

To find disaster-prep information tailored to your locality, Ready.gov's Identify Local Partners page has links to several volunteer organizations with local chapters. These include Community Emergency Response Teams and the American Red Cross.

The FEMA site has an index of state emergency-management agencies. State and Local Government on the Net's Public Safety and Emergency Management page has links to dozens of state offices providing disaster-preparation information for their residents.

Create an emergency-preparedness site customized to your neighborhood
You can use Nextdoor or any number of other methods to distribute information to your neighbors about getting ready for the day calamity finds you. Since I've created several special-purpose Google Sites in the past, I knew it would be relatively easy to customize and streamline the emergency-preparation material our local fire department offers to address our neighborhood's concerns.

First I chose eight PDFs from the dozens of files the local office makes available. These include a description of the contents of an emergency preparedness kit, how to make water safe for drinking, how to earthquake-proof your home, and how to create a family emergency plan. In addition to making the information available as downloadable files on the Nextdoor network, our neighbors can follow a link to the custom Google site, which I designated as public.

Google Sites was one of the "Three free services for creating instant Web sites" I wrote about last March (the other two were Page-o-rama and Weebly). The earlier post describes the process of creating and managing a Google site.

For the emergency-prep site I used the neighborhood site template, which has prefab pages for announcements, calendars, and resources. I didn't use any of these canned pages but did take advantage of the many page layouts Google provides, which made it relatively easy to accommodate the various formats used by the material I received from the local fire department.

Of course, you don't need to create a special Web site, join a private network, or share online resources to minimize the damage done to you and your neighbors by any disaster that may come your way. Simply being aware of any special considerations your neighbors may have -- or making sure your neighbors are aware of any special considerations you may have -- can prevent a major inconvenience from becoming a tragedy.