Are you ready?
Maybe for a flash flood? Earthquake? Tornado? Bioterrorist attack?
This isn’t some doomsday scenario: it’s an actual question posed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
And the answer, for most people, is no.
We can blame our lackadaisical attitude on the Mayans.
Part of the reason why Atlanta families are so blasé about the possibility of a natural or manmade disaster is that we’ve never really experienced one. While people in other parts of the country regularly plan and prepare for earthquakes, hurricanes, or blizzards, Georgians haven’t had to worry about such things. This makes it tough for those in charge of public safety to encourage people to take seriously the threat of disaster.
“Getting people to understand the importance of preparedness is always a struggle,” admits the executive director of the American Red Cross Central Georgia Division. “Most of our community thinks, ‘that won’t happen to me.’”
Yet chances are pretty good that it will, at least on a localized scale. Think of last year’s fires in Bastrop: residents there likely never expected they’d lose their homes in a firestorm, yet they did. Many were completely unprepared to evacuate and had to rely on FEMA, the American Red Cross, and other agencies to assist them. Relying on the government or private agencies for help could prove devastating if the emergency is less geographically confined. During Hurricane Katrina, for example, mass destruction and safety concerns prevented agencies from getting into the area for days, and when they did they were overwhelmed with pleas for assistance.
It also has made regular folks complacent, if not openly derisive, about being prepared for an actual disaster — especially in Atlanta, where many think the very idea of a large-scale disaster is ridiculous. This worries those who plan for such events.
“9/11 should have scared the hell out of people,” says Candice Wade Cooper, the community preparedness manager for the City of Atlanta Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. “But it didn’t.”
Why Be Prepared?
To educate people about the need to be prepared for an emergency, FEMA has compiled a 204-page book entitled Are You Ready? An In-depth Guide to Citizen Preparedness. The book, which is available for download on the organization’s website (www.ready.gov/), contains emergency planning checklists, items needed for disaster supply kits, and hazard-specific preparedness tips. At times it reads rather like a science fiction primer: not only does it advise readers what do to after an earthquake, fire, or hurricane, it also offers survival instructions for a volcanic eruption, a tsunami, an electromagnetic pulse, a bioterrorism attack, a radioactive dispersion device, and a nuclear explosion.
Clearly, the government takes this stuff seriously. Shouldn’t we?
Joan Crain is one of the people leading the preparedness charge. Raised in the Mormon tradition of self-reliance, which encourages people to have at least two years’ worth of food and other supplies at the ready, she’s somewhat of a natural at knowing what to have on hand and how to store it. Given her passion for the subject, in 2008 she started FamilySurvivalPlanning.com, which offers readers step-by-step instructions on how to prepare for a disaster.
“I try not to get too ‘apocalypse’ on my website because I don’t want people to think I’m a kook,” she chuckles. “I just want to tell people enough to scare them a little — just enough to get them started, to be a little prepared.”
To that end, the website encourages people to start small, by constructing a 72-hour emergency kit. Called a “basic disaster supply kit” by FEMA, it contains food, water, extra clothing, vital documents, cash, coins, and other items necessary to survive for three days after a disaster — essentially, until organized assistance efforts get underway. For what to include in your disaster kit, see Creating A Basic Disaster Supply Kit page. For those who want to be more prepared, the site offers a series of “how-to” guides on everything from purifying water to constructing a porta-potty; there’s also a food calculator, which computes how many pounds of rice, beans, and other supplies an individual family will need to survive for one year.
Ms. Crain acknowledges that, apart from sheer disbelief that anything bad could ever happen, the main thing stopping folks from creating a disaster kit is the cost. Given that, she encourages people to start by purchasing one extra non-perishable food item every time they go to the grocery store, then storing the extra items in a designated place in the house.
That’s exactly what Heather Crastmann does. Growing up in New Orleans, she learned to be prepared for hurricanes — in fact, she moved to Atlanta after evacuating for Hurricane Rita. Dealing with the very real threat of natural disaster taught her to take it seriously, no matter where she lives.
“You never know how long, or whether, you’ll be out of food, gas, or groceries,” she says. “So if you can be prepared for at least a week in the event of [a disaster], then FEMA or the government will kick in and be able to help you. But until then, what are you going to do?”
For those who consider her hyper-sensitive, she points out that Atlanta is not necessarily the safe haven everyone thinks it is. After all, one good ice storm could knock out power for a week or more. That actually happened to her hometown, and she and her neighbors were without electricity for two weeks. If that occurred in Atlanta—not an unusual scenario, given that it’s something for which Atlanta’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management prepares— banks and ATMs would be closed, refrigerators and freezers would cease to work, food would spoil, and grocery stores would accept only cash if they were open at all.
Given this, the idea of storing a bit of nonperishable food and water, along with a first aid kit and some other supplies, makes good sense — especially for parents, who are responsible not only for themselves but also their children. It’s not about being a fear-monger, but rather ensuring that you’re doing everything you can to protect your family, says Ms. Crain.
“For sure this has nothing to do with 2012 [doomsday predictions],” Ms. Crain says. “It has to do with being a self-reliant person and not relying on someone else if you don’t have to.”
Make a Plan and Communicate
In addition to having a basic emergency kit, FEMA and other agencies recommend that families develop a disaster evacuation plan. This means figuring out where you will meet in case there is an emergency. You should have two meeting places. The first should be close to your home; this is the location you and your family members will gather if you must leave your house for any reason, such as a fire or a gas leak. The second meeting location should be outside of your neighborhood; this is the place you will assemble if everyone is at work or school when an emergency arises and cannot go home.
It’s also wise to designate an out-of-state friend or relative to field calls from your family members if you become separated during an emergency. The reason the person should be out-of-state is that, during an emergency, local telephone lines likely will be down or commandeered by emergency personnel; your chances of getting in touch with someone out-of-state will be better than calling someone in the disaster zone. Each person in your family should memorize the telephone number of your out-of-state contact, or carry it with them at all times — programing it into a child’s cell phone is a smart idea: even if cell phone towers are down or busy, emergency personnel can access the number and call it if necessary.
Parents also should have an emergency contact programmed into their own cell phones. All emergency personnel is instructed to look for an “ICE” —In Case of Emergency— contact in the cell phones of people who are injured or incapacitated. Your ICE contact should be someone who knows all of your vital information, including your blood type, and who is authorized to make decisions on your behalf. If you have a cell phone that locks, be sure to download an application that allows your ICE contact to be shown without unlocking the phone.
This kind of planning isn’t only useful for disasters: it also is beneficial in more common situations like car crashes or house fires.
“We always think about the doomsday type of disaster,” says Ms. Cooper of the Atlanta Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. “So I try to get people to think about if their house were to catch on fire or if it were to flood, would they know how to escape or evacuate? Or what if in Atlanta we had to limit the use of cell phone towers, would you and your spouse know how to contact each other? These aren’t doomsday emergencies, but they are emergencies for families.”
Involve the Kids
Because a disaster impacts the entire family, it’s important to engage everyone when making a plan — this includes your kids. Involving them in emergency planning gives them a sense of control and also allows you to answer any questions they may have.
FEMA offers a great website (www.ready.gov/kids) to teach children about the importance of being prepared. The site explains the various kinds of natural disasters in non-frightening, kid-friendly language, and then offers various ways for kids to help their parents develop a preparedness plan. Kids who work through the entire site may take a short quiz to receive a “Readiness U” graduation certificate.
Closer to home, the Atlanta Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management offers a “Too Prepared to be Scared” kids’ disaster preparedness program. Split into two levels —one for kids ages 5-10 and another for youth 11 and older— the program allows kids to step into the roles of emergency personnel and learn how to deal with a disaster and keep people safe. The program runs during the summer, usually in June and July; however, HSEM officials are happy to present the program to groups of 30 or more throughout the year. You and your kids also may tour the HSEM building at any time: simply call before stopping by.
When talking with your kids about disaster planning, remember that they want your assurance that they’ll be OK — something you can only provide if you, yourself, are prepared.
“[Children] depend on daily routines… and unfortunately when there are emergencies or disasters, that disrupts their routine and makes kids very nervous,” says the American Red Cross. “So when dealing with disasters, the kids are going to look to the adults to see how they’re handling it.”
That means we adults have to get serious about disaster preparedness — now rather than later.
“People see [the potential for disasters] but they don’t want to acknowledge it,” says David Dodgen, founder of AquaStorage in Atlanta. “They don’t want to think they might be on borrowed time.”
Mr. Dodge recognizes that many Atlanta residents consider the idea of preparing for a natural disaster silly, so he carefully points out that it’s better to be safe than sorry — especially if you have kids. It’s one of the reasons he created the AquaPodKit, a huge, inflatable plastic container that can be placed in your bathtub, hooked up to the faucet, and filled with 65-gallons of clean water in case of an emergency. Sales have been somewhat sluggish in Atlanta, but people in other parts of the country —chiefly those that are prone to hurricanes and earthquakes— have snapped up the product. He laments the fact that The 2012 Phenomenon, coupled with Atlanta’s disaster-free history, has relegated the sensible idea of being prepared to irrational doomsday status. However, he believes that public complacency can be transformed into action with the right education.
“Self-reliance is kind of a new thing,” he says. “People are noticing that we can’t just go along as we have been.”
Government and nonprofit agencies that manage disaster response can only hope he’s right. In the meantime, they continue to urge people to prepare for an emergency as a matter of personal responsibility — if not for themselves, then for their families.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen, but we each have control over ourselves and our families and everything we do will help. “So if everything is in chaos… it’s really important to have supplies at least for a few days until help can get to your area. That is going to reduce the stress your family is going to go through tremendously.”