Friday, July 31, 2009

The Texas Fertilizer Fire

About 10 minutes west of my house, there is a billboard on the highway, courtesy of the Department of Homeland Security.  It has a stylized map on it with an arrow pointing to part of it, and it says, "You are here.  Where is your family?"  It then directs you to the government preparedness website.  My family has a little silly ritual we follow every time we pass that billboard.  We drive by, I point to the billboard without speaking, and my 11 year-old daughter sighs and says, "Aunt Shirley's house."

When I tell friends and family this, some of them are somewhat disapproving.  They are concerned that by having this conversation with our kids, we are scaring them unnecessarily.  They also think that the emphasis on constant vigilance is a little overblown.  I do see their points, but at least on that first item -- not scaring the children -- they have it exactly backwards.

It is in fact because of my daughter that we've had many of these conversations.  Her temperament has always been such that she confronts things she is afraid of head on and wants to know exactly what "the plan" is if these things should happen.  She is the one who insists on having fire drills at home.  She has talked through every permutation of stranger danger  that there is.  She knows that we have a will and have provided for her and her brother if we should die.  She likes to know the plan.  And while she may be more inclined in that direction than average, kids in general do like to know the plan.  Every school in this country is required to practice for a fire, and few argue that we are causing kids to be unnecessarily afraid of fire.  In fact, I would argue that we are giving kids a feeling of power over something frightening.  We can't make the possibility go away, but we can make them feel like they could handle it if it came along.

I am the first to say that we have been emergencied to death in this country since 9-11.  I think we have been encouraged to experience fear for its own sake, and it hasn't helped anyone.  However, there is some point to being prepared for bad things happening.  There is a level of readiness short of stockpiling a year's worth of food and water and some firearms and ammunition for the coming apocalypse, where we simply ask ourselves what we would do in various circumstances.

I bring this up because the town of Bryan, Texas is very much in need of a plan tonight.  There is a major fertilizer fire at the El Dorado Chemical Company and 70,000 people have been told to evacuate.  This is absolutely not the sort of thing that most of us are prepared for.  If we live in a hurricane-prone area, we usually have a plan for that.  If we live near a fault line, we have a plan for earthquakes.  If we live in tornado alley, we know what to do when the sirens sound.  But very few of us have looked at a map of, say, a five mile radius around our homes and figured out what hazards there are in the factories and businesses near us.  Even fewer have considered what is being transported by rail and truck right past our doors. 

However, the lesson of this is not, as you might imagine, that we should all start making a list of things that could go wrong and what we would do about them.  The lesson is that we can't possibly anticipate everything that might happen.  Therefore, we need to have a generic, all-threat plan.  In my family, we don't know what on earth could cause us to have to rendez vous outside of our town, but we know we'll meet at Aunt Shirley's.

Here's the kicker, though.  The purpose of having such a plan actually has very little to do with our physical safety.  I have no doubt that in an emergency I could grab my kids and find somewhere to go, even if we didn't have a plan.  The point of having a plan is to reduce the traumatic stress we experience in the event of an emergency.  We will be scared, no doubt.  We will be worried about each other until we meet.  We will worry about our posessions and our friends.  But we will not worry about whether we are doing the right thing, or about generating ideas for what to do, because we have a plan.  Just like children, we need to feel power over that which we cannot control, so we've built a little bit of that into our lives ahead of time.  We can't prevent traumatic events from occurring, but we can feel a sense of agency when they do, and hopefully that will give us a little bit of leg up when it comes time to recover.

(Check out these additional tips for talking to children about traumatic events)


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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