Sunday, March 13, 2011

Now that Japan Has Your Attention, Let's Talk Preparedness

Depending on where you live, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan may or may not seem like something that can happen to you.  Here in Michigan, our chances of an 8.9 earthquake are pretty low. Even a tsunami on Lake Michigan wouldn't reach my house. But a nuclear reactor accident? Before today I didn't even know where the nearest nuclear power plant to my house was (it's about 40 miles). Floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, blizzards, chemical spills . . . there are a lot of reasons why you might, someday, need to either evacuate your house or shelter in place.

FEMA has been on us for years to get ready. Most of us aren't. At a recent meeting of CISM providers, the FEMA director asked for a show of hands of how many people had an emergency bag for evacuations.  Less than half of us raised our hands. Then he asked how many had a plan for evacuating their family. In a room of 800 people, I was one of two.

Make no mistake about it. When the time comes to leave your house, you will not necessarily have any time to get ready. Depending on what the disaster is, you might have a day and you might have less than 5 minutes. That's not the time to be thinking about this for the first time.

So, let's get practical. Here is a list of things you can do, roughly in order of the ease of doing them. This list is not exhaustive, nor does it take into consideration every possible catastrophe that could befall you. But it's a start. Find something on this list you haven't done yet, and do it.
  • Talk.  Seriously. Have a conversation with the other people in your house and make the following decisions:
    • Where would you meet in the event of an evacuation at a time you weren't together. Pick someplace out of the immediate area.
    • Where would you meet if that place was also evacuating.
    • Who are two people outside your area who you will call in an emergency if you can't reach each other, so they can relay messages to the others when they call.
    • If you have children and you have to evacuate during the school day, who is responsible for picking them up (if possible -- they may have to go with school personnel, keep in mind).
    • If your children are home alone, where should they go? Who is a safe person who is nearby who can help them?
  • Find out what the official evacuation route or procedure is, if there is one, for the catastrophe most likely to happen in your area.
  • Educate yourself about that catastrophe. Find out what the dos and don'ts of surviving it are. Do this even if you think you already know. Conventional wisdom may well be wrong.
  • Make sure you have a battery operated radio and a flashlight, and that everyone in the house knows how to use them. Also make sure everyone in the house knows where in the house is safest in the event of an earthquake or tornado, if applicable.
  • Make a list of the medications everyone in the house takes, both so you can grab them on your way out and so you can tell people at the shelter if you don't have your meds.
  • Make sure you keep 3 days worth of food in your house at all times. It doesn't have to be 3 days of great food, but don't let your cupboards get bare.
  • Stock up on clean water. You should have one gallon per person per day for 3 days. If you have a chest freezer, you can stick a gallon or two in the freezer, which will also save electricity.
  • Create a bag with the things you would need if absolutely everything else in the world were destroyed. This probably includes medications, vital documents, a first aide kit, and at least a little non-perishable food. Put a list in the bag of anything that isn't in there that you need to remember (e.g. your child's asthma nebulizer).
Not only will these steps help you stay safe, they will help you stay sane. In the event of an emergency, you want to be able to devote as much of your energy as possible to doing what needs to be done and not add to the crisis with your panic at not knowing what that is. Being prepared makes people resilient. That won't make a major disaster fun, but it will make it doable.


Beth said...

I'd suggest that people also consider the pets in their families. Along with your important papers, include animal vaccination records, which might be required for sheltering situations.

Thanks for a great post.

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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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