Many Americans feel vulnerable these days. Amid calls to war and an elevated risk of terrorism, the highly publicized recommendations to stock up on duct tape and plastic wrap do little to ease concerns. It's easy to feel helpless in the face of unknown yet omnipresent threats, but what's the best way to prepare?
Nationally, there's a new Web site that's designed to spread the word about preparing for emergencies, including potential terrorist attacks. Courtesy of the newly formed Department of Homeland Security, the Ready Web site (www.ready.gov) declares that we should not be afraid, because we can be ready. Frankly, if there's a terrorist attack anywhere in my vicinity, I plan to be very afraid, no matter how ready I may be. That doesn't mean I'll be paralyzed with fear, but fear will definitely be part of my emergency kit. Every self-help book I've ever seen defines courage not as the absence of fear but as action in the face of fear; to assume that readiness will make the fear go away is, I think, a delusion.
However, given the published threat level (Code Yellow as I write this, although it's sure to go higher when the bombs begin to drop in Baghdad), a head-in-the-sand approach makes no sense either. Even though Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge admitted that duct tape and plastic wrap need not be deployed immediately, most emergency management experts say prudent citizens can make some common-sense preparations for emergencies. While these preparations could help if there's a terrorist incident, the most likely benefit will be in a natural disaster situation, like wildfire, earthquake, or winter storm.
The folks at FEMA - the Federal Emergency Management Agency, now part of Homeland Security - have published a guide to the brave new world of threats called Are You Ready?. The 100-page document (H-34) is available for download in PDF format at the FEMA website (www.fema.gov), by mail from FEMA, or locally through the Spokane Public Library. Although reading this catalog of threats to citizens' safety is enough to bring on a serious case of the willies, the publication offers suggestions for how to prepare for everything from a heat wave to a nuclear attack. Some instructions fall into the "well, duh" category - "Stay away from areas marked 'radiation hazard,'" for instance - but most of the information is general enough to come in handy during any number of situations.
Locally, the Spokane City/County Emergency Management department coordinates and facilitates planning for emergencies, whether from terrorism or any other hazard. By resolution, the Sheriff serves as director of emergency management. Both Emergency Management and the Inland Northwest Chapter of the American Red Cross have developed materials to assist local residents and businesses in preparing for emergencies. While duct tape is on the list of suggested supplies, there are other far more basic items that should be part of any home's emergency supplies, according to Cpl. Dave Reagan of the County sheriff's department.
"Terrorists don't commit acts of mass destruction by appointment," he notes wryly. "If your house wasn't already wrapped in plastic, you wouldn't have time to do it. But this terrorist threat is a good excuse to be prepared for any emergency. Take the time to go out and get the supplies and then you'll be prepared for whatever the next emergency is."
The best bet, Reagan says, is to take a common-sense approach to emergency planning. "Batteries and a battery-operated radio, flashlights, candles, and bottled water are some of the basics," he says. "The idea is to have the supplies you'd need to survive for several days without heat, power, or water, like during Ice Storm."
Emergency Management deputy director Tom Mattern call this the 72-hour plan. "In an emergency, government assistance isn't going to be able to get around to everyone for two or three days," he says. "So you have to be self-sufficient for that length of time, with the water, food, and medications you'll need. It's an all-hazards approach. It doesn't matter what hits, you're prepared."
Every three years, Emergency Management evaluates the disasters that might strike the Inland Northwest and develops a Hazard Identification and Vulnerability Analysis. Based on input from law enforcement and citizen groups, the report lists the types of disasters most likely to occur locally. The top five on the current list, updated in 2002, are winter storm, power failure, wildfire, earthquake, and urban fire. Terrorism sits at number ten.
FEMA and the Red Cross suggest that families develop both a disaster plan and a disaster supply kit for their homes. Information is available online at both organizations' Web sites (www.fema.gov and www.redcross.org) or through local offices. As Mattern and Reagan point out, the most important items are those for basic survival: blankets and coats for warmth, non-perishable food and a way to prepare it without utilities, and bottled water for both drinking and washing. Plan on a gallon of water per day per person - two quarts a day for drinking and two quarts for cooking and washing. And don't forget to plan for your animals. Investigate pet-friendly hotels or homes of friends outside of the area. The Humane Society can help with disaster planning for pets.