Guest Column: Individuals need to prepare for disasters

It’s time to get prepared for Easter, Memorial Day, vacation, confirmation, graduation, Christmas, or a wedding, but for a disaster or emergency… Oh, no! We have no time for that! We have no money for that! We’re too busy or too poor or too much forgotten by our elected officials. It’s not important. It doesn’t matter because nothing bad will happen to us anyway. Why worry? Besides, President George W. Bush, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and so many others tell us government will be there to help us. Our local officials tell us how prepared they are if the big one comes. What can we do anyway?

What’s all the fuss about? One congressman worried at one time “that in case of an atomic attack, no one would have a clear idea of how to respond.” He decried the “inexcusable delay” in the failure to set up an adequate program to cope with a surprise attack. He claimed there was a “lack of adequate national planning for civil defense in case of national emergency.” This congressman was John F. Kennedy speaking and writing in 1949-50.

Nothing has changed, but the color code and the events of the last few years. Are there more hurricanes and wildfires, more flooding and tornadoes, or are we just more sensitive to their existence? Not since Korea and the decade or so after that has the United States mainland been in the crosshairs of evildoers who could affect a significant part of the country with one blow. Now, since 9/11, we should be grateful every day something bad has not happened here like what occurred in Spain, Indonesia, or London.

Survey after survey shows that, as a country, large percentages of the population and businesses are not prepared for a terrorist attack, a natural disaster, a manmade disaster such as a toxic cloud from a train derailment or overturned truck. We still have children who are killed regularly in house fires because of lack of smoke detectors, detectors that don’t work, or have families that have never bothered to show kids how to evacuate a home, apartment or mobile trailer when smoke or fire is present. Probably every car and truck in America has a spare tire for an emergency, but how many of us ever check it for air? Simple and so important, yet even this simple level of preparedness is too much for most of us.

As I travel around the country talking to business owners and leaders, first responders, firefighters, police officers, police and fire chiefs, mayors and city managers, I hear the same objections to preparedness. We are not worried about the likelihood of something bad occurring. Even those people who are experts in disaster management more often than not tell me that 70 percent of the experts have not prepared their own families for a disaster.

What’s wrong here? We spend hours and dollars preparing for holidays and family gatherings that we know will happen because they are fun, and that is what life is all about. Well, this is a call to action. Get prepared because if you don’t and the consequences are bad enough as the people in Katrina and Wilma found out, the results could make a lot of future happy times unlikely and impossible to celebrate.

Talk with family members, discuss what could happen, and then create your own Safety MAP™, the things you need to have, the things you need to know, and the things you need to do. Remember, your family’s safety is your responsibility, not that of government. Plan! Prepare! Protect!

Norris L. Beren is the author of When Disaster Strikes Home and is executive director of the Emergency Preparedness Educational Institute. He may be reached at

From the March 15-21, 2006, issue

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