SEPTEMBER 2005 IN
RICK ASTER’S WORLD

Unprepared at All Levels

The storm that recently swamped New Orleans shows how hard it is to prepare for a disaster, even one that has been predicted for years.

One of the biggest mistakes people made in Hurricane Katrina was to expect the government to take care of the disaster. In a city that stored buses below sea level and lacked a plan to fuel its police cars, a state whose governor is still hoping to wake up and find that the disaster never happened, and a nation whose initial bureaucratic response was based on the misguided notion that the event was just another hurricane, the biggest mistake you could make as an individual would be to count on the government to get you out of danger.

It is, of course, government’s responsibility to respond to disasters, and so anyone in charge of any government operation should also consider how to prepare for a disaster. But they too should plan with the assumption that they will get little immediate assistance.

Any major disaster finds people unprepared at all levels. One of the main reasons, particularly obvious in the present case, is denial. It is easier to pretend that nothing will happen right now than it is to get ready for what might happen.

In New Orleans, countless people left cars parked below sea level to be flooded, even though there were empty parking lots on higher ground. Oil companies somehow stored not even a day’s supply of gasoline within the city, a petroleum port. A passenger train was evacuated empty while thousands of would-be evacuees were left behind. All this and much more can be seen in retrospect as bad planning. But these kinds of mistakes can be avoided only by thinking ahead before disaster strikes.

It made me think about what disasters I should be getting ready for. Here in Valley Forge, I am told we can expect a wide range of natural disasters: tornado, hurricane, earthquake, forest fire, and various kinds of severe winter weather. I could experience an extended power failure, communication failure, the need to evacuate, blocked roads, or any combination of problems. Industrial disasters, particularly a chemical release or nuclear meltdown, are also possible.

As dire as these situations might seem, my response in most cases is obvious enough, at least from here. I always have several days of food and water here. I know my best bet for shelter from a tornado. I know what bridges could be flooded by an extreme rain event. I know what direction the planners want me to go in if there is a nuclear disaster. Even in the most problematic circumstance, if I need to evacuate and roads are blocked, I know what to carry and what direction to trek in.

But there are details about my disaster preparation that I could do better. I could have a summary of my account numbers and passwords ready so I can take them along if I need to get out during a power failure. It would be a good habit to have at least a gallon of gasoline in my car when I come home, something I haven’t always been diligent about. That’s so if I need to go away unexpectedly I’ll be able to drive beyond the immediate area before I need to stop for gas. There are probable other details I could think of.

In most cases it doesn’t make sense to make extensive preparations for disasters until a warning arrives. It is more important to be prepared for everyday life. But it feels better to be somewhat prepared for the most obvious and most likely disaster scenarios. Then if disaster strikes, you’re ready to act. You’ll be less likely to make matters worse by not knowing what to do or doing the wrong thing.


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