Would You Be Prepared for a Natural Disaster? ; before Government Agencies Can Act, Individuals Can Play a Major Role When Facing an Emergency

Article excerpt

In the national debate Katrina has triggered over emergency preparedness, one element shouldn't be overlooked, experts say: the critical role individuals and families play through their personal readiness and commitment to looking out for their neighbor.

To be sure, government authorities must be ready to handle the larger challenges - where to house evacuees, stocking those locations with enough food, water, and other supplies, providing evacuation services for those in need, and steering efforts to rebuild.

But individuals have a vital role to play in everything from helping to make cities and towns more disaster-resistant before a storm or flood strikes, to having "go bags" ready to grab if authorities order an evacuation.

"I spend a lot of time on public education, because I believe everyone is responsible for disaster preparedness; it isn't just a government responsibility," says Eric Holdeman, who heads the Office of Emergency Management in King County, Wash. "Individuals, families, businesses, schools - everybody has to be doing their piece."

Fostering that kind of attitude can have a marked long-term effect on preparedness, says Ann Patton, an emergency planning consultant in Tulsa, Okla. "I've been involved with these kinds of issues at the local level for about 30 years, and the best defense against disaster is a close-knit community of people who care about each other and take care of each other," she says.

Engaging residents in the planning process is critical, Ms. Patton adds. "To the extent you can create that kind of culture, you're going to have stronger communities. When the authorities say 'evacuate,' people will know that it's their plan being invoked. And when the authorities can't get there for 72 hours, people will have been trained to help each other."

What seems to be an exercise in self-preservation can yield broader benefits, Mr. Holdeman adds.

"A segment of the population will never be prepared because of their social or economic status in the community," he says. "They go to bed hungry every night," so asking that they stock several days' worth of food and water "isn't a viable message for the truly disadvantaged."

"If people with the wherewithal to prepare are truly concerned about what government is doing for its poor, then help out by taking care of yourself. Otherwise you're just part of the problem," he adds.

Too much success?

Part of the challenge in energizing the public lies in the federal government's past successes, says Patrick LaValla, a former Washington State emergency planner who now heads ERI International, an emergency-preparedness consulting firm in Olympia.

Despite its haphazard showing in the aftermath of Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency "did some good work during the last decade," Mr. LaValla says. That raised public expectations to the point where many people appear to feel "we don't have to do anything because when something happens, the Red Cross and FEMA will be there with a doughnut and a blanket for us."

In addition, the public can seem unwilling to face the need for personal preparations, seeing the subject as too dark to deal with.

Yet "this is not counsel of despair," says Lee Clarke, a Rutgers University specialist who studies disaster planning. Taking action is empowering, he says, not depressing.

As if to underscore the need for action, a survey taken for a preparedness campaign under way in the Washington, D.C., area indicated that residents either hadn't made their own personal preparations out of a sense of fatalism, or they just had not gotten around to it, according to Laura Hagg, an executive for a preparedness consulting firm in Washington headed by former FEMA director James Lee Witt.

But the same survey also indicated that people would be more willing to plan if they had the information necessary. …