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
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
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
"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
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. …