We all need to be prepared for disasters

Published 12:00 pm Saturday, June 15, 2013

When my father was alive, he left New Orleans only two times in his life. The first was to serve his country in Korea. The second was when the federal government evacuated him to San Antonio in 2005. Every member of my family — father, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles, aunts and cousins — was displaced by Katrina, which flooded our homes, schools, libraries, grocery stores, places of worship, hospitals and places of employment.

My sister was in an assisted-living facility in New Orleans, stranded on the building’s roof. FEMA officials told me to go online to register her information and they would get back to me, but that I shouldn’t expect to know anything for weeks. Thanks to an on-air appeal by my CNN colleague Wolf Blitzer asking for news about the stranded residents, and local inquiries from an official from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and one of my cousins, a policeman, we found her alive.

My 92-year-old uncle was on his rooftop for days without food or water. He was plucked from the familiar and flown to Roswell, Ga., where he had a heart attack. It took until late 2012 for my entire family to rebuild or relocate. When there’s a story of storms wreaking havoc on communities and the subsequent effort to rebuild, I try to offer my help and support —- I can relate.  

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The country is bracing for more severe weather. While some politicians continue to debate the reality of global warming, we can all learn from others’ experiences of dealing with natural disasters and embrace the Boy Scouts’ motto: “Be Prepared.”

Perhaps we need to talk more about science, learn more about the climate. But climate change or not, we will always have natural disasters: blizzards, floods, wildfires, earthquakes, hurricanes and tornados. My main lesson from Katrina: We need to be prepared in our personal lives, in our communities, and at the federal level.

I cheered while watching President Obama and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey appear together to reopen the Jersey shoreline for business after last October’s Hurricane Sandy wiped out miles of homes, beaches and boardwalks. The recovery of the Jersey shore, though incomplete, exceeded expectations because of the transpartisan cooperation of Obama and Christie.

A Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll released in the last few days finds that six out of 10 Americans want federal monies allocated rapidly to disaster areas, and rebuke dithering about finding matching cuts first. In fact, 69 percent of Democrats, 57 percent of independents, and 52 percent of Republicans agree that Congress need not fish around for corresponding cuts before cutting a check. We’re talking about our fellow Americans — about restoring lives and rebuilding economies. The public expects a unified helping hand and not, as in the movie “Dr. Strangelove,” our own hand trying to choke our own throat.

The National Weather Service states, “Each year, more deaths occur due to flooding than from any other severe weather related hazard.” Thus, the first rule in hurricanes, severe storms, tornados and floods is to get from outdoors to safe shelter.

Have on hand a three-day supply of food and water (a gallon per day for each member of the family). And don’t forget your family pets.

Have a first-aid kit, flashlight, batteries and a radio. See that at least one member of your family is trained in first aid and administering CPR/AED (defibrillator). Have personal medications and a list of them. Make an emergency plan that all family members practice, and establish a way to contact each other if separated.

Get a NOAA national weather radio made just for weather alerts. You can buy one where electronics products are sold, or over the Internet.

Be ready to evacuate your home or workplace if necessary. With hurricanes and floods, there is often a warning of several hours or even a day. With tornados, you may have 15 minutes of warning that a twister is imminent. There is usually no warning for earthquakes, so you’ll need to learn ahead of time what actions to take when the shaking starts.

Learn the difference between a weather “watch” and a “warning.” A “watch” means to be alert that a hurricane or tornado is possible. A “warning” means time has run out — a tornado or hurricane is present and you should take immediate action, seeking shelter in a storm cellar, or if there’s no time, inside an inner room such as a closet or bathroom or in your bathtub.

The Red Cross has recommendations on specific preparations for floods, hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, etc. On the Internet, visit redcross.org/prepare/disaster, or call your local Red Cross chapter today. They’ll see you get the help and information that you need.

It might just save your life or help your family in a time of crisis.