Grass-Roots America Isn't Prepared for Catastrophe

Here's what scares me: One of these days, we're going to have another catastrophe in this country. I don't know about you, but I'm not ready.

I hear and read about how the Department of Homeland Security is allocating (or not allocating) money to different communities around the country; but I keep running into cops and firemen who tell me that they still don't have compatible radios that allow for direct communications in the field between a police cruiser and a firetruck; and they still don't have biochemical suits that aren't out of date.

Some cities are further along than others, but in far too many, the changes are just minimal. Never mind minimal. At my level, the changes are nonexistent. And when I say "my level," I mean your level, our level — grass roots. Believe me, on this issue, we're all grass roots.

I may get the chance to talk with a lot of these greater and lesser officials, senators and congresspeople, three stars and four stars, even a couple of Supreme Court Justices.

But if they know what we should be doing in terms of taking care of our families in the event of another catastrophe, they are not sharing.

Here's my point: Preparing for a disaster is neither rocket science nor brain surgery. It is making sure that people at the grass-roots level know what to do. There are some very simple things we could be doing that would cover a variety of catastrophes. Having enough food in our houses or apartments so that we could stay home for a few weeks if we had to; that could save millions of lives if we were all prepared. Food and water and toilet paper, a crank-up radio and batteries for the flashlights. Pet food, if you have pets; and prescription medicine.

All of these are measures that would serve in the event of an avian-flu pandemic, a chemical or biological terrorist attack or a Category Five hurricane.

The point is that we need to begin setting up a network that reaches from the federal government to the state level, from the states to the cities and townships and from every police, fire and sheriff's department into each and every neighborhood. I know they can reach me when they want to, because I hear from them when they have a fundraiser coming up.

I'd like a little practical advice on the smartest way to set up a communications plan with my family. Is there anything we can do if the phone system crashes and we can't communicate by e-mail? I know that in the event of an emergency I'm going to hear some screeching noise on my local radio station, and then (they've been promising for years) someone will tell me precisely what to do. But I've been in broadcasting for fifty years and no one's ever told me. So if I'm on the air when trouble strikes, don't expect me to tell you where to go or what to do.

That's where all those first responders come into the picture. I'd like to know that they have as much information as possible — now — while everything is still calm. I'd also like to think that they could start sharing that information with the rest of us, at the community level.

I have absolute confidence that there are some really smart people out there who've thought these issues through and who are just waiting to tell us all about it. I have only one question: What, precisely, are they waiting for?

Ted Koppel's NPR commentaries are available as podcasts.

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