Disaster Response Redux: We Are Still Not Ready

Previous Commentary

Americans really are nice people. A few weeks ago, I vented on the air about a lack of disaster preparedness in this country. To make the point, I said that I didn't really know where to go or what to do in the event of a crisis. Now, that will not surprise anybody who knows me well, but I was also trying to make a larger point: The most effective kind of preparation is from the family unit on up. So what's really needed is a carefully thought out campaign that is national in scope but local in focus.

I now have handbooks, folders, T-shirts, letters, e-mails from all over the country, and a book sub-titled "Nine Lessons for Turning Crisis into Triumph," written and sent to me by James Lee Witt. He's the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and, by most accounts, was darned good at the job. The bottom line is that a lot of people, all around the country, are doing a ton of work, and I'm touched by their generosity and can-do spirit.

But the very range of material that people sent illustrates the point I was trying to make. Your friend and mine, Baxter Black, (yes, the cowboy poet and former large-animal veterinarian) gently tweaked my big-city ignorance by suggesting that country folk are probably better equipped to handle disasters. I'm sure he's right about that, but he sent a clipping from a local newspaper in southern Arizona, announcing an emergency preparedness fair, with booths and mini-classes. The clipping says that the fair is "an Eagle project on behalf of David Hancock and Troop 411 of the Boy Scouts of America."

I may take a lot of heat for this, but I think preparing for a nuclear or biological terrorist attack is a step or two beyond the Boy Scouts of America.

But then here's an excerpt from a 38-page pamphlet issued by the Washington State Department of Health. This is on seeking help in the event of exposure to radiation from a dirty bomb: "Special assistance centers will be set up as soon as possible. If this hasn't happened yet, go to a police or fire station located outside the affected area. If you were near the explosion or believe you were in the path of the cloud, tell the staff at the assistance center." I assume they mean once the assistance center has been set up.

I said it before, I'll say it again. We are not ready.

I was a little boy in London during the Second World War and one of my earliest memories is of my middle-aged father and a neighbor going off every night to patrol our street, carrying a garbage can lid and a broom. The Germans were dropping incendiary bombs back then. These would land on a rooftop, burn through and then set the house on fire. But one man could sweep them off the roof without much risk, and a second man with a garbage can lid could smother the bomb and render it harmless.

Simple. It could be handled at the neighborhood level by a couple of middle-aged civilians. But they had to know what to do. And someone had to tell them.

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