In Emergency Plans, I Should Follow My Own Advice Homeland Security Correspondent Pam Fessler has a dirty little secret: Despite her years of pestering government officials about their disaster preparedness, her own emergency planning hinges on a few stale energy bars.
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In Emergency Plans, I Should Follow My Own Advice

When good planning goes bad: A few stale energy bars, a depleted stack of batteries and some water bottles are about all that's left of the Fessler family's emergency kit. Pam Fessler, NPR hide caption

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Pam Fessler, NPR

It's embarrassing, but I have to admit — after four years of covering homeland security and bugging government officials about how prepared they are — my own emergency plans are pretty lame.

About three years ago, around the time of the great "duct tape" debate, my husband and I did take the latest preparedness advice to heart. We live and work in the Washington, D.C. area, so a terrorist attack is certainly a possibility, and so is a natural disaster. Using a guide from the Internet, my husband put together our emergency supply kit: bottled water, batteries, flashlights, a battery-operated radio, and yes, duct tape and plastic. We added some boxes of energy bars, and figured that the canned food in our pantry would keep us from starving, at least for awhile.

I also drew up a list of phone numbers of family members along the Mid-Atlantic — grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins — and gave copies to my husband and two teenaged sons. I kept one for myself. We talked about what we'd do if separated by a manmade or natural disaster. We decided, if we couldn't go home, we'd meet up at my niece's house about 20 miles outside the city. If that weren't possible, if the whole Washington, D.C. area had to be evacuated, we'd meet at my brother's house in Pittsburgh. I gave everyone the directions on how to get there.

As I said, that was three years ago. This past week, I asked my husband and sons if they still had either the phone numbers or the directions to Pittsburgh. Here's what my 19-year-old e-mailed me from college: "haha hate to admit it but i dont have a clue where i would even begin to look for something like that. sorry? " My 22-year-old, who lives in Los Angeles, doesn't have the information either, although he did seem to recall that it had once been in his possession.

My husband insists he could find the emergency numbers somewhere on his computer, if he had enough time to search for them — of course, that's assuming there'd be the power available to log on in an emergency. I found my copies of the contact information tucked into a spiral planning book that I always have with me when I'm at work or at home. But if I'm out to dinner, or at a friend's house, or out of town? As we say in my native New Jersey: fuggeddaboutit.

And then there's my family's emergency supply kit. It's a mess. We've raided it repeatedly over the past three years. Need a battery? Go to the supply kit. Need water for the soccer game? Go to the supply kit. Hungry? Get an energy bar.

The duct tape and plastic really came in handy during a heavy rainstorm about two years ago. We used it to seal off the bottom of our basement door to stop the water from flooding in. I seem to recall we toasted former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge at the time for helping us keep our house dry.

If there's an emergency today, we'd be in pretty bad shape. The remaining energy bars are stale, and who knows if the batteries would work. I also have NO emergency supplies in my car, and neither does anyone else in my family. Our emergency reunification plan might get me to Pittsburgh, but my sons wouldn't have a clue how to get there.

I know Washington, D.C., and the Maryland suburban county where I live have been working on some evacuation plans, but I don't know what they are. I did sign up for an alert system in D.C., which sent emergency messages to my Blackberry if anything serious was going on. But I canceled it after it started flooding my e-mail with alerts about water main breaks and road closures.

I just checked on my county's Web site, though, and it has a special alert system, too. I think I'll probably give it a try. The county also has handy advice on family emergency plans, and other things you can do to help in the event of a disaster. Most local governments have similar advice on their Web sites. There are also plenty of other guides, including ones from the American Red Cross and the Department of Homeland Security. But just knowing the information is there won't do much good in the midst of a crisis. I realize I have to print it out now, restock the emergency supply kit, and talk again to my family. And I have to keep updating the plan, at least once a year.

There's one thing that Hurricane Katrina made abundantly clear: You can't count on anyone else coming to your aid in a disaster, at least initially. The government can only do so much. So I've now vowed to get my own house in order. Three-year-old energy bars, anyone?