PORTLAND, ORE. — I watched a local TV news story recently that demonstrated how to use plastic dropcloths and duct tape to create a "safe room" inside my home. The reporter never stated whether this precaution was intended to protect me from a chemical or biological attack. One thing we're all learning in the war against terrorism is how to cope with recurring information gaps.
When I was a news writer, editors constantly reminded me never to forget the famous five Ws - who, what, when, where, and why. But in many news bulletins these days, facts are few and far between. The FBI has been criticized for not being more specific when it issues warnings about the possibility of new terror attacks. I know the agency is in a tough spot as it tries to emphasize the need for ongoing national vigilance without sounding as if we're on the brink of Armageddon.
So I'm not complaining, and I'm also not rushing out to buy duct tape, gas masks, or slabs of lead shielding. Is this a shortsighted attitude? Maybe, but I prefer to see it as keeping my options open. If a major crisis erupts, I want to be in "flexible response" mode.
The unpleasant central truth of disaster planning is that you can't be fully prepared for every possibility. Terrorism is the top national priority, but that doesn't mean other potential dangers are gone. Anthrax does concern me, but I don't think the danger it poses is greater than certain forces of nature, such as earthquakes and volcanoes.
We also need to consider nonphysical catastrophes. In the '80s, I bought a lot of silver coins as a hedge against monetary collapse. My timing was pathetic, since I made my big purchase right before the Bass brothers failed in their attempt to corner the silver market. Prices crashed. I still have the coins, though, so if our economy does head south, I'll have something to use when I barter with local farmers. Will they prefer Kennedy half-dollars or the 1968 Mexican Olympic commemoratives?
The other factor that is never mentioned about disaster planning is the importance of helping the community. On my street, I'm the guy who will most likely end up checking other houses for broken gas lines and fielding calls from frantic parents asking me to find out if their kids are OK.
I've got a wireless phone, and we keep a car in the driveway at all times, so even if the garage caves in I should have some mobility in carrying out my neighborhood missions. If all this sounds vague, I plead guilty. But tomorrow will always hold mysteries. Don't bother looking for the five Ws in the future. I think they're probably hunkered down in a safe room.