Would you be prepared for a natural disaster?

Before government agencies can act, individuals can play a major role when facing an emergency

In the national debate Katrina has triggered over emergency preparedness, one element shouldn't be overlooked, experts say: the critical role individuals and families play through their personal readiness and commitment to looking out for their neighbor.

To be sure, government authorities must be ready to handle the larger challenges - where to house evacuees, stocking those locations with enough food, water, and other supplies, providing evacuation services for those in need, and steering efforts to rebuild.

But individuals have a vital role to play in everything from helping to make cities and towns more disaster-resistant before a storm or flood strikes, to having "go bags" ready to grab if authorities order an evacuation.

"I spend a lot of time on public education, because I believe everyone is responsible for disaster preparedness; it isn't just a government responsibility," says Eric Holdeman, who heads the Office of Emergency Management in King County, Wash. "Individuals, families, businesses, schools - everybody has to be doing their piece."

Fostering that kind of attitude can have a marked long-term effect on preparedness, says Ann Patton, an emergency planning consultant in Tulsa, Okla. "I've been involved with these kinds of issues at the local level for about 30 years, and the best defense against disaster is a close-knit community of people who care about each other and take care of each other," she says.

Engaging residents in the planning process is critical, Ms. Patton adds. "To the extent you can create that kind of culture, you're going to have stronger communities. When the authorities say 'evacuate,' people will know that it's their plan being invoked. And when the authorities can't get there for 72 hours, people will have been trained to help each other."

What seems to be an exercise in self-preservation can yield broader benefits, Mr. Holdeman adds.

"A segment of the population will never be prepared because of their social or economic status in the community," he says. "They go to bed hungry every night," so asking that they stock several days' worth of food and water "isn't a viable message for the truly disadvantaged."

"If people with the wherewithal to prepare are truly concerned about what government is doing for its poor, then help out by taking care of yourself. Otherwise you're just part of the problem," he adds.

Too much success?

Part of the challenge in energizing the public lies in the federal government's past successes, says Patrick LaValla, a former Washington State emergency planner who now heads ERI International, an emergency-preparedness consulting firm in Olympia.

Despite its haphazard showing in the aftermath of Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency "did some good work during the last decade," Mr. LaValla says. That raised public expectations to the point where many people appear to feel "we don't have to do anything because when something happens, the Red Cross and FEMA will be there with a doughnut and a blanket for us."

In addition, the public can seem unwilling to face the need for personal preparations, seeing the subject as too dark to deal with.

Yet "this is not counsel of despair," says Lee Clarke, a Rutgers University specialist who studies disaster planning. Taking action is empowering, he says, not depressing.

As if to underscore the need for action, a survey taken for a preparedness campaign under way in the Washington, D.C., area indicated that residents either hadn't made their own personal preparations out of a sense of fatalism, or they just had not gotten around to it, according to Laura Hagg, an executive for a preparedness consulting firm in Washington headed by former FEMA director James Lee Witt.

But the same survey also indicated that people would be more willing to plan if they had the information necessary.

The result: An emergency planning form that takes just a few minutes to fill out and folds to credit-card size so people can keep it in their wallets. The campaign also includes recommendations for what to keep on hand if authorities order people to remain in their homes or offices during a disaster.

Some 39 percent of the survey respondents acknowledged that they'd made some preparations. "We'd like to raise that to 50 percent," Ms. Hagg says.

So far, the Pentagon has ordered 80,000 copies of the planning form, known as the Z Card, to give employees. The US Postal Service has ordered 50,000 copies.

More broadly, FEMA's Community Emergency Response Teams program is training volunteers to handle a range of emergency conditions in their communities.

Inexpensive projects

Over the long-term, individuals and groups can take steps to help their communities become more resilient in the face of natural hazards, LaValla adds. And they need not be expensive.

"We proved years ago that you can have an adequate level of planning and preparation, and you can do it on a shoestring," he says. "In cities there are all kinds of community groups looking for things to do for community service." For example, if flooding is a concern, these groups could plant trees, clean up marshlands, remove deadwood in watersheds, or clear drainage of debris.

We have Adopt-a-Highway programs, he continues, so why not Adopt-a-Watershed?

"You can come up with a hundred little projects for flood mitigation that would make a quality difference," LaValla says.

The bottom line, experts agree, is that first responders to a disaster may not necessarily wear uniforms - they may be sitting in the next office cubicle or standing next to you on the sideline of a soccer field.

Greater self-reliance is nothing if not insurance, many experts say, because despite their best efforts, state and federal plans can go awry.

"No plan will ever be perfect," says Michael Wermuth, director of homeland security at the RAND Corporation.

Whip up some hurricane cuisine

Move over, Emeril; make way for Marcia Magnus.

Under her guidance, students at Florida International University in Miami have recently published "The Healthy Hurricane/Disaster Cookbook."

The title may seem a bit whimsical, but the motive is not. She says the idea first emerged after hurricane Andrew in 1992. In post-storm surveys, "many people went for a long time without adequate food or water," she says in a voice-mail message hastily left as she was evacuating ahead of hurricane Rita. But the final straw came last year, when hurricanes crisscrossed the state.

People cleaned out supermarket shelves of foods laced with salt or sugar, while some of the best survival victuals - canned fish and canned beans, for example - went untouched. So Dr. Magnus, an associate professor of dietetics and nutrition, challenged some students to come up with tasty, nutritious recipes that require little or no water and no electricity to prepare.

The result: 45 recipes ranging from Mexican seafood-filled avocados to a salmon Waldorf salad in a pita pocket. (Yes, it is possible to store and use fresh vegetables for a while, the cookbook reassures.)

Magnus acknowledges that some people don't have the income or space to stock twoweeks' worth of nonperishable food for the hurricane season. But those who use the cookbook's recipes can leave the government's emergency "meals ready to eat" for others in need.

The cookbook can be downloaded at www.fiu.edu/~health/hurricaneseason/Cookbook.pdf

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