Atlanta's storm lesson: Prioritize emergency prep

Wake-up calls, such as the recent winter storm in Atlanta, are a good reminder to prepare our families for emergencies. Every household in America should have a wide-awake discussion about how to be prepared for various disaster situations.

Chris Aluka Berry/Reuters
Georgia National Guardsman Sergeant 1st Class Ron Tuttle directs traffic as a fellow guardsman helps a civilian to their abandoned vehicle in Atlanta on Jan. 30.

The storm that paralyzed the Atlanta area will give politicians and commentators plenty of opportunities to debate the best and worst ways for major cities to handle sudden, massive emergencies. While others look at the big picture, I’m more interested in what the average person or family can do to be prepared when disaster happens. 

I almost said “average person on the street” but in Atlanta a whole lot of people were stranded in their cars. Such a situation has intrigued me for a long time and it should be part of any household disaster plan.

Most advice columns or news stories about emergency planning will tell you things like: keep several bottles of water stored in the garage at all times. I agree completely, but as you gather supplies for your home survival kit, just keep in mind that you may be out of the neighborhood when the crisis hits.

A big problem with all disaster planning is deciding how much is enough. Should your car be stocked with a few key items such as a flashlight and bottled water or equipped to become a temporary survival pod in case you, and perhaps your children, are stranded amid urban wreckage with no option except to sit and wait until help arrives?

The equation of what-might-happen added to where-you-might-be has an endless number of permutations. Back in the 1980s when I worked in San Francisco, my top emergency concern was a major earthquake knocking down the city while I was on the job. My house was 15 miles down the peninsula from where I worked. One interesting possibility I often considered was to keep a small inflatable raft somewhere in the office. My building was a block from the bay and I figured if I could get to the water and follow the shoreline south the odds of getting home were much better than trying to walk.   

I visualized myself paddling along under clear to partly cloudy skies with a light breeze. In California, assuming a disaster will occur on a nice day isn’t a bad bet. But weather can be a wild card in many areas of the US, and if you want a truly terrible worst-case scenario try this one: an earthquake, giant storm, or other mega-event smashes across a wide area in the Midwest or East Coast knocking out power grids and blocking roads in the dead of winter. 

The other element of the Atlanta story that caught my attention was school closures and kids trying to get home safely. For all parents this is truly a hot-button issue, and once again the hard truth is that no amount of planning can cover every possibility. 

When my daughter was in middle school the official plan for a massive earthquake was to get all the kids out of the buildings and onto the athletic field, and if parents showed up they would be allowed to take their kids home.

But there were a lot of questions with no definite answers. What if Joey Smith’s dad drove up and said, “I’m picking up Jane Johnson, too. I just talked to her parents and they told me it’s okay.” Should kids be allowed to walk home if they lived two or three blocks away? What about five or six blocks? 

A line that news people often use in the aftermath of disaster stories is, “This should serve as a wake-up call.” I don’t have a problem with that.

Wake-up calls are good. Every household in America should have a wide-awake discussion about how to be prepared various disaster situations. Don’t try to solve every potential problem. New ones will always pop up. Circumstances change, and plans may have to change with them. The important thing is to start the conversation with your family, and then make sure it never stops.

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