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  • Importance of Preparedness: Remembering September 11, 2001

    A month before the September 11, 2001 attack, I snapped a photo in the restaurant atop World Trade Center 2. It was a sign by the elevator, indicating the floor we were on and a notice: “In case of fire, use stairs.”

    I was there celebrating the end of an internship in the World Financial Center building directly across the street. My fellow intern and I found the sign hilarious. If something went wrong and we were that high, we agreed, there was no point in obeying. We’d be dead anyway.

    trade-center september 11A month later, I watched on TV from my new job in a rural U.S. Army base while planes hit both World Trade Center buildings.

    I emailed my former employer. Everyone was fine. The company had an evacuation plan, and as soon as the first plane hit, all but essential personnel left and caught a ferry to the company’s New Jersey headquarters. Everyone made it safely out of the area, though the building sustained heavy damage. (I saw a picture. My former desk was covered in grime, and the windows were blown in.)

    On the other hand, if a terrorist had attacked the rural base where I was on September 11, we could have been in trouble. The front gate had a toll booth-style guard building that was wide open. It might as well have been. Barbed wire fences marked the base’s perimeter in the sparse shrub and dirt wilderness. They kept cows out, but not much else. Admittedly, any attacker would have had to travel a long way to find anyone to attack.

    When we left the base that day, we followed directions through a ditch, past the newly-closed gate and newly-armed guards. An enormous machine gun now pointed menacingly outward, except … it was mounted on what looked like a folding card table. My absurd mental image of what would have happened if they’d fired it was the one funny part of a terrible day.

    That day, an emergency plan protected my former coworkers. At my new job, well, we were remote.

    September is National Preparedness Month. This, in conjunction with the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11, is a great time to remember why to be prepared.

    The Federal Emergency Management Agency gives two reasons to be prepared.

    First, “being prepared can reduce fear, anxiety, and losses that accompany disasters,” a FEMA brochure said.

    september 11 Flooding from Hurricane Irene

    A study by Rice University educators showed that people who prepared for Hurricane Ike, which hit Houston in 2008, were calmer and less likely to evacuate in advance of the storm. Those who lived outside the recommended evacuation zone stayed off the road, allowing those at greater risk to leave more quickly and reducing auto accidents, the study’s authors wrote.

    For older adults, families with young children and people with special needs, preparation is vital to survival. More than half the people who died in Hurricane Katrina were age 65 and older, according to a New York Times story about disaster preparedness for older people.

    “They can’t get out of harm’s way fast enough,” Jenny Campbell, a nonprofit consultant who deals with age-related issues told the New York Times. “And sometimes they may not even have a way to flee. Or they may lack a larger social system, and so they may not be warned in time.”

    Second, being prepared reduces the destruction from disasters, according to FEMA. The Rice University study called this type of preparedness hazard mitigation.

    Hazard mitigation includes trimming branches and making repairs before a disaster to reduce damage. It also means making copies of important documents. Helene Dressendofer was in her late 70s when Hurricane Sandy destroyed her home in 2012, according to the New York Times. Her documents were stored in cardboard folders and were destroyed. As of January 2016, she was still waiting for insurance reimbursement.

    She recommended scanning photographs, making a list of possessions and putting the list and other important documents in sealed waterproof boxes, according to the story.

    FEMA provides a free, 204-page, step-by-step guide to help individuals and families prepare for many types of disasters, called Are You Ready.

    When I returned to the military base several days after September 11, it was transformed. My carpool van had to zigzag through concrete barriers to enter, and U.S. Army soldiers scrutinized identification of every person in the vehicle. When I went out jogging, I passed new sentry boxes and soldiers on patrol in the scrub. It was comforting in a way.

    Being prepared provides peace of mind. And it may save your property and life. On September 11, 2001, one of my employers was ready. The other was lucky. Which would you rather be?


    september 11

  • The Burning Man Festival as an Emergency Situation Example

    Burning Man 01


    Burning Man Traffice - via Slate Traffic at Burning Man - via Slate

    Every year, the week before Labor Day, Black Rock City becomes the sixth largest city in Nevada. This ephemeral city, which exists solely for the Burning Man arts festival, deals with the same issues of any 70,000-person city: traffic control and traffic jams, water and sanitation, power, health care and law enforcement. It has a large central coffee house, neighborhoods and postal service, many art installations, a wooden temple and loads of bars and entertainment venues, some of which are mobile. And of course it has its namesake: a giant, wooden statue of a man that’s destroyed by fire every year.

    Its temporary residents have problems people in no other midsize city face except during a disaster. At the end of the festival, the city must disappear like it never existed. Its residents must provide their own necessities: homes, food, water, sanitation and power. In fact, the only things available to buy are coffee drinks and ice. Internet and phone service is minimal to nonexistent. The city provides portable toilets but not showers. The nearest supermarket and gas station are nine miles away and jammed. There are no trash cans. All trash – even cigarette butts and wash water – must be stored and removed at the end of the week. Every bit of infrastructure is trucked in on the narrow highway beforehand and trucked out afterward if it’s not deliberately burned during the week. (Even debris from burned installations must be removed and the ground raked over.)

    Burning Man as seen from above Burning Man as seen from above

    Access to this town 120 miles from Reno, Nev. is possible by a two-lane highway or a temporary airport. Its residents face the extreme weather conditions of the desert: temperatures that range from less than 40 degrees at night to more than 100 degrees during the day, bone-dry, shade-free landscape and windstorms of alkali silt that block the sun and hinder breathing. The alkali dust causes playa foot, a chemical burn on the skin that can cause infection, according to attendee Bee Joli Shah, writing in Allure.

    “The first thing you have to know about Burning Man is it is all about survival, both as a 70,000 person community, and as an individual. That might sound a little scary, okay, it might sound a lot scary,” wrote former attendee Jennifer Maas for Hollywood Life.

    They’ve made it work for 30 years by practicing 10 principles codified in 2004. These principles are helpful in any emergency situation and include Radical Self-reliance, Participation, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility and Gifting.

    “The Black Rock Desert is trying its best to kill you. As ‘Radical Self-Reliance’ is one of Burning Man’s core principles, it is YOUR responsibility to see to it that it doesn’t.” the Burning Man web site said.

    Check out this list of required items for Burning Man participants. Notice how closely it resembles lists of supplies for 72-hour kits. Dust masks and goggles are necessary, as is some first aid training. Those are also useful in any disaster situation.

    This year, six people were injured, and one was airlifted out, when their theme camp collapsed. More common injuries include infection, playa foot, heat illness and substance abuse.

    A really good guide for Burning Man attendees is also useful for emergency preparedness, telling, among other things, how to set up ad hoc power systems and manage water.

    Former attendees recommend wet wipes and vinegar for cleaning, because the vinegar’s acidity can cut the alkalinity of the dust. Vinegar is a good cleaning and preserving agent for an emergency too.

    burning man-exodus-2-line - via Burners Burning Man Exodus traffic - via Burners

    Burning Man organizers tell attendees to fill up with gas in larger towns and make sure their tank is mostly full before they arrive, so they won’t have to fill up during the long wait to leave. This year, attendees had to wait up to nine hours in their cars after law enforcement stopped traffic to search for a missing 17-year-old girl. Even during normal departure times, called “Exodus,” people wait six to eight hours just to leave the area, according to event organizers. Organizers have a plan that entails moving groups in hour-plus intervals and turning vehicles off during the wait period.

    “Fill up on gas frequently and consider bringing a small gas can. There are very few gas stations on the 90-mile stretch between Fernley and Black Rock City,” attendee Melanie Curtin wrote for Inc.

    The Federal Emergency Management also recommends keeping a car’s gas tank full in case of any emergency evacuation.

    A major part of Burning Man is gifting, providing gifts to anyone, without thought of recompense or the size of the gift. Participants are also encouraged to volunteer and work together. In a disaster, people who have the things they need will be able to help others.

    Burning Man attendees must be prepared, or they can be turned away, according to Maas.

    “Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise, and rely on his or her inner resources,” the organization’s web site says. “You are responsible for your own survival, safety, comfort, and well-being, and for Leaving No Trace.”

    That can be true in any place, in any life event.


    Disaster_Blog_Banner - Burning Man

  • Comparing Hurricane Katrina with the Louisiana Flood

    Hurricane Katrina - Flooding in Venice, LA - Louisiana Flood Flooding in Venice, LA from Hurricane Katrina

    Today, exactly 11 years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and parts of the Gulf Coast, Louisiana residents are cleaning up from another storm that was far worse than everyone expected.

    At least 100,000 homes were affected in a once-in-1,000-year flood. At least 13 people were killed. Emergency managers said it was the most devastating natural disaster since Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

    The Louisiana floods have many parallels with Hurricane Katrina.

    First, both were worse than expected.

    Hurricane Katrina was expected to be dangerous. The day before it hit, August 28, New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin ordered the city’s first-ever mandatory evacuation. An estimated 80 percent of the New Orleans metro area evacuated. However, no one, including the Army Corps of Engineers who built the city’s levee system, expected nearly every levee to fail.

    The storm that slammed southeast Louisiana was an easterly wave, a “hurricane without the winds,” as Barry Keim, Louisiana State Climatologist, told Popular Science.

    The National Weather Service issued a flood watch for the area on August 10, saying up to 10 inches was possible.

    That was a slight understatement. In two days, NWS gauges measured 21.86 inches of rain.

    Louisiana Flood - via NPR Louisiana Flood, 2016 - via NPR

    “If this was a tropical storm or a hurricane that actually had a National Hurricane Center name attached to it, it probably would have gotten a whole lot more attention as it approached over here," Keim told Popular Science.

    In fact, the New York Times later apologized for its delayed interest in the flooding.

    Second, not that many people had flood insurance. Flooding is usually not covered by regular homeowner’s insurance but must be bought separately.

    Before Hurricane Katrina, there were about 360,000 flood insurance policies in Louisiana, according to Louisiana Commissioner of Insurance Jim Donelon in a story by the Shreveport Times. After Katrina, the number of policies jumped to 490,000 in 2008. It’s at 450,000 now, which only represents about 21 percent of homes.

    About 75 percent of the people whose homes were damaged in the flood didn’t have flood insurance.  Almost half of the people who live in a high risk area in Louisiana have flood insurance, according to FEMA, but only 12 percent outside the high risk zone have it. A high risk zone is defined by the National Flood Insurance Program as an area with at least a 1 in 4 chance of flooding during a 30-year mortgage. About a third of homes that flood in Louisiana every year are outside the high risk flood zone, David LaCombe of UDB Insurance in Alexandria told the Shreveport Times.

    When the president declares a major disaster, as he did for Louisiana, the Federal Emergency Management Agency provides a maximum of $33,000 per household for disaster relief.

    “Even if you only have 3 or 4 inches of water in your home, it could still cost you $40,000 to $50,000 to replace the sheet rock, replace the flooring and all that sort of stuff,” LaCombe told the Shreveport Times.

    Louisiana Flood Only 25% of flood-damaged homes were covered by flood insurance - Image via Insurance Journal

    “I think everyone in Louisiana should have flood insurance,” Melissa Becker, assistant director and flood-plain manager for the Rapides Area Planning Commission, told the Shreveport Times.

    After Hurricane Katrina, many businesses and government entities struggled to reach evacuated and missing employees. The hurricane displaced more than a million people, the largest such migration in U.S. history. Infrastructure was destroyed. Total damage cost $108 billion.

    In Louisiana’s flooded area, 22 school districts closed, according to the Washington Post. Some schools are flooded, but the greater problem is finding school personnel. One district superintendent was living in a shelter on August 21, and an estimated 4,000 employees were displaced by the flooding. As of August 22, 2,800 people were still living in shelters in the Baton Rouge area alone.

    We’re just entering the height of Atlantic hurricane season. Right now, Hurricane Gaston is churning about 575 miles east southeast of Bermuda, but is expected to weaken without making landfall anywhere.

    However, two tropical depressions, which could possibly organize into tropical storms, formed Sunday. One is about 60 miles south of Key West, Fla., and is expected to hit Florida and move into the Gulf of Mexico. Another, which meteorologists have been following for several days, formed in the Atlantic west of Bermuda and is on track to bring heavy rain to North Carolina.

    The best thing anyone can do before a hurricane is prepare emergency kits and financial information, have flood insurance and be able to evacuate.

    “You’re still going to have the homes under water," Keim told Popular Science. "You can’t move the homes, but you can move the people.”


    Hurricane_Blog_Banner - Louisiana Flood

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