Functional Friday: What disaster should I plan for? (or how disasters work in the real world)

Most emergencies last less than an hour in total: a car accident, power outage, thunderstorm, flat tire, a trip to the ER.  (The trip to the ER will inevitably take longer, but things are usually under control in an hour.)  Often many household dilemmas are short lived:  what to make for dinner, a button comes off, the light bulb blew out, we're out of tissues.  Even your local police and fire, who manage life and death incidents within a highly structured framework, deal will many issues in this short time frame. Begin planning for the disasters in your life that will last an hour or less but at an inconvenient time, you can expand the plan to cover bigger and more dramatic situations later. 

Emergency preparedness always starts at home.  Most of us don't have the knowledge, time, or resources to plan for every possible threatening scenario.  Start small and build on what you've got.  Let's take a look at several considerations that may help you focus on your needs and concerns.  (If you haven't read the post, Disaster Cycle, you might want to hit that first.) The key to your personal preparedness is to find your comfortable balance in each of these.  Each side of the equation must be considered in your emergency planning and preparation, but you must determine what resources will be devoted.

Potential Loss vs. Likelihood of Occurrence
Potential Loss asks what can I lose if this event happens.  Will I lose the contents of my fridge, my house, my life?  Likelihood of Occurrence is how probable is this to actually happen.  Is is more likely that you'll struggle to recover from a storm or a job loss?  Like investing your finances or buying insurance, you must determine what goals and what risk you are comfortable with in preparing for an emergency.  I do not specifically prepare for a plane crash near my home, even though I live near a busy airport and the crash could be devastating, it's doubtful that will happen in my lifetime.  I do prepare for power outages, although though they pose a much smaller physical risk.  In the past five years, we've had nearly ten outages that lasted more than a few seconds and three lasting more than 24 hours.  Chances are it's going to happen again.  And I can plan and prepare for it.

Mitigation vs. Preparedness
These two concepts go hand in hand, and often appear to overlap.  Mitigation is making more permanent or ongoing changes that reduce possible losses, avoiding an incident altogether.  Flood mitigation for your family might include moving.  Preparedness is making more flexible but temporary changes that increase your ability to respond to an incident.  Flood preparedness might include insurance, an evacuation plan and supplies.  Consider your resources and tolerance to change when considering these changes.  Weigh both options in light of your situation.  Don't forget to consider ongoing costs when comparing plans: generators need regular maintenance, food supplies need rotated or replaced, new team members require training.

Survival vs. Convenience
Let's be honest, the incidence of life and death situations in the US is relatively low.  We live safe comfortable lives with very few uncontrolled risks.  There are people out there who will tell you that TEOTWAWKI (The End Of The World As We Know It) is coming, and we need to be ready.  I am not one of those people.  I believe that in modern survival situations, decisions are generally made based on training, experience, and what they used to call common sense.  I'm all for it (survival), but I believe you and I can't plan for it exclusively. There are exceptions like a blanket and portable heater in your stranded car in freezing weather, or an extra supply of medication after an earthquake, or bottled water stored at home during a power outage with no running water (been there, done that).  If you can plan and implement a solution for a likely survival situation, do it.

However, I believe that most of the preparations we need to make are convenience plans and that they are important.  I would like a change of clothes and a snack if I'm stranded in my car.  Or maybe I hope to make a good impression on my son's girlfriend that he brought home unexpectedly for dinner.  How nice it is to know that Fluffy, our cat, is safe with us after the gas leak was discovered at home.  (You're right, of course, it sounds like Fluffy may have been in a life and death survival situation for a moment.)  My own disaster plan doesn't include building my own shelter, eating bugs, and using improvised tools like an episode of Survivor.  I suppose I could, but that wouldn't be very convenient would it?  I plan for beef jerky, chocolate, and ramen noodles.

Supplies vs. Training
I've emphasized the importance of keeping emergency supplies with you in your daily routine: kits at home, go-bags in the closet, a flashlight and water bottle in your purse, a change of clothes in your desk drawer, snacks on your car.  But what if you cannot get to your supplies? A flash flood, a chemical spill, or a flight delay could keep you from your well stocked emergency kit.  Knowledge is power, and there are situations where your training will take you further than any super tool or snack bar.

Hopefully you'll not have take out terrorists to save humanity, but think about your favorite action hero (MacGyver) as he improvises with a ball point pen, a stick of chewing gum, and three banana leaves to rescue the prisoner.  In the real world, that's all training, and there are people out there who can do that.  Knowledge is power.  For you, a training class in first aid with CPR is probably the place to start, but the sky's the limit for how far you take your disaster education.  (The Red Cross offers great courses.  A local CERT class may be the next step.  FEMA offers online courses for citizens.  Over 200 colleges and universities in the US offer a degree in emergency management.) 

Disasters vs. Symptoms
In personal preparedness, citizens are asked to look at an overwhelming range of possible disasters and formulate some sort of plan for themselves.  Although you must determine which disasters to prepare for.  For planning purposes, it can be helpful to list the potential symptoms of each disaster.  The disaster itself can be described, in my mind, as the initial newspaper headline. (Anyone out there still read newspapers?) What happened?

Tornado Flattens 15 Local Homes
Flooding Threatens Downtown Businesses Residents
Unemployment Levels at All Time High
Explosion Impact Leaves Residents Cut-Off for 48 Hours
Transportation Strike Expected to Continue Through Next Week
New Baby and Career Leaves Mother No Time to Juggle Her Life

Because disasters are so variable, it's a chore to create a personal plan for each event.  Symptoms of a disaster, in contrast, are what that disaster means to me or to you.  Some symptoms of disasters include the loss of basic necessities: clean air, clean water, nutritious food, safe transportation, effective communication, safe shelter, heat or cooling, cooking resources, personal safety, and the potential to restock supplies.  These symptoms overlap from disaster to disaster.  I choose to address each of these symptoms and formulate a overarching and effective plan.

In the next few weeks, we'll walk you through compiling the information, a plan and a kit that you can use to keep preparing for the best in a variety of difficult situations.

Related Posts
Family Emergency Plan

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