Disaster Readiness 101

Advance planning can help keep your family safe in case of terror attack

Karen Pallarito

Karen Pallarito

Published on June 09, 2004

WEDNESDAY, June 9, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- If terrorists unleashed toxic chemicals, disease-causing agents or a "dirty bomb" in your community, would your family be prepared?

If you're like most Americans, chances are you're confused about what to do in the event of a terrorist attack and ill-prepared to cope with one.

Only one in four U.S. adults has given some thought to making an evacuation plan for themselves and their families, according to a Harvard School of Public Health study released last year. And only 12 percent have actually made a plan, the researchers found.

The public's lack of planning for a biological, chemical or nuclear attack is understandable in places unlikely to be terrorist targets -- small Midwest towns, for instance.

"I do think people become complacent because they think, 'It couldn't happen here,' " said LuAnn White, director of the Center for Applied Environmental Public Health at Tulane University in New Orleans.

Yet a separate poll released by the American Red Cross last September showed that people in the Northeast -- the epicenter of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America -- are the least prepared for disaster.

Fewer than one in three adults in that corner of the country has an emergency plan for their family (32 percent) or a disaster supply kit (29 percent), the poll found.

Southerners were most prepared, a finding the Red Cross chalked up to the frequency of floods, tornadoes and other natural disasters in that part of the country.

While it's probably not prudent to build a special shelter, experts say a bit of advance planning can help you ride out whatever disaster may strike. Much of the same advice applies whether you're coping with some natural disaster -- be it flood, fire, earthquake, hurricane or tornado -- or a man-made calamity.

"There are so many commonalties in preparedness, regardless of the event," said Rocky Lopes, manager of disaster education for the American Red Cross' national headquarters in Washington, D.C.

In all cases, he added, it's important to develop a family communications plan that lets family members know how to contact one another in case of an emergency. Make and distribute a list of everyone's contact information, including cell phone numbers, home and work numbers, and e-mail addresses. Tuck a card listing those emergency contacts inside your child's knapsack.

Families also should designate a safe gathering place -- either inside or away from the home -- and practice their escape plan. But whether you actually evacuate your home or hunker down wherever you may be depends in large part on the nature of the emergency, Lopes explained. So it's important to listen to what emergency personnel are advising.

Say a tanker truck containing toxic chemicals overturns, releasing noxious fumes into the air. While parents' natural reaction is to run to their children, it may be unsafe to jump in the car and drive to your child's school. Plus, it's very likely the school would be locked down until authorities decide it's safe to travel.

"You need to make a decision based on what will make you safe," Lopes noted.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, created in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, urges all Americans to prepare for a disaster in advance and to use common sense.

"While there is no way to predict what will happen, or what your personal circumstances will be, there are simple things you can do now to prepare yourself and your loved ones," according to the agency's Web site.

The department offers this three-step plan to help prepare for a terrorist attack:

  • Step 1: Make a kit of emergency supplies that will help your family get by for at least three days. That kit should cover basic needs for food, water and clean air. You'll need one gallon of water per person per day for drinking and sanitation; non-perishable foods that your family would enjoy; and face masks or cloth to filter out debris or germs that could make you sick. Other recommended items include a battery-powered radio, flashlight and first aid kit.
  • Step 2: Make a plan for what you would do in an emergency and how family members would contact one another. If circumstances suggest the safest bet is to "shelter in place," choose a room with as few windows and doors as possible. Consider where you would go if you must evacuate. Talk to your children's schools and your employer about their emergency plans.
  • Step 3: Keep informed about what's happening. The type of terrorist threat may affect how you react.

In the days and weeks after 9/11, for instance, some Americans stocked up on duct tape and plastic garbage bags. Those items can be useful for sealing off a room from outside contamination. But consider the circumstances you're facing, Tulane's White advised.

"If you're in proximity of a chemical attack, you might want to do that. If it's an infectious disease [that's deliberately been released], that's totally inappropriate," White said, adding that your or family may have already been infected.

While average citizens may be lagging in their preparedness, clinicians and public health officials across the country are engaged in tremendous planning and training efforts, White added. Emergency medical personnel, for example, are looking at ways to accommodate large numbers of casualties. Public health leaders, meanwhile, are setting up surveillance systems to quickly identify unusual symptoms that may indicate a biological attack has occurred.

After all, said Lopes, "anyone who may intentionally release a biological agent is not going to announce that release."

More information

For more tips on preparing for disaster, visit the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

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