PLAN for Disaster

By Maurice A. Ramirez

When hurricane Katrina slammed the gulf coast, every American witnessed the devastation that occurred from lack of preparation and planning. Officials knew the storm was coming and they knew it was going to be big, but planning was almost non-existent. Although the officials ran a number of drills, allowed three days to evacuate, and identified which areas and residents would be most at risk, they failed to plan a designated time to leave, how they would evacuate residents, and how much time they would need to get everyone out safely.

When hurricane Rita threatened Texas merely days after Katrina ravaged Missouri, the outcome was quite different. Each county in Texas planned and practiced for disasters annually. So when meteorologists plotted Rita’s path, officials in Texas already knew who would be a part of their plan, they anticipated being overwhelmed, and they had identified who could support them. Although their evacuation looked chaotic when everyone ran out of gas on the road, they were able to accommodate the situation and they had a plan in action quickly after the fuel shortage took hold.

So while the Katrina aftermath is still making headlines, Rita was much easier to deal with because the officials had a plan. Regardless of whether your city has a plan for dealing with a disaster, you, as an individual, can be prepared. Use the following steps, based on the acronym PLAN, to get yourself, your family, and your call center ready to handle whatever disaster you face.

P – PEOPLE: The first step in making your plan is to take an inventory of who will be participating. If you are making a plan for your family, consider who will be with you and how to prepare each person for the disaster. If you have small children, you may need to talk to them about what is happening and reassure them that everything will be all right.

Also, what tasks will each person perform? If you’re facing a hurricane, who will board up the windows? Who will make sure the dog gets into the car if you evacuate? Each person should have a function in ensuring the safety and security of everyone else. Even children can participate. A small task might make a child feel more purposeful, like a critical part of the plan, rather than a helpless bystander. So if your children are old enough to take part, put them in charge of the extra batteries or have them fill the water bottles.

Likewise, if you are making a plan for your business, consider who will participate and what role each person will fill. If you plan to close, you need to know who will be involved in the closing decision and how you will secure the premises. If you decide to stay open, your plan is even more important because you will be responsible for the safety of your employees.

Other people in your plan include contacts outside the disaster zone. You need someone to serve as a message board for communication. Then everyone involved in your plan can call in and let the centralized person know they are safe and their location. If you decide to leave, you may need someone out of state whom you can stay with.

Finally, consider what outside facilities you are going to rely on. If you have unanticipated emergencies, who are you going to call? Are they going to be able to get to you? If your entire plan is to call 911 and get assistance, you need to realize that in a disaster situation they probably won’t be able to assist you for seventy-two hours. In this case, you will need to reassess your plan.

L – LEAVE: Next, consider leaving the disaster zone. When and how will you leave (evacuate)? Where will you go and how will you get there? Will your family or employees meet before you leave or when you arrive at your destination? The decision to leave makes communication and your contacts outside the disaster zone critically important. How will you communicate while you evacuate and after you arrive at your destination? What are you going to do if you get separated? Operate on a buddy system; no one should be left alone. When you and your family or business associates become mobile, make sure everyone knows the plan. Then, if your plan fails, you need an alternative.

If you are not leaving, consider where will you stay and how will you stay safe. Will you all stay together or shelter in the place you are when the disaster strikes? Will you send some of your family or employees to your evacuation destination while others stay? All these factors need careful consideration and planning.

A – ANTICIPATE and ADAPT: Unfortunately, in a disaster situation, nothing always goes as planned. So anticipate plan failures and plan for the “what ifs.” This is a chance to brainstorm. Make a list of all the possible failures. What if the phone lines go down? What if your basement floods? What if you get caught in traffic? No “what if” scenario is too extreme to consider. The only possibility that you can’t plan for is the one you didn’t think of.

Once you’ve brainstormed possible failures, you need to adapt to each one with an alternate plan. If the phone lines go down, can you use your cell phone? If your basement floods, can you seek shelter with a neighbor or in some other nearby location? If you get caught in traffic, will you have enough gas to evacuate successfully?

What if something happens that you didn’t anticipate? If you go through this process enough times and really work on your plan, then you will be able to adapt to the failure. Your mind will be primed and you’ll be ready to think of alternatives, even if the failure isn’t anticipated beforehand.

N – NEEDS: In any disaster situation, you must be prepared to go for seventy-two hours without assistance. Those first seventy-two hours are critical because emergency relief will be overwhelmed during that time. Fire departments, police, and medical personnel won’t have the resources to get to everyone.

After hurricane Katrina, many people died simply because they ran out of food and water in those critical three days. However, four days before Rita hit Texas, the community leaders were on the television warning people that if they decided to stay, they needed to be prepared for seventy-two hours because no one would be able to help them.

When working on your plan, make sure you account for all your needs for seventy-two hours. Be prepared to be self-sufficient during this time. Each one of your family or team members must have personal identification and photos of all others in your plan, two quarts (liters) of drinking water, seventy-two hours of food, seventy-two hours of clothes, two weeks of medications, two weeks of toiletries, a supply of cash (credit/debit cards can’t be verified if phone lines go down), a flashlight, a portable radio, batteries, a signal whistle, white/silver duct tape, a first aid kit, prepaid calling card, and a list of emergency phone numbers.

These needs should be kept in a rolling backpack that stays with its owner. Keep this bag, your Disaster Pack, readily accessible. And if a disaster is imminent, keep the Disaster Pack with you at all times.

Are You Ready?: Once you have taken an inventory of your family or staff, made arrangements for evacuation, anticipated and accommodated failures, and gathered all your needs for seventy-two hours, you need to review and practice your plan each year.

Hurricane situations are timely because of what happened on the gulf coast, but regardless of what disaster situation you face, you must have a plan. In a tornado, tsunami, or terrorist attack, you can use these steps to make your disaster plan and ensure the safety of your family and your business.

Dr. Maurice A. Ramirez is Board Certified in emergency medicine, family practice, sports medicine, geriatric medicine, and clinical nutrition. He applies techniques used in the ER to everyday business problems.  

[From Connection Magazine December 2005]

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