Preparing for Disaster

Preparing for Disaster

How to make homes safe in the case of emergency.

This is the first in an occasional series on disaster preparation.

<bt>Back-to-back hurricanes slamming the Gulf Coast have people thinking about disasters. But getting them to do something about it is another story.

Only four of every 10 people in the Washington, D.C., region are prepared for an emergency, according to a recent survey conducted by the National Capital Region Emergency Preparedness Campaign.

In the region, the campaign has been underway to lift that number and work to motivate 50 percent of area residents to become prepared in the event of a terrorist attack or other emergency situations.

Some might argue the level of preparedness in the region is surprisingly low given the area’s history with disaster. While the area was abuzz with talk of being prepared after the events of Sept. 11, still most people have not made preparedness a priority.

Just two years ago, the area was hit by Hurricane Isabel, which left several thousand people without electricity, some for as long as a month.

David Smith, a Realtor with Long & Foster of Centreville, recalled a client who lived in Arlington but bought a second home in Haymarket after Sept. 11 to have a “relocation” property.

“A few years later, he sold it, thinking it wouldn’t be necessary,” said Smith. “In general, I think there is a substantial degree of complacency — you can’t be worried about [disasters] indefinitely.”

Mike Corrigan of Reston remembered when Hurricane Isabel came through the area, causing the power to go off for a “significant amount of time.” But his in-laws had it worse. They’re power was out for more than a week. “We had to move all their perishables into our refrigerator,” said Corrigan, who added that he’s thought seriously about what to do in the event of a disaster.

AT HOME THERE are a few easy things people can do to be prepared. “The main thing is to make sure you have an emergency supply kit,” said Jim Person, Fairfax County’s emergency information officer. “People need to be prepared to have three days worth of supplies.”

Emergency kits, Person said, should contain water, nonperishable food, a first aid kit, tools, special items such as medicines or diapers and important family documents. Many of these items may already be in people’s homes, but just require putting them all together in a kit.

However preparing this kit (see box) is an ongoing process. “Just because you do it once, you still need to reassess it every six months,” said Person, explaining that bottled water needs to be replaced every six months. Children, Person said, are known to take a granola bar or two from the kit if the pantry has run dry.

Other than the kit, Person also said people need to develop a communications plan. “Sometime that can be as simple as everyone agreeing to call a granddad in North Carolina about their whereabouts,” said Person.

“Here in the county we encourage everyone to sign up to the community emergency alert network,” said Person. By signing up at, the county can send out emergency alerts to people by various modes of communication: cell phone, email, pager, or wireless PDA.

Person recommends taking preparation one step further. “Make sure you’ve got a plan at your office. Also, a lot of people around here commute long distances, so have a kit in your car,” he said.

A BIG PART of that plan will be deciding when to stay put or evacuate. In the event that people are instructed to stay in their homes, there are certain things that they should do and have ready.

In the case of certain disasters, preparing the home will require preplanning, including times when “sealing the room” is advised. This is a process used to seal the room as a temporary protective measure, creating a barrier between yourself and potentially contaminated air outside.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, this process involves several steps. In this situation, people are instructed to bring their family inside; close windows, doors and air vents; turn off fans, air conditioning or heat units; take the emergency supply kit; go to an interior room with the fewest windows; seal all windows, doors and air vents with plastic sheeting and duct tape; and continue to seal gaps if they are found.

THE NATIONAL Capital Region isn’t the only group trying to persuade people to prepare for emergencies.

Last month, the American Red Cross and the Department of Homeland Security co-sponsored National Preparedness Month, a nationwide effort to encourage Americans to prepare for emergencies in their homes, business and schools. The goal was to increase the awareness about the importance of being prepared for various types of disaster.

For the entire month, people were provided with a variety of opportunities to learn more about preparing for emergencies, including natural disasters and potential terrorist threats. Events and activities were held to encourage individuals to get an emergency supply kit, make a family emergency plan and get informed about different threats.

Despite these national and regional campaigns, increasing awareness about preparing for disasters remains an ongoing effort.

“Emergency preparedness is not something that we can just talk about and then it’s over. It’s always got to be something we emphasize and encourage people to do,” said Person. “Unfortunately, it takes events like hurricanes Katrina and Rita to open people’s eyes and think about [emergency preparedness] more and realize they have to do something.”

The county’s effort to promote preparedness has been “steady and continuous,” said Bill MacKay, the county’s deputy emergency management coordinator. “This is a partnership that has to be between the citizens and the governmental responders,” said MacKay.