Preparing for an Emergency: What We Should (But Probably Won’t) Do

Hurricane Stan
The aftermath of Hurricane Stan, Guatemala, 2005

What would you do if an emergency ñ a pandemic, earthquake, or building/bridge collapse, happened where you were at 17:00 tomorrow?

Chances are, you wouldn’t be prepared. You wouldn’t even know what to do. You would instinctively react to the best of your ability, and for the most part you’d do the right things.

You’d screw up on some things however:

  • You’d probably try to find and round up your family and then flee the area, causing traffic chaos, blocking emergency vehicles, clogging communication lines and exposing yourself and loved ones to more danger than if you stayed put.
  • If it was a health emergency, you might well head for a hospital, clinic or doctor’s office to get Tamiflu. Waste of time.
  • You might well help overwhelm government, medical and emergency authorities with your frantic calls for information.

The problem isn’t that thousands or millions will make such mistakes, it’s that emergency workers are counting on you to wait passively for information and instruction, and to stay out of their way. You won’t, and as a result their plans will be jeopardized. And even if there’s no panic, because emergency plans depend on other departments’ and groups’ and governments’ emergency plans working as well, all it takes is one group to fail, or something to fall between the cracks of all these plans, and all of the plans will fail.

We saw this in the response to Katrina: FEMA failed utterly, and all those depending on FEMA to do its job couldn’t do theirs. And none of the local plans anticipated the unavailability of communications infrastructure, so the result was chaos and anarchy. In the aftermath, each group pointed the finger of blame elsewhere, so preparedness plans for most groups have not substantially changed. So if, as many expect, we will see another Katrina this summer, we can expect the same completely inadequate response.

We never learn. It’s not human nature to be prepared for anything that isn’t highly probable and imminent ñ the needs of the moment always take precedence over longer-term thinking. We do what we must, then we do what’s easy, and then we do what’s fun. Emergency preparedness, until itís too late, is none of these things.

There is no human answer to this problem. Just look at the trillions that have been squandered (and the rights trampled and abuses committed) in the insane attempt to prevent a repeat of 9/11, when in all likelihood the next attacks by organized desperados will use utterly different tactics. They have hundreds of obvious ones to choose from, even more if they’re imaginative, and trying to anticipate and preempt them all is ludicrous. Spending money on large standing reserves and task forces which will go into action if and when an emergency of the type they are specifically trained for comes into effect is futile. And the psychological and social damage caused by trying to prepare for a thousand unpredictable possibilities is horrific.

This is not to take anything away from the many organizations that have to cope with emergencies every year, or those who are valiantly trying to prevent them from happening and mitigate the damages they will cause. These are (mostly) intelligent, committed people. But what they are trying to do probably cannot be done. It is another attempt to find a complicated solution to a complex problem.

So what should we do? I’ll suggest some ways of coping with emergencies at the institutional and societal level in a future article (I suggested some in my earlier article on pandemic flu preparation). But at the individual level, there are probably four things that make sense, and a fifth if you’re a keener and live in a close-knit community:

  1. Go about your business and your life. Worrying about things that may never happen and which you can’t do anything about is a waste of time, money and energy and will make you ill. People in struggling nations get this, I think, since many in those nations face it day-to-day for their whole lives.
  2. Donít expect authorities to look after you in an emergency. They’ll do their best, if they can keep their own people from breaking ranks and looking after their loved ones instead of their duty. And if it’s a relatively minor emergency they may do just fine. Just don’t count on it. Learned helplessness is endemic in our society, and in an emergency it’s a liability.
  3. Expect the majority of people to panic as peacefully as they can. Forget the Hollywood hype about massive arson and murder and rape. If you’re hungry and there’s no one in authority, you’ll steal only what you need and only get violent if thereís no other choice. The vast majority of people are like that. In fact, most people really rise to the occasion in an emergency, and some behave absolutely heroically. But expect the roads to be mayhem and ill-conceived, even stupid behaviour to be the norm.
  4. Educate yourself and those in your communities on things you can and should do (and not do) when an emergency occurs. The list varies depending on the type of emergency, but hereís eight things to do for starters:
    • Have a manageable list of emergency supplies on hand in your home and in your car, and keep them fresh. Include in your house kit: 6 litres of fresh water per person, 3 days’ worth of dried or canned food (and an opener), a flashlight (and batteries), a portable radio (and batteries, even if it’s a crank-type), a first aid kit, prescription medicines, baby food and needs for disabled family members if applicable, extra keys, and cash. Include in your car kit: food, water and first aid as above, plus blankets and spare clothes/shoes, candles-in-a-can (and matches), a knife, emergency light or flares, a shovel, scraper and brush, and emergency contact phone number list. Donít forget to include supplies for your pets, and keep them close! 
    • In a health emergency, keep yourself and loved ones away from other people. Take them out of school, stay home from work (unless you’re an emergency worker, in which case stay at work), don’t travel anywhere you don’t have to, and avoid stores, airports, and any other places with lots of people.
    • In a health emergency, wash your hands often and thoroughly with hot water and soap, don’t touch potentially contaminated surfaces, use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol, and, when you cough or sneeze, use a disposable tissue or your sleeve, not your hands.
    • In case the emergency drags on, learn where you can get fresh food locally, from farms and gardens, and have a back-up source of heat for your home.
    • Learn emergency first aid.
    • Keep your cellphone (plus charger and spare batteries) and a list of emergency information numbers and URLs handy, but don’t expect these to work in an emergency.
    • Get a flu shot. It won’t protect against pandemic flu, but it will improve your resistance, and you don’t want to be sick during an emergency.
    • If you absolutely have to leave, tell people where you’re going.
  5. If you live in a friendly, tight neighbourhood and you’re keen, put together a neighbourhood plan ñ who’ll pick up the kids, who’s best at doing what, how to share the difficult tasks you may face, what’s unique to your neighbourhood that must be dealt with, etc. Teach each other what you need to know. Practice, at least on a tabletop, what you will do, when you get everyone together.

If you’re like most people (me included) you won’t prepare an emergency kit, and even if you’re fortunate enough to live in a community like mine you probably won’t do #5 either. But most of the rest of these ideas are really just common sense and don’t require you to do anything until an emergency actually happens. These are mostly about preparing yourself mentally and psychologically, rather than physically, for an emergency. They’re about building your resilience.

In my earlier article I suggested you should think about what you will do if there’s a pandemic and you find you have a natural immunity, or if disease strikes a loved one but not you. But I’m not sure thinking about this in advance serves much purpose ñ if this happens you will do what you will do.

And that’s the overall message that a study of history, an understanding of human nature, and a reading of all the literature on emergency preparedness out there, should probably teach us: Emergencies are going to happen, and they will touch us personally or they won’t, and if they do we will probably do our best even though we won’t be prepared, so there’s no point staying awake worrying aboutit.

More about learned helplessness later this week ñ The more I think about this subject, the more important it seems to be.

Category: Being Human
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5 Responses to Preparing for an Emergency: What We Should (But Probably Won’t) Do

  1. FishEpid says:

    Seems like one could approach this logically and. What scenario is most likely happen to an individual in which they will need to be completely self-sufficient and for how long? What is most likely to kill in that time and what items/knowledge increase survival chances? What is the cost of carrying the item? For example, in this region it seems that getting lost, marooned (mechanical failure of transport) or stuck in backwoods is not that uncommon. What would enhance survival in that scenario? A signal mirror would likely increase detection likelihood but be light enough and flat enough to have a very low carrying “cost” when constantly carried on one’s person. A severe earthquake would likely disrupt water and power supplies. Would carrying a water filtration straw in one’s carryons make sense? What are the individually carried items when broadly spread across a group make it more resilient?

  2. FishEpid says:

    “and almost quantitatively.” aboveAny good resources written on this?

  3. MLU says:

    Water, food and shelter (bedding and warm clothes) are most critical. Especially water. Many different disasters lead to pollution of the available water supply–earthquakes, flooding, volcanoes. . .And prescription meds. Expect no help from outside for the first 48 hours–Mt. St. Helens, Mississippi floods, earthquakes, West Coast tsunami, terrorist attack, Great Plains blizzard, East Coast ice storm, power outage, pandemic. . .The main thing is to have your basic needs met so you can help others. The most important things that happen in a major disruption the first 48 hours are handled by people who are there. Communications always jam.You won’t be there to help pull that three-year-old girl out of the mud if your house isn’t in order and you’re worried about your own kids. You won’t be free to patrol your area looking for the elderly who are very vulnerable to any disruption–even brief ones. That, I think, is more likely to be the problem than is mere survival for young or middle-aged males. The really important thing, like so many other things that really might save the world, is to distribute the solution. Lots of people doing little things that aren’t hard, like having a 48 emergency kit, is far more effective than FEMA-like agencies will ever be.Of course, both approaches are needed but nobody in EMS ever thought it would work for people to depend on FEMA right away in something like Katrina. They’ve been saying for decades that in the first 48 hours, you’re on your own.

  4. Stephen says:

    I just came across your blog. You have a great site. For many years we sold storage food for emergency use, taught storage food tips, and know how important it is to be prepared for an emergency. Few have such rations and supplies on hand. I am now focusing on clean energy and cutting CO2 emissions into the environment. Up until this point going “Green,” solar, has been economically overwhelming for most people. However, it is now available affordably to those of us in the US, and global expansion is planned for the future. If we all do what we can, just perhaps, we can help our planet heal a little and continue being the beautiful home it’s been for us for our grandchildren. This post was very timely and interesting. Thanks for sharing “all” the great input in all your posts.Stephen KudabeckSolar: Switch to Clean Energy with NO Equipment to Purchase,& Lock In Today’s Electric Costs for the Next 25 Years! call 501-624-7500-Please leave a message

  5. Mariella says:

    If it is true that everything we do is supported by a perfect cognitive strategy meant to achieve what we achieve, no matter if it is congruent or not with our desires or needs…. we may want to go to sleep, but if we unconsciuosly run a brain activity program…(- perhaps activated by any external signal that is anchored to an emotional memory-)… we wont sleep.I have the feeling that learned helplessnss is also a well learned cognitive strategy (activated perhaps by a cultural depression or somthing similar) that leads to disempower individuals and their communities.Maybe this learned attitude is more related to the quality of communication and interrelation capacities of a community.

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