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I. Are you ready for disaster? Assess your risk

 

Editors Note: We are offering a reprint of this five-part article, published on Daily Kos and originally published online by AlphaGeek {9.9.05}. From the diaries — Plutonium Page. The series offers a practical way to assess risk and prepare a variety of disaster scenarios. The series will appear chapter by chapter at 3 p.m. today through Friday.

Something bad is going to happen, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

Preparing to deal with a disaster is like going off of a ski jump. If you put off your planning until things start happening, it’s far too late to make much of a difference. Once you’re headed down that ski jump, the time for planning and preparation is over.

On the other hand, being prepared for disaster does not have to be time-consuming or expensive. In this multi-part series of DailyKos Diaries, I will share with you, dear reader, many of the lessons I’ve learned regarding the most effective ways to prepare for an emergency.

This is the first installment in a multi-part series on personal disaster preparedness. Your humble correspondent is a Silicon Valley technical executive with both professional and personal experience in risk assessment and disaster-readiness planning. Links to reference materials, including planning guides and reference information, will be found at the end of the final Diaries in this series.

Tornados pose a constant threat to Middle Tennessee

Series Index: Are YOU ready for disaster?

  1. Assess your risks!
  2. Plan to survive! (part A)
  3. Plan to survive! (part B)
  4. Emergency gear and supplies
  5. Material preparations continued; Conclusion

When disaster strikes, will you be prepared?

Despite what you may have gathered from reading guides to readiness from the government, the Red Cross, or other organizations, you should not begin with a spending spree at the local hardware store. When you strip away all of the bureaucrat-speak, there are three basic steps you must follow to be ready for disaster:

  1. Assess
  2. Plan
  3. Prepare

In this installment, we will discuss step 1, assessment of risks.

The psychology of disaster preparedness

In order to effectively prepare for disaster without becoming overwhelmed, you must be able to make realistic judgments about risks. On one hand, it is an effort for most people to “think the unthinkable”, to contemplate scenarios which are far outside the routine of their daily lives. It is difficult for most people to imagine a world where fresh water does not flow from the taps, electricity is something you can’t take for granted, and the grocery store shelves are empty… assuming the stores are even open.

On the other hand, there’s a phenomenon I think of as the “armageddon fallacy”. This is the temptation, once that our Pandora’s Box of fears and concerns has been opened, to imagine extremely unlikely events as real threats. We must be cautious to exercise good judgment when considering risks, as the “armageddon fallacy” is a surprisingly easy trap to fall into. Keep in mind that your plan, at some point, will be shared with friends and family. This incents most people to stay clear of the Crazy Talk Express to Armageddon Town when making a plan.

Assessing your risks: take a look around

Each city, state, and region of the country has its own unique set of risks. For example, your humble correspondent’s home in Fremont, California is unlikely to be threatened by a hurricane — but that home is only a few miles from the Hayward Fault, and surprisingly, is in a “dam failure inundation area”. Many homes in America are subject to hidden or unseen dangers such as this; in the Southwest, for example, the dangers of flash floods in an otherwise arid environment are well known, yet people die (surprised, in many cases) in flash floods every year. (Editor’s Note: Clarksville lies in the flood zone for a potential failure of Kentucky’s Wolf Creek Dam).

Your first task in building a disaster-readiness plan is to assess the risks particular to the areas where you spend significant time. In America’s car-centric suburban culture, many people work 20 miles or more from their home. The risks at work and at home may differ considerably, and should be assessed separately.

Here is a brief listing of risk categories you may find useful in putting together your list of potential emergencies in your area:

  • Domestic risks (house fire, carbon monoxide, medical emergency)
  • Industrial accident risk (refineries, chemical plants, rail lines transporting hazardous cargo such as liquified chlorine)
  • Natural disasters (heat waves, forest/grassland fires, earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis)
  • Secondary disaster risk due to primary natural disaster (e.g. the reservoir dam which may fail in an earthquake and flood Fremont)
  • Civil disturbance (riots, terrorist attacks, acts of war)

These risks are listed in the order in which you should consider them. Please note the “civil disturbance” category is last — this is because one of the principal goals of any disaster plan should be to minimize your exposure to civil-disturbance risks. The next installment of this series will discuss the use of risk-avoidance strategies in detail.

A good source for risk information is your city or state Office Of Emergency Services website, or its equivalent. Other good sources for detailed risk information include the following local resources:

  • building permit authority
  • fire department
  • police department and/or sheriff’s office

There exists one more category of risk which you must consider: risks to your freedom of movement. As you go about your business for the next week, consider the following:

  • Do you know of any alternate routes between work and home?
  • Does your primary route include bridges or tunnels
  • Does your primary route pass under any high-voltage power lines?
  • Do you regularly drive past refineries, chemical plants, or rail lines carrying tank cars?
  • Does your neighborhood have above- or below-ground power distribution?
  • If you need to leave your city or region, how many routes can you think of without consulting a map?
  • Do you have reasonably current paper map of your region in each of your family vehicles?

Homework time!

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to make a list of as many disaster risks as you can think of. Get your significant other or your kids involved, and make it a competitive event. Be lenient, at first, when considering whether something is a likely risk. Be sure to include all of the places where you might find yourself when disaster strikes — home, work, school, church, shopping, and so forth. Don’t consider the list closed until you’ve visited each of these places and looked, with a critical eye, at the risks we all ignore on a daily basis.

NEXT TIME: Phase 2 of increasing your preparedness: put together a plan for dealing with the risks you consider likely in your locale.

Update [2005-9-9 16:50:27 by AlphaGeek]: By popular demand, expanded the not-intended-to-be-comprehensive list of natural disasters. Added heat wave, forest/grassland fires, and tsunamis.


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