- - Sunday, July 15, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Culture challenge of the week: Unprepared for the unexpected

For Melissa, her husband, Dave, and their children, it was a typical summertime Friday night. They watched a family movie, let the kids stay up late and ate ice cream. The day’s heat had been sweltering, too hot even for the pool. So Melissa and her family were particularly grateful for their air-conditioned home. As the movie ended, a drizzle began, carrying the promise of a cooler tomorrow.

About 10:30 p.m., however, the wind suddenly picked up. Great gusts— nearly 80 miles per hour— shook the house. In a matter of minutes, lights flickered, something crashed and the house went dark. The next few minutes brought one unwelcome discovery after another.

The crash? The lovely 30-foot shade tree in their front yard had been sheared in half and fell onto the house. The roof, porch and front door disappeared under heavy tree limbs and branches. (Thankfully, the roof held the weight and did not collapse.)

Inside, Melissa and her family scrambled for flashlights. Where were they? Thirteen-year-old Jed found two in the kitchen’s utility drawer, but neither one worked— either the batteries were dead or the bulbs were bad.

There was no time to hunt further. The powerful wind rattled the windows and, fearing a tornado, the family grabbed hands and felt their way to the basement, their steps lit by the glow of cellphones. In the eerie silence, punctuated only by violent gusts of wind, they waited for the storm to pass.

Like nearly a million others in the Washington area, Melissa and her family were victims of an unusual violent storm— called a “derecho”— that swept into the area on June 29 with little warning. More than a dozen people lost their lives, power outages lingered a week, municipal water supplies were contaminated, and cell phones and 911 emergency communications failed.

Although their family escaped injury, Melissa and her husband realized acutely their vulnerability to disaster. They had no power, no flashlights and no gas in their cars. Their home phone and cellphones didn’t work. While the pantry held some gallon water jugs and food, these would last only a few days. The few open stores accepted cash only; no credit cards. Melissa and Dave had little cash between them. Worse, Dave’s medicine needed a refill, but without power, the pharmacy could not access the prescription.

Dave and Melissa got lucky: They borrowed from neighbors until the storm cleanup crews rolled in and restored power. The crisis passed, but the lesson remained— be prepared!

How to save your family: Prepare today for tomorrow’s challenge

In the days following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, most Americans stocked or restocked their emergency supplies “just in case.” Eleven years later and we’ve grown complacent. And unprepared.

Like Melissa, we neglect to buy or refresh our supplies. Or we simply don’t bother to find out what we need. (After all, nobody reads disaster prep tips in their free time, right? Most people don’t listen to the flight attendants’ safety precautions before take-off, either.)

For your family’s sake, invest 20 minutes now and enjoy peace of mind, no matter what the weather. This simple checklist will get you started:

Check the FEMA-sponsored website, Ready.gov, for tips on what to do before, during and after all types of natural disasters.

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