Last year's record hurricane season brought disasters to the forefront of our attention and into our living rooms. Disasters cost the United States thousands of lives and an average of $50 billion per year during the 1990s. In the first half of this decade, we've had three years—2001, 2004 and 2005—during which disaster costs have exceeded $100 billion per year.
Don't confuse a disaster with an emergency. A disaster is any event that overwhelms a community's ability to respond; emergencies do not. I emphasize the difference between the two because the United States is arguably among the best in the world at responding to emergencies. But, when it comes to disasters, we, the public, are naive at best.
Perhaps because we are so good at responding to emergencies, such as car wrecks, house fires or heart attacks, we think that someone will immediately come to our rescue in a disaster. As a disaster communication specialist, I teach communication courses for people who are involved in emergency management, fire and public health response. I repeatedly stress to emergency responders that they need to get this message out to people in their communities: Be prepared to survive on your own for the first 72 hours after a disaster. Hurricane Katrina showed us that in mega-disasters the wait can be even longer before help arrives.
Through the Extension Disaster Education Network (EDEN), Purdue Extension is involved in Indiana 's disaster education and provides information and resources to help both communities and individuals prepare. We work closely with the Indiana Department of Homeland Security and other state agencies on statewide disaster education programs. One of the events that we participate in is National Disaster Preparedness Month, which has been observed in September for the past two years. Ironically, in 2005, the message about disaster preparation was lost in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
There are three main points to know for disaster preparation: Know your risks, prepare an emergency supplies kit and make a family communications plan. You can find detailed information about these points on Purdue Extension's Disaster Recovery Resources for Indiana Web site. Another great resource is a book titled Are You Ready? Information about the book is also available on the EDEN Web site. The emergency manager in your county can also assess local risks and provide preparedness tips.
What you can do
In Indiana, the mostly likely disasters include floods; summer and winter storms; tornadoes; fires; train and/or truck wrecks, which could include the release of poisonous substances; and terrorism. In 2005, Indiana floods and tornadoes killed dozens of people and caused millions of dollars in damage.
Individual preparedness is critical, but there will always be people who cannot prepare due to disabilities or lack of financial resources or awareness. To help them, many Hoosiers have stepped forward to take the Certified Emergency Response Team (CERT) training offered through the state's homeland security department. The free training prepares citizens to conduct triage and help others in their neighborhood until emergency responders arrive. We need more people to take this training to assist in their local community's disaster planning. Information on CERT and a list of county emergency managers is available on the Indiana Department of Homeland Security's Web site.
Go to the source
Disaster education is a hard sell. Just ask any emergency manager who has called a public information meeting about disaster preparedness and has had little or no response. It's common knowledge in the disaster business that public attention is focused on disaster issues for only a short time after an event.
And while the news media can be helpful in getting the word out, the messages conveyed are often more sensational than informational. Much of the coverage of the devastating hurricanes last fall amounted to news media rubbernecking. Little coverage helped make the public aware of how to reduce future disaster effects. This underscores the importance of learning the risk for your community and listening to emergency management alerts about any given disaster.
Disaster preparedness requires commitment and time. We all have many demands on our time—families, work, school, social activities and community service. But to ensure that we protect our families, businesses and communities, we should invest a little more time now to think and plan for possible disasters in the future.