Now that the backout disaster is behind us, its time for families to look at the lessons learned from the experience, and fine tune their preparations for a possible emergency in the future. Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health shares important information on what to do if it happens again.
In the months following the attacks of 9/11, significant focus was placed on the development of family emergency plans to prepare for subsequent disasters or acts of terrorism. Families were urged to:
- Stockpile non-perishable food and water for at least three days
- Keep flashlights, candles and battery operated radios
- Organize evacuation supply kits
- Keep gas tanks in autos at least half full
- Make sure that prescription medications are available
- Develop back-up communication arrangements and special plans for pets, elderly or disabled relatives and children who may be in school or day care
While all of these recommendations were reinforced by the blackout crisis, the Mailman School’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness has compiled the following list of critical issues that need to be reinforced, and in some cases, modified:
In an electrical outage, ac powered telephones will not work with respect to all functions that need power, such as, answering machine devices, ringers, and cordless handsets. Recommendation: Keep at least one telephone in the house that is non-electric, i.e. not requiring ac power from an electrical wall socket. In addition, cell phones should be kept in working order, perhaps with charged spare batteries. It is worth remembering that cell phones may also be charged with DC chargers in vehicles.
ATM machines require electricity and will not work with loss of power. Credit card transactions will also be problematic. Recommendation: Keep sufficient cash at home and on your person for purchases during crisis involving loss of electrical power.
In an emergency, battery-powered flashlights and lanterns can provide good illumination. Candles may also be used, but these can pose fire hazards. Recommendation: Be extremely cautious with candles if they are utilized for lighting in an emergency. Battery operated “camping lanterns” are preferable and safer. Special emergency candles with flat bases can be used, but should extinguished before going to bed.
The duration of significant power outages may be extremely unpredictable. Recommendation: If feasible, consider the purchase of a propane or diesel fueled generator for the home. This issue might be more critical, for example, for people with electricity-dependent medical equipment in the home.
Water purification plants were disabled in some areas affected by the blackout so that officials advised residents to boil water during the crisis. Recommendation: When a blackout occurs, families are advised to fill available, covered vessels with tap water to supplement three-day supplies presumably already stockpiled.
FAMILY MEETING PLACE
When communications are down and evacuation of certain areas is required, family members might not be able to communicate with one another. Recommendation: have predetermined meeting places for family members not at home.
HIGH RISE BUILDINGS
For people living in high-rise buildings without significant back-up generators, electrical failures mean non-operative elevators and non-functioning water and toilet systems. Recommendation: Find out about building capacity in case of disaster, including emergency generators. Plan in advance for alternate places to stay if a disaster involves power failure and your building does not have back-up capacity.
Federal government standards require that workplaces with eleven or more employees must have disaster plans and drills so that all workers know what to do in an emergency. But such plans are limited to evacuation. During the blackout, many people had considerable difficulty getting home from work. Recommendation: Think, in advance, about how you would get home if your normal method of transportation is not functioning. What alternative arrangements for staying near your place of work might be possible?
The blackout of August 14 peaked in the late afternoon. Many children were in camps or in day care settings. During the school year many children could have been at school while parents were working. Recommendation: Make sure you know where your children are and what plans your child’s school has for emergencies. Where will children be taken if they have to evacuate the school? Who will be responsible for them and for how long? Make alternative pick-up plans with neighbors or relatives to pick-up children if you can’t reach them.
Today’s pharmacies are dependent upon telephones and computers to take and fill prescriptions. Recommendation: People with chronic conditions who are dependent upon regular medications should, to the extent possible, always have at least one-week supply of needed drugs on hand.
NATIONAL CENTER FOR DISASTER PREPAREDNESS
The new National Center for Disaster Preparedness (NCDP) at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health provides a multifaceted large-scale approach to disaster planning. NCDP focuses on the concerns of potential terrorism, emerging infections, and response to disasters in general, and is organized around four highly-collaborative areas: public health readiness; community-based response and preparedness; pediatric preparedness; and preparedness policy, public opinion, and advocacy.
MAILMAN SCHOOL OF PUBLIC HEALTH
The only accredited school of public health in New York City, and among the first in the nation, Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health provides instruction and research opportunities to more than 800 graduate students in pursuit of masters and doctoral degrees. Its students and more than 200 multi-disciplinary faculty engage in research and service in the city, nation, and around the world, concentrating on biostatistics, environmental health sciences, epidemiology, health policy and management, population and family health, and sociomedical sciences.