Hurricane exposes faults of modern family preparedness

Today’s post comes to us from a New York parent and writer who, while enduring Hurricane Sandy’s wrath, learned a harrowing lesson about how quickly our modern ideas about preparedness can be swept away.

Three days ago, I thought we were among the most thoroughly prepared parents in lower Manhattan.

We’d spent the weekend doing everything you’re supposed to do when every forecaster known to man tells you a freak superstorm has a high probability of hitting your city — and you’re the parents of a small child. My husband was dispatched to the hardware store for flashlights, batteries and huge bottles of water. I stocked up on Power Bars, toilet paper and dog food.


(Peter Foley/BLOOMBERG)

We talked to him about what to expect, and explained — the highlight in his point of view — that if we lost power, we’d all have to go to the bathroom a bunch before we could fill the back of the toilet and flush with the bath water.

And then the Sandy whipped through New York City and I realized just how faint a clue we have when it comes to disaster preparedness.

Sure, all of the stuff we did was necessary and helped get us through the first few hours, but it was far from sufficient. Fifteen hours after everyone below Thirty-Fifth street lost power, I saw just how much I’d under-estimated mother nature and over-estimated our family’s readiness for any emergency.

Apparently, Sandy knocked out a quarter of the cell phone towers in an area spreading across 10 states. Connecting a call or sending an e-mail or text was impossible anywhere in lower Manhattan.

Our fully charged smart phones and iPads were useless, as nothing could connect to the Internet to give us any news or updates. People started lining up for hours to use the single working payphone down the street.

Afterward, I talked to the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy, Andrea Gielen, who is an expert in public safety and child injury prevention. She says some of the things we are told to do to prepare for an emergency are actually increasing our child’s exposure to life-threatening hazards.

For example, if a family lights candles, but the smoke alarm doesn’t work, nobody can call 911 if there’s a fire. Filled bathtubs, too, place toddlers and babies at an increased drowning risk.

She tells parents in any part of the country to put fresh batteries in smoke alarms for hurricanes, snowstorms or power outages. She also advises every family to buy an old-fashioned radio.

Honestly, the idea that all of our high tech gadgetry could fail us never even occurred to me. The fact that city officials might not know when power and running water would be restored — and that it could take a week or more, had also never crossed my mind.

My husband and I have lived in lower Manhattan for 15 years. We were here for 9/11 and for the blackout of 2003. But having a child changes everything.

Adults may be able to wing it for a few days or even a week on Power Bars and a bathtub full of water. But parents have to be better prepared. And we will be next time.

Jacoba Urist is a contributor to NBC News, Today and Forbes where she covers financial, legal and parenting news. Currently, Jacoba, her son, and dog are staying at Jacoba’s parents’ in Connecticut. To read more, go to www.JacobaUrist.com or follow Jacoba on twitter, @Thehappiestpare

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