Outlook: Preparing a Disaster

John D. Solomon
Monday, May 19, 2008; 12:00 PM

"Even after Sept. 11, 2001, even after Hurricane Katrina, a Red Cross survey last year found that 93 percent of Americans aren't prepared for a major calamity -- a natural disaster, a pandemic or a terrorist attack. This is troubling, because the more prepared a population is, the more effective the response to and recovery from a catastrophe will be. ... Readying the public for the likely emergencies of the 21st century may be one of the most complex social-education challenges the nation has faced. Americans have to prepare for a range of threats, many of which the government can neither describe nor predict."

Blogger John D. Solomon, who is writing "In Case Of Emergency, Read Book: Simple Steps To Prepare You and Your Family For Terrorism, Natural Disasters and Other 21st Century Crises," was online Monday, May 19 at noon ET to discuss his Outlook article on the shortfalls in educating the public about emergency preparedness and encouraging Americans to plan ahead.

The transcript follows.

Archive: Transcripts of discussions with Outlook article authors


John D. Solomon: Hi. This is John. I'm looking forward to discussing preparedness today.


Alexandria, Va.: I was shocked at the high percentage of people who are not prepared for an emergency. Children may be the best way to convince adults to plan -- schools send home information about disaster planning and they practice emergency fire/tornado drills. The Disney Channel recently showed a cartoon (" Lou & Lou: Safety Patrol") about two safety patrols who showed "go bags" and talked about emergency planning. After Katrina, The Post did a great job of listing the items (insurance papers, birth certificates, family phone list, cash) you should have on hand in waterproof/fireproof place. It doesn't take very long to assemble a "go bag" or stock up on extra water/food. Are there any plans for local governments or the federal government to use Sept 11 as a disaster planning day?

John D. Solomon: Hi Alexandria. Thanks for your question. I think the media has a big role in preparedness. I have seen the Disney Channel's "Lou & Lou" cartoon about drills -- I have two kids under eight! -- and I thought they did a great job.

The "adult" media also has to do more in advance of disasters, not just during them.


Arlington, Va.: Comment: Thank you for mentioning youth education in your article. I'd like you to know that our Cadette Girl Scout Troop (14-year-olds), as their Silver Award Project, has become trained to teach four Red Cross classes to youngsters, including a class entitled "Masters of Disaster." It is a great service opportunity for other troops and teens to consider, so please spread the word! Arlington County Red Cross also has a great youth program furthering the same goals.

John D. Solomon: Yes. The Masters of Disasters program from the Red Cross is a terrific way to engage children in preparedness. I think we underestimate what kids can handle. If we are to get to a prepared nation, we will have to include children -- both because this is going to take a generation, and also because (as many of you know) the best way to influence adult behavior is through their children.


Southern Maryland: I am glad to see this issue reintroduced. I too have gotten lax, but I did recently take a CPR and First Aid course.

John D. Solomon: Thanks. I took a CPR and first aid course at the Red Cross in New York City.

The most interesting thing about it was that the almost every other person in the class was there because they had to be (e.g. for their physical trainer license). The lesson to me is that you consider building in some incentives if you're going to get people to prepare.


Fairfax, Va.: John, great article. I appreciate your bringing more attention to this very important topic. For Virginia readers interested in the tax holiday mentioned in your article, the information can be found at this Web site.

John D. Solomon: Thanks for posting that info on Virginia's tax free days.

I am not saying giving financial or legal incentives is the only or major way to get people to prepare. But we have to realize that when we want to change social behavior in this country we tend to use the carrot or the stick in some way -- remember it's click it or ticket.


Bethesda, Md.: Compelling piece in yesterday's paper. You mentioned that corporate America should get involved, and should market preparedness as a consumer brand. Can you elaborate?

John D. Solomon: Thanks for the question. Many major corporations responded incredibly after Katrina using their skills and scope to assist the relief effort.

I would like to see the same type of focus on citizen preparedness in advance of disasters.

For example, during national preparedness month, it would be great if major big box stores and suppliers in emergency products area were organized to help people create go-bags at a major discount. It would be a win-win for customers and businesses.

Then people would be more likely to take preparedness seriously. It is not cheap or easy to prepare for a disaster.


Washington: How should I prepare an emergency kit for my two dogs? What should be included?

John D. Solomon: You should prepare go-bags and supply kits for each of your animals like you would your family.

If you go to the Humane Society Web site or or the Red Cross I would think you would find some tips.

But I think you know what your pet would need if you had to evacuate or you were stranded in your home for 72 hours.


Arlington, Va.: Thank you, thank you, thank you for your op-ed. I'm glad someone has the guts to say that we Americans are not ready for the worst. Why do you think that is? Do you think it's a cultural thing, that Americans are always optimists and think things will always be okay in the future?

John D. Solomon: I don't think there is one single obstacle, there are many. Some people don't want to deal with the idea of a disaster, some people are skeptical that anything they could do would help, others are too busy, some don't have the wherewithal to spend or even worry about it, some people think the government is taking care of everything, others don't believe anything that the government says.

It's a very challenging social education task. But it can be done if we do it in comprehensive, open, thoughtful way.


McLean, Va.: What is the status of Integrated Public Alert and Warning systems, and what are the current impediments by the federal and local governments to enable us to be better prepared?

John D. Solomon: That is a very important question.

To me the most crucial thing that you will need to do (and plan for) is how to get information (whatever the emergency) and communicate with family, etc. Similarly, the government major task vis a vis is communicating with us.

New technologies offer great potential in this area, but right now we are in a transition. There was an interesting hearing on this in the house homeland security committee last week looking at the status of the government's efforts to modernize public alert and communications.


Washington by day; Fairfax, Va., by night: Outstanding essay yesterday. We're trying to build a stash of emergency supplies at home. I've heard that there are commercially-available versions of the military's MREs, which are well-suited to such a plan and taste much better than our grandfathers' C-rations. Where can they be purchased? Are they reasonably priced?

John D. Solomon: I have not tasted any of the commercial MREs, but I should so I can offer advice on it. You also can pick up energy bars for your go bag, which I know taste good.


Washington: This past April 16, there was an article in The Washington Post about a suitcase (1 kiloton) or truck bomb (10 kiloton) going off in the area of the White House. A fallout cloud would produce a "Death Plume," ten blocks wide going down Constitution Avenue and ending up at Union Station. What can workers in federal agencies within that Death Plume do to get ready for this event? Risk of Nuclear Attack on Rise (Post, April 16)

John D. Solomon: I won't give advice to particular agencies and building locations. However, that hearing your refer to -- in the Senate Homeland Security committee -- was very interesting.

A number of witnesses made the point that we should be offering the public more information and training so they can deal with the possibility of a nuclear explosion.

There are things you can do if you are in the area. it's a tough subject to discuss publicly but I think we should be. And I think the American public is willing to do so.


Sun Prairie, Wis.: Mr. Solomon: My compliments on your article in Sunday's Post, which made many good points. It left out, however, a critically important element of disaster preparedness -- the ability for buildings to withstand the initial disaster itself. Sept. 11 and Katrina, somewhat perversely, may have given us a false sense of security in this regard -- no office building can be built to survive a direct hit from an airliner, and a strong enough hurricane is bound to do great damage to a city built in the wrong place. The earthquake in China provides a clearer warning; most of the deaths there occurred when buildings collapsed on the people in them, something no amount of citizen preparedness could have prevented.

Could something like that happen here? It could -- and on the West Coast it almost certainly will, sooner or later. Are building codes and their enforcement adequate to prevent major loss of life in the event of a major earthquake on the Pacific Coast or a hurricane striking the Atlantic Coast north of Florida? If you asked the insurance industry about this you might be unnerved by the response you'd get.

John D. Solomon: I agree. The earthquake in China showed how important strong building codes are. Citizens should check their buildings and homes and make sure their government officials are responsive to this concern.

We need to take advantage of "learning opportunities" right after disasters -- and China offers one of those.


McLean, Va/: How long have you been researching the topic of preparedness for your book, and how many people have you interviewed?

John D. Solomon: Thanks for asking that question. I feel like I have been researching it ever since my wife asked me in the weeks after Sept. 11 "what should we be doing."

I've interviewed probably now 250 first responders, officials, experts, etc., and I still think I have so much to learn. But I think 21st century preparedness offers so many new challenges and we're all learning together.

I should say that every American is an expert in their own preparedness and that of their community.

So we need everyone to contribute to preparing us for whatever emergencies we face.


Reisterstown, Md.: Thank you for spurring discussion about this issue. A talk show host on WBAL Radio in Baltimore used your article as fodder for the first hour of her show today. Those of us in emergency management are thankful when the media helps us get out the word. State and local emergency management agencies try so hard to get the public to see the importance of emergency preparedness.

My only comment is that we need to make sure the focus is on natural disasters as much as (if not more than) terrorist attacks. I'm 50, and this region has been hit by the remnants of at least six hurricanes, five major blizzards/winter storms and a handful of tornadoes in my lifetime, plus numerous flooding events. Compare that to just one major terrorist attack.

I don't mean to downplay terrorism, just to point out that we are far more likely to be the victim of a weather incident than a terrorist attack. And the important thing for people to understand is that having a plan and a kit is important no matter what type of event we have to deal with. Thank you again for writing about preparedness.

John D. Solomon: Thank you. I'm glad the article has spurred some discussion. It's a topic that I think we believe is somewhat important but without a disaster it doesn't get the attention necessary.

I agree with you about the balance between natural and man made -- i.e. terrorism. Not to mention a pandemic.

My feeling is that we do need an "all hazards" approach but we should not shy away from the unique challenges of terrorism in briefing the public. We can address both. But we have to do it in a careful, thoughtful way.


Reisterstown, Md.: Regarding pets, here are Web addresses for pet disaster information from both the Humane Society and the Red Cross.

John D. Solomon: Thanks for getting that info.


Takoma Park, Md.: Thank you for this article. We have become lax. Living just a few steps from the District line, I think I know of only one neighbor who has done any disaster planning. One thing that made Katrina so bad was the lack of resources for people's pets. The organization United Animal Nation ( coordinates animal rescues with the Humane Society, ASPCA and local shelters after any natural or man-made disaster. They have a quick five-point plan on disaster planning for your animals to make sure both they and you are safe.

John D. Solomon: Yes. I have found that the animal organizations and pet owners themselves are among the most prepared. They are models.

In fact, the general public could use the same sort of focus and lobbying to represent their interests on preparedness that the pet owners (as well as the disabled through NOD) have.


Washington: If Americans aren't prepared, is there another country or group we can look to for inspiration? Is anyone, worldwide, prepared?

John D. Solomon: As I mentioned the animal community and the disabled are models of activism and action on preparedness.

Israel is also a good model. Clearly we do not need to go down the preparedness continuum as they are but there are some lessons and some attitudes that would be helpful for us to look at and adopt


John D. Solomon: Thank you for all the questions and the interest.

If anyone is interested in citizen preparedness and has any questions or comments on the area, I have a blog that focuses on this area, and here's my e-mail address.

I would love to get your suggestions, questions, comments, etc.

Thanks again.


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