ASLEEP AT THE SWITCH
It's an Emergency. We're Not Prepared.
Disaster is bearing down on all sides of late. A ravaging cyclone in Burma. A killer earthquake in China. Even the United States hasn't escaped unscathed, with tornadoes ripping across the heartland and Southeast and floods rising in the mid-Atlantic.
Still, most Americans have been watching the devastation in Asia from relative safety and, if I had to guess, with a certain sense of complacency, a feeling that disaster on that scale isn't likely to happen to them. But it could. And if it did, our country might face the same sort of crisis as our Asian cousins. A major reason: The American public isn't prepared.
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.
In the weeks after 9/11, my worried wife asked me, "What should we be doing?" We lived directly across the street from the Manhattan hospital where a woman had just died from anthrax exposure; I worked only a couple of blocks from the World Trade Center.
Initially, I thought that the answer to her question would be pretty straightforward. But 6 1/2 years later, I'm still trying to pin it down.
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. Says George Foresman, former undersecretary for preparedness with the Department of Homeland Security, "There's no playbook for any of us to go by."
In my search for a playbook, I've consulted government Web sites, including DHS's Ready.gov, read all the books I could find and spoken to first responders, policymakers and other experts. I've signed up for emergency e-mail lists and text alerts from all over the country -- my BlackBerry now pings whenever there's a major storm heading toward New York, a tremor near San Francisco, a Metro train derailment in Washington or a new terror alert from the FBI.
To get a more ground-level view, I completed the 11-week, 33-hour training for New York City's Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), the civilian auxiliary force that helps the authorities during emergencies. So far, as part of my neighborhood unit, I've responded to the plane crash that killed New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle near the East River, directed traffic during a power failure, played the role of "Rude Evacuee No. 1" in a city hurricane drill, passed out preparedness guides in 11 languages at subway stations and mixed the hot chocolate at a Red Cross evacuation center.
My immersion has been so deep that last November I was selected "Ready New Yorker of the Month" by the city's Office of Emergency Management.
As I've continued to educate myself, people have asked me whether I feel better or worse. The answer is, both. I feel more prepared and more empowered. I see how much an individual can do and am more confident in people's inherent resilience in emergency situations. But I've also learned that my family's safety and the ability of my community and my nation to respond to major disasters might depend on my fellow citizens' preparedness. It may sound a little dramatic, but if even 93 Americans -- let alone 93 percent of us -- aren't informed and engaged, then none of us fully are.
"It keeps me awake at night," says John R. Gibb, New York state's emergency management director and one of several top officials who acknowledged concern over the current level of public readiness.
Public engagement is important not only in responding to emergencies, but also in helping prevent them in the first place. "The weakest part of our homeland security is the citizen," 9/11 Commission chairman Thomas H. Kean told me. "Addressing that is very, very, very important. Ultimately, it's as likely that a terrorist attack here will be stopped by the CIA or FBI as by someone who sees something suspicious and, instead of just going home for dinner, decides to tell his or her local police."