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Last fall the Burleith Citizens Association sent out a questionnaire to all residents of the Northwest Washington neighborhood, asking some fundamental emergency-oriented questions: Who had training in first aid? Who might need transportation and who might be available to drive others? Who had pets left alone in the house during the daytime? Who had ham radios?

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The response was abysmal.

Perhaps only those who have lived through a terrorist attack realize how useful some simple information can be. Take Diane Lapson, vice president of her Manhattan apartment building's tenant association. Her first instinct was to flee uptown when the World Trade Center towers collapsed in a roar just five blocks away. Pausing in the lobby, however, she saw the faces of frightened elderly tenants and was overcome by another, more powerful instinct -- to help. Along with a group of fellow residents, Lapson organized assistance for homebound tenants, coordinated an effort to get food and water to workers at Ground Zero, and even found volunteers to help a local druggist get prescribed medicines to those who desperately needed them.

"It was pretty amazing what was going on here," said Lapson.

"It made our community so unified and created bonds that will never be broken." It also changed forever her view of human nature. "It's a very deep spiritual experience when you discover that for many people compassion is a stronger human instinct than survival."

Although the actions Lapson and her fellow tenants took that fateful day and for many days after arose spontaneously, they were more effective because a community association already existed. "It helps to have people you know and trust in charge," Lapson said. "Fifty percent of the panic was gone because of that." Even so, they didn't have much basic information.

Organizing a community is one of the most fundamental steps in neighborhood preparedness. The Red Cross recommends a neighborhood meeting to discuss emergency plans, as well as establishing a Neighborhood Watch, to report on suspicious activity and obtaining a copy of "Terrorism: Preparing for the Unexpected," a brochure available from local Red Cross chapters.

As a terror threat grows, the Red Cross recommends a neighborhood meeting to identify neighbors who are elderly or have special needs, assist them in developing a personal disaster plan, and provide disaster supply kits to those who request them. In the event of a high or severe terrorist threat, preparations should be made to either evacuate neighbors in need or place then in appropriate home shelters.

From her perspective at the center of a disaster, Lapson has a few more suggestions. It is important, she said, for volunteers to have specific jobs in advance. A lot of confusion can be avoided that way. She cites a Johns Hopkins study that says 75 to 80 percent of people will want to help in the event of a disaster, and she suggests that doctors, nurses, and others with useful skills be identified in the community.

Lapson's tenant association has what she calls an "A list" of people with special needs. A printed sheet with emergency contact numbers and other vital information was slipped under each apartment door with the request that residents fill it out and return it to the association. "I don't think people are as neurotic about privacy as they once were," said Lapson, "especially when they saw firsthand how important this is."

That importance has not yet dawned on Burleith.

Nevertheless, community leaders continue to try to prepare their neighborhood. They've arranged with the Roam Secure Alert Network, a private security company, to receive alerts on their cell phones and pagers.

They're working closely with nearby Georgetown University, which is testing its newly installed sirens. Mayor Anthony A. Williams will be speaking to the community soon about emergency preparedness.

Lapson said the benefits of unifying a community go beyond emergency preparedness. Wonderful friendships have emerged in her own building. "We are living such closed lives here in the U.S.," she said. "No one knows their neighbors. . . . Even if disaster never strikes, people will at least know one another well enough to have a party once a year."

-- Michael Farquhar
Washington Post Staff Writer