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hm 4jun065 - bobcol - disaster

June 04, 2006

The power went out about 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, just as I was getting ready to turn on the air-conditioner upstairs. We called Allegheny Power and a robotic voice announced our name and address and said that there had been a power outage, but that the cause was unknown.

The battery-powered radio worked, but all but two of the six "D" cells were old, so my wife drove to the dollar store for another four. Then we sat on the patio and listened to WJEJ radio.

For a long time, there was no word on what had caused the outage. Then, a little bit after 9 p.m., just as we were getting ready for a sweaty night's sleep, the lights went on again.

I thought about that again this week after Rohrersville resident Daniel Moeller sent us a copy of a letter he had received form the county government, refusing his request for a look at the county's emergency evacuation plan.

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County officials have since said, although the letter didn't make this clear, that Moeller could have received a version of the plan with all the secret stuff removed.

Now, whatever you may think about county officials have handled this matter, it dawned on me that, even with the best plan in the world, in many ways, local residents would be pretty much on their own. And no doubt many are like me - woefully unprepared.

Some residents may believe that we are preparing for disasters that will never happen. This isn't tornado county and unless you live along the Potomac, flooding isn't likely to be a dangerfor you. But disaters, from the Italian "disastro," meaning "ill-starred event," are by their nature possible, but unexpected.

The Mt. St. Helens volcano hadn't erupted for 130 years before it blew its stack in 1980, but it was always possible. Nuclear attacks seem less possible now than they were before the end of the Cold War, but they still could happen - and we're probably less prepared for one than we once were.

I'm old enough to remember the "duck and cover" drills we went through in elementary school and sounding of the air-raid siren every Saturday at noon. (As a child, I wondered what would have happened if the Soviets had tried to fool us by choosing that moment to attack.)

In those days, some people argued that living in the aftermath of a nuclear attack would be a short, nasty experience before radiation killed us all. I don't hear that sort of fatalism today, not because people believe disasters aren't possible, but because no one has made the case for preparation at they did prior in the Y2K controversy prior to millenium date change on Jan. 1, 2000.

The fear then was that because so much of our lives were controlled by computers whose internal clocks only went to Dec. 31, 1999, that when Jan. 1 came, many things would shut down.

It proved not to be near as bad as expected, but that was true in part because many people took the threat seriously and worked to deter bad things from happening.

Publioc health officials are working to do that with the so-called "bird flu," which experts tell us may be the source of the next flu pandemic, similar to the 1918 flu that killed more than 600,000 Americans.

If a U.S. outbreak occurs, health experts say it may be necessary to stay away from others for three or four days. Given that the unexpected will likely affect how government and health officials respond, it might be prudent to prepare to be at home for a week or more.

So what does being prepared mean? One of the best sources for preparedness information is the American Red Cross Web site at www. redcross.org. There are plenty of suggestions for what citizens need to stockpile to be ready for a long stay at home.

MUNICIP water plants and your well may work, but to be safe, store one gallon of water per person per day. for three people, a three-day stay would require nine gallons.

Then there is food, preferably of the non-perishable variety. Lay in enough to feed the family for at least three days.

After that, put together two first-aid kits, one for your home one for your car. The Red Cross Web site lists 16 items, including assorted bandages, tape and gloves. Then there are non-prescription drugs such as aspirin and anti-diarrheal medicine.

Comfortable boots, rain gear and long johns should also be part of the package, as should a water proof case to carry those documents such as copies of birth certificates that might be needed to get into a shelter or obtain emergency food.

All of that is from "Preparing for Disaster," developed by the American Red Cross and the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency.

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