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When lights go out, it's good to have a plan

June 04, 2006|by BOB MAGINNIS

The power went out about 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, 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 its 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 electricity 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 from 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 how county officials 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 danger for you. But disasters, from the Italian "disastro," meaning "ill-starred event," are by their nature possible, but unexpected.

The Mount St. Helens volcano hadn't erupted for 130 years before it blew its stack in 1980. 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 as they did prior in the Y2K controversy prior to the millennium date change on Jan. 1, 2000.

The fear then was that because so much of our lives was controlled by computers whose internal clocks only went to Dec. 31, 1999, that when Jan. 1, 2000 came, many things would shut down.

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

Public 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 home with just the family 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 get ready for a long stay at home.

Many of those items - bottled water, aspirin and bandages, for example - we already have in our home. But except for the water, which has been on a basement shelf since the Y2K days, I'm not sure I could gather all of the recommended items on short notice if we were forced to leave the house.

If you're lazy - my category, to be sure - you can purchase kits, such as the Orange Boxx, offered for $34.95 by a company in Baton Rouge, La. You've got to stock this water-resistant case yourself and there are a number of watertight accessories available.

If you want a pre-packed outfit, GetReadyGear of Folsom, Calif., offers a two-person home-survival kit for $108, in a pail that can be converted into a portable toilet. Some of the items include ER Food Bars, 2,400-calorie treats with a five-year shelf life, thermal blankets, a tent, and a radio and a flashlight, neither of which needs batteries.

Whether this is more or less than you will need is something you'll have to decide for yourself. My suggestion for how to make that decision is as follows:

Turn off the lights, the TV and any noisy appliances. Then sit on your porch or front step at dusk and imagine that you will have to stay put for a week, with only the things you now have in the house. If your clan is like the Maginnis family, you may conclude that although you have plenty of junk, you don't have nearly enough of the right stuff.

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