Sunday, September 25, 2005

Avoiding Disaster

This post is a bit off the usual technical topic - I will be talking about the duo of hurricanes, impact on the victims, emergency response, pre/post emergency evacuation of large populated areas, your individual family emergency plan, and how to help. Although I am not currently active, I was a volunteer paramedic and firefighter, serving poor and middle-class neighborhoods for several years, so I do have some background in this area - but far from an expert on the subject. To my loyal readers, I have some technical content in the queue for later...

Impact on People

It looks like Hurricane Rita was not as devastating as was feared. Katrina, however, was a nightmare. Ignoring the evacuation problems, lets look at the issues someone who evacuated early will encounter:

  1. Money. If you used a local bank, forget about getting cash from an ATM machine. As the banks were knocked offline, so was the ability of their patrons to access their money. Perhaps some distributed systems can be used in the future to alleviate this issue. In the meantime, I'd start depositing a good portion of my money in a nationwide bank or split assets between two banks housed on opposite coasts. Fortunately, lenders are claiming they are not going to report victims to the credit breuraus. Also fortunately, any cash you had in a banking institution should eventually be available.
  2. Housing. I'd venture to say this is perhaps the worst - you come back to a slab where your house once stood. Jewelry, important documents, photos of your great-grandparents, etc. are now all gone. Even worse is the potential backups of this information stored at the bank or a family member's house are gone, too. Is insurance going to cover any part of the replaceable damaged items?
  3. Job. Unless you work in construction, it could be a while before you can get your old job back. Hopefully, the owners of the damaged or destroyed companies will be able to rebuild at all. Without money, housing, or a job - I can't imagine surviving too well in today's society outside a log cabin house in the forest.
  4. Attitude. While there are several personality types out there, the two I am looking at are the "society owes me" and "I'd never take a handout" type of people. Both of these extreme personality types will require a make-over. If the "society owes me" folks continue with this attitude (or possibly get it more ingrained), they will never recover - assistance programs will decrease as time goes on. The "never take a handout" folks will not be able to recover until they do get some external assistance. Unless you are in that log cabin house in the woods, you live in a society, and participation is a two way street. This reminds me about a old and now not-so-funny anecdote about a man stuck on his roof during a flood. Three rescue boats floated past and the man refused the assistance saying "God will save me." Eventually he drowns, goes to heaven, and asks God why he wasn't saved. God's response - "I sent three boats..."
  5. Fixed income. These folks are the ones who tear at my heart-strings the most. In the previous paragraph I stated that "assistance programs will decrease as time goes on." These people are retired, and can't possibly rebuild their home, get a well-paying job (either because of age/health related issues or the fact that no company will hire them), or rely on long-term financial assistance. It would be nice to see a specific charity set up to help these people long-term who will soon be forgotten. Please leave a comment if you know of one.
  6. Social Structure. Coming back from complete devastation, it is likely a significant portion of what used to be society is no longer there. Neighbors, friends, church members, etc. could have either died or given up on their old lives. The remaining social structure will be slow to recover and ineffective. Small communal groups will likely form inside the shattered society, and their establishment should be encouraged. I see faith-based church groups as the foundation of these mini-communes, as many of these organizations typically group together people of different skills to repair an elderly member's house in "normal times". These groups of people can utilize each member to their best potential to serve the needs of the group. This was the old "American Western Frontier" mentality, which is exactly what is needed in these areas today.

The other subset of people, who did not evacuate prior to the devastation have all the above issues, plus some others:

  1. Mental scaring. I couldn't imagine being stuck in an attic with a gallon of water and a stale loaf of bread for a week - not knowing if I would eventually get rescued or not. Witnessing looting, fighting, and gunfire would put a damper on my ability to trust society when I do rebuild. Seeing bodies stacked on the sidewalk - unthinkable.
  2. Mental boost. The word "news" was formed from the first letters of "North East West South". I have been thinking that the "N" now stands for "Negative". I have heard many stories about positive things occurring in the aftermath, but stories without images have a way of being forgotten - images of people shooting at rescue choppers don't. I'm sure that many (but hopefully most) people in the midst of this disaster had positive interactions with others of their own species.

There is also an impact on the part of society that was not affected at all by the hurricanes.

  1. "How can I help" - I'm sure at least everyone in America has tossed at least a quarter in a fireman's boot for the relief effort. Unfortunately, this is not a very personal way of dealing with it. If this is as far as you have gone in the relief effort, shame on you. The money is needed later. Early on, the need was/is for water, housing, clothing, food, toiletries, sanitization supplies, ice, etc. The most effective assistance was immediate and non-financial. A local radio show got corporate and individual sponsors to get trucks full of various goods (from a specific list, donated by listeners) and convoy it to the affected areas. This was immediate assistance of exactly what was needed. Listening to the stories of the volunteers drivers in this effort brought me to tears - literally.
  2. "I'm not helping those looters" - I can't believe I actually heard this one (while dropping off a donation of goods for the convoy...). Repeat after me - "Not everyone in this world is evil". Taking it one step further, that attitude is not going to help society become less evil.

Emergency Response

Without getting overly technical, the response to any emergency is the same. It requires knowledge (as early as possible in the emergency) such as:

  • Where is the emergency? In cases of mass casualty incidents, where is the worst emergency so we can attack that first.
  • What is the emergency? Each response team has a different one (the engineers' emergency was to plug up the levees, as an example), but all efforts are focused on saving lives first.
  • What are my resources? This is people (rescue workers), equipment (trucks, boats, choppers), and supplies (water, medications, etc) - just to name a few.
  • Access. How close can I get to the scene? Can I get other, possibly more critical, resources in later? Can I get victims out?
  • Mitigation. If there is a chemical spill, do I have to worry about keeping it out of the creek? For a fire, we would want to protect the building housing the explosive materials more than other surrounding buildings. How do we stop an already bad situation from getting worse?

This is where the concept of disaster planning comes in. Every area has one. In Pennsylvania, we have a bunch of coal mines, so dealing with fires, subsidence, and rescue is in our plans, and it may not be in your community's plan. To create the plan, you take a risk analysis of different disaster types, and attempt to answer all the questions posed above for the highest risks in advance.

For example, if there is a poly-methyl-bad-stuff chemical manufacturing plant, we would know, in advance, of where to go, what to do, and who to call. This is easy. Keeping it up to date is hard. When a parking lot next to the plant gets converted to an office building, you have additional concerns of more victims and less access. Was the plan reviewed and updated with this new development? Usually, the answer is no.

Planning for disaster response on a large scale - like an entire city - is impossible. You just can't answer questions like the above in advance. For things like this, we rely on a list of resources. In my community's plan, we have several phone numbers for school bus and public transportation companies, heavy equipment companies, etc. If we need a drilling rig on Christmas Eve, we should be able to get one. Are these numbers and resources kept up to date? Likely - no. In a mass disaster situation, you do not have the resources to hunt down the current foreman of "Bob the Builder, Inc" to get a bulldozer to prevent one tragedy when there are 100 other tragedies going on at the same time.

This is where you, as an individual or business owner, can help. Contact your local fire department, and let them know what resources you have available, where they are located, and how to contact you or others that also have access to them. Notify them when this changes. There were cases where I wish I had an ATV or a snowmobile I can get quickly where it was rather difficult to get access or equipment to it. Ask what you can do in the event of an emergency to help out. Volunteer as a fund raiser or associate member of the fire and/or rescue squads to make sure these items are kept up to date and you and your community are protected. You don't have to go into a burning building to help save a life. Remember, after an incident starts, it is too late for planning.

Mass Evacuation

The infrastructure of all cities makes a mass evacuation impossible. Roads are designed (and in Pittsburgh, especially poorly) to manage the traffic of under 10% of the population using a major roadway on a daily basis. There is no way to manage this or mitigate it. Mass evacuations of cities will never go well. If you do have to evacuate, understand why you are evacuating - for a flood, if you can't get out, seek the highest natural ground or a flotation device. Have emergency packs where you keep items like water, non-email-based Spam, first aid products, sanitizers, blankets, maps, camping gear, and medical information/contact information tags for your family that they can wear, put in their pocket, or tape to their arms. You can grab this kit and go. Don't try to move that plasma TV to the attic and barricade the house from looters. Most people will try to get this stuff together before they leave. The earlier you leave the better.

Head for any area that is safe where you think other people won't think of to go. Going to the next major city where friends and relatives are is the first thing people think of. You can get to the friends and relatives later - for now get out of the danger zone and go where the route will be less crowded.

For businesses with large vehicles (trucks, buses, etc.) - make sure you know what to do before you get out in a mass evacuation. Where do you fit in the evacuation plan? Ask this ahead of time - you can be given a specific location to go to to pick up people and route to take when an evacuation is called. You are more likely to get assistance if you run out of gas if you are hauling maximum vehicle capacity of random people, than a car with one or two people full of useless stuff.

Your Family Emergency Plan

As a small kid in an amusement park, there was nothing more thrilling than being old enough where your parents let you go off on your own. Typically, you met at different times throughout the day at the same location so they knew everything was OK. But before you were old enough, I am sure your parents gave instructions as to what to do if you were separated - meet at the Merry-Go-Round, find an employee or security guard, etc. How many people have a plan if their house catches on fire? For something like Katrina? An earthquake?

There are plenty of sites that will help you create one. I'll leave it up to your Google-foo to find them. Here are some ideas to start you off:

  1. Sinking Titanic, Flooding, injured by a large explosion, etc. - Lets say the worst has happened. You are with your family now - but you may get separated. If not by the incident itself, rescue workers will need to separate people based on the criticality of the injury. Make sure everyone has ID - this could be as simple as putting a drivers license or credit card in everyone's pocket, diaper, whatever. Better yet is a Sharpie marker or something indelible where you can write directly on the skin - name, DOB, SSN, important medical information, and a few phone numbers of people you know. Trust me - in this situation scrawling "Diabetic" on someone's forehead is a REALLY good idea. Remember - you may get separated from your ID, clothing, medical bracelet, etc - and in the worst case, you may not be able to communicate. Make sure everything a rescuer could need is available, not only to medically assist, but to reunite you.
  2. Grabbing on to others. Same goes for tying a bunch of people together. In a water emergency, you may lessen the chances of both for survival. There are several techniques you can use, if you are in flood prone areas or like to boat, this is something you should research. I like the "The Worst-Case Scenario" series of books - they are humorous to an extent, but contain real and practical information. They are great coffee table type books to have around and page through, as an added bonus.
  3. Have a series of phone numbers handy, and on your kids at all times - not just in an emergency. Have not only the numbers of the local relatives, but the long-distance ones too. Explain that you are to call as many of these people as you can with your location to make reuniting easier. Cell phone numbers, although nice, are useless in a mass emergency.

Helping Out

Before donating, see if your company, like mine does, matches donations - then pick the best one from the list. Organizations that rate charities such as Charity Navigator are helpful. Remember that there is always overhead with these organizations, so try to get the most bang for the buck with your donation. Even better is to call a few local church groups and see if they are tied into a group in the affected areas with specific needs. Go out and buy these needs, and ship them down there. This way, 100% of your donation is being utilized.

My heart goes out to all the victims of this disaster, and to the families who lost loved ones. God bless them, and protect them.

1 comment:

ttChipster said...

This is a nice treatment of the atmosphere surrounding a catastrophe of this magnitude. What I was surprised at was the impact on my own sense of well-being.

My home is over 300 miles from the Gulf of Mexico at its nearest point, farther to the areas devastated by Katrina; by the time the rains hit here they were mostly a welcome watering for my parched lawn. The only wind damage in my immediate area was at a house unlucky enough to have a large vulnerable limb knocked down onto its porch roof. Yet my mood went decidedly south with the images from New Orleans, my neighbor’s e-mailed request for lawn chairs and mattresses to accommodate a dozen extra house guests, the escalating price at the gas pumps and the thought of people with no potable water within a day’s drive of my home, within the U.S, and nobody was reaching them. I donated cash and a couple cases of water from my garage almost immediately. A missionary acquaintance filled a truck and headed south. But the cloud on my mood remained for a couple of weeks, lightening some just in time for Rita to threaten.

I felt, whether as pure premonition or fool’s hope, that Rita would be less bad, and that the magnitude of the evacuation of Houston was going to cause as many problems as it solved. That at least proved to be prescient, with the deaths on the nursing home bus remaining the worst impact of Rita, at least in terms of loss of human life.

Inevitably my mood has improved as our community has welcomed Katrina refugees into our schools and onto our soccer teams. This week I attended a training class on operating the new Automatic External Defibrillators that are now scattered around my employer’s buildings and around my town. Another reactive measure to a catastrophe on a much smaller scale – but I’ve seen 2 people go down with heart failures in the past year and this is some small way in which I can be more prepared.

With gas prices still high and small town mayors on the Texas coast still disappointed with the Federal response, I don’t expect my good nature to be fully returned for some time. Yet I’m as proud as ever to be working to build software systems used and relied on by First Responders.