Be prepared for disaster

Posted: Aug 31, 2006 12:01 AM

As comedienne Joan Rivers used to say, "Can we talk?" Now that the networks have done their Katrina anniversary Bush-bashing, may we (I'm avoiding the grammar sheriff) say something about individual responsibility?

The thing is this: Some folks who suffered at the Superdome or Convention Center were there not because their homes were flooded, but because they were foodless. Had some of these individuals kept a week of food, water and other supplies at home, they might have spared themselves much misery.

The politically correct police are on my tail: I'm "blaming the victim." Well, some folks victimize themselves -- and not just in New Orleans, and not just poor people. When Hurricane Rita in September seemed about to hit Houston, many who evacuated by car and found themselves in multi-hour traffic jams had not brought with them grab-and-go backpacks with food, water, medicines, personal-care products and cash.

So how should we prepare? Heads of households should keep in mind that:

-- The average person should drink at least two quarts of water or other liquids per day. An additional gallon per day is typically used for washing, food preparation and washing clothes and dishes. The best way to store large quantities is in 55-gallon drums, which can be cleaned of bacteria by the addition of 10 teaspoons of scent-free bleach. Other water can be stored in two-liter soda bottles, with freshening by four drops of bleach. Water from clean bathtubs and hot water heaters is also usable.

-- Wise people stockpile food; fools rush in to supermarkets when a crisis occurs and shelves may be empty. The key is to buy some extra food that stores well, especially if kept in a cool, dark place. Canned meats and vegetables, protein or fruit bars, dry cereal or granola, peanut butter, nuts, dried fruit, crackers and canned juices all require no refrigeration and little preparation. Those with camp stoves or other non-electric means of boiling water may add rice, beans and pasta, kept in a rotation system so that new purchases are put at the back.

-- Health supplies should include not only prescription medicines and basics like vitamins and aspirin, ibuprofen, or Tylenol, but also moist towelettes, cleansing agents such as isopropyl alcohol and hydrogen peroxide, antibiotic ointment, antiseptic, cotton balls, scissors, tweezers, needles, bandages, thermometers, medicine droppers, tongue depressor blades, anti-diarrhea medication, antacids, laxatives, syrup of ipecac, burn ointment and various sizes of sterile gauze pads, bandages and dressings.

-- Other useful items include a Bible and other books, vitamins, a supply of cash, extra pairs of prescription glasses or contact lenses, matches, paper towels and plates, toilet paper and garbage bags, plastic utensils, pens and paper, materials to keep children busy and a battery-operated radio with a large supply of batteries. The very young will need diapers and perhaps formula, the old may need extra hearing aid or wheelchair batteries.

-- Hurricanes and earthquakes often knock out power sources, so provision for light, heat and cooking is still important. Lanterns, flashlights and matches, warm clothing and blankets and outdoor grills or camping stoves with a supply of propane all are useful.

This list is obviously not comprehensive, but it suggests the need for some planning. Planning is also important in the selection of family-rendezvous sites, escape routes and out-of-state contact persons for times when communications go down and confusion goes up.

Planning also reminds us of the limitations of the "soft despotism" warned of by Alexis de Tocqueville, in his wonderful 1830s book "Democracy in America." He feared that Americans might slowly submit to "an immense, protective power which tries to keep them in perpetual childhood. It provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry." Well, maybe we have submitted, but New Orleans residents learned last year that soft despots are not reliable.

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