Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Thoughts on personal preparedness: Getting ready for the worst

Today is Get Ready Day, APHA's observance aimed at helping Americans prepare themselves, their families and their communities for all hazards or disasters. Get Ready Day is held in conjunction with National Preparedness Month. Today's guest blog entry is by William F. Raub, PhD, science advisor to the U.S. secretary of health and human services.

No person is an island, as a modern-day John Donne might put it. Our everyday routines find us dependent to varying degrees not only upon family, neighbors and friends but also upon a complex web of services and supply chains that provide the electric power, water, food stuffs and other things that we have come to regard as necessities. These services and supplies are ubiquitous and so generally reliable that we regularly take them for granted. They enable lifestyles that Donne and his contemporaries scarcely could have imagined.

But in the aftermath of a disaster, we may become islands, for the web of services and supplies is far from immutable. A disaster can rend the web quickly and severely and leave it functionally compromised for hours, days and even weeks at a time. This, in turn, can leave us isolated from the supporting infrastructure to which we are accustomed. And, when this happens, how well we fare depends in large measure upon how well we have prepared to fend for ourselves.

Excellent guidance for personal preparedness is readily available. The Department of Homeland Security, through its Ready.gov Web site, provides a wealth of suggestions that are applicable to many types of disasters. The Department of Health and Human Services, through its Pandemicflu.gov Web site, complements this with detailed advice as to what individuals and families can do to maintain some semblance of normality during a four-, six-week or longer period when a severe influenza is ravaging their community. In particular, a severe influenza outbreak is likely to result in significant absenteeism in all walks of life — which for any given community could translate to about 25 percent of the work force on any given day for the duration of the local epidemic. Thus, services and supply chains, although not completely disabled, probably will be functioning well below their normal levels. Those who do not prepare for this will feel the consequences the most.

Personal preparedness benefits not only the individuals and families who do it but also their community. Every person who is self-reliant during an emergency means one fewer person seeking help from community agencies. This secondary benefit is noteworthy in that few, if any, communities are equipped to provide emergency services to more than a small fraction of their population at any one time.

As individuals, we cannot avoid a significant dependency upon governments, utilities and private-sector suppliers of goods and services, and we would be foolish to try. But we can avoid being dependent upon public agencies for every need that a disaster might create. And those who prepare themselves to the extent that their resources allow will help bring about a level of community resiliency that we are not likely to achieve any other way.

For more tips on how you can be better prepared, visit APHA's Get Ready campaign Web site.

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