I have a friend who is always preparing for "the worst." He owns every imaginable kind of insurance policy for himself and his beloved cat. I could live several years off the disaster provisions he has stored in his Chevy's trunk ... or his garden shed ... or his hallway closet ...
September is his favorite month because he gets to celebrate two favored occasions: "National Preparedness Month" and "International Talk Like a Pirate Day." He recently asked me (again) whether I had gotten my act together (finally) and prepared a "landlubber's survival kit for the next merciless squall." Yarrgh.
I acknowledged that his advice was both rational and practical. I'd had personal encounters with floods, fires and earthquakes. I had known patients who suffered through mudslides and pandemics, friends who lived through Katrina. And still, somehow, I remained unprepared for the next Big One.
My friend was partly to blame -- or so I told myself. But his über-preparedness overwhelmed me, and I could not fathom how to duplicate even a fraction of his complex planning. Despairingly, I resigned myself to fate and to the sustenance potential of two calcified energy bars in my car's glove compartment. I also made sure that I possessed all of my friend's contact numbers.
Today, however, I am newly optimistic about disaster-readiness after stumbling across a "National Preparedness Month" community fair on my way to lunch. Display tables neatly contained manageable information and realistic advice that emboldened me to begin my personal planning. I collected a few safety checklists and survival tipsheets, along with an order form for emergency supply kits.
Still, it was a casual conversation about my friend with a young woman named Angela Nak who stood behind the FEMA tables -- and, well, turned the tables for me.
"A lot of people get overwhelmed when they think about disaster preparedness," she knowingly offered. "But I tell them that it doesn't have to be too complicated, and that it doesn't have to be accomplished all at once." An "overwhelmed" person like me could work toward preparedness through gradual but consistent planning over time. And no matter how far one got by the time a disaster struck, still, they were one roll of toilet paper or a bar of soap luckier than the day before.
This down-to-earth advice about conceptualizing preparedness as a stable mind-set throughout the year -- rather than a "things-to-do list" tackled within a day -- helped to shift me into action mode.
Nak subsequently introduced me to her supervisor, Randy Brawley, who is a Preparedness Analyst and Planning Officer with FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management System). He reinforced her message that, "For folks who feel intimidated by the cost and amount of preparations required for a major catastrophe: Start small and keep it simple."
From time to time throughout the year, common household items or "dollar store" purchases -- first aid supplies, a flashlight, personal hygiene items, canned goods -- could be put aside in constructing an emergency supply kit.
Still, Brawley emphasized that "being prepared" entailed more than compiling a "kit." It also meant that people knew how to access critical information during an emergency, and how to follow an actionable plan that upheld personal and public safety. He offered these three additional steps:
1) Be informed -- Stay up to date about emergencies that can happen in your community and learn how to protect, prepare and respond to those emergencies. For example, FEMA Region 9 in Oakland maintains an active discussion board at www.ready.gov/pledge. Once registered, any Bay Area resident may join the forum and stay current on the latest from FEMA.
2) Make a plan -- Talk with the members of your household and establish meeting places, and discuss each member's workplace and school emergency plans. Even people living alone should identify an out-of-area contact who will serve as the reporter for those concerned about them.
3) Be involved -- Participate in preparedness organizations such as the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT.) or a Citizen Corps Council. Residents may locate a nearby program by visiting www.citizencorps.gov
Brawley underscored the sizable benefits that could be generated by taking such simple steps toward preparedness. And, as a practical matter, he encouraged people to focus on accomplishing one of them just to get started. An excellent source for further information could be accessed at: www.ready.gov
Fittingly, FEMA's slogan for this year's preparedness campaign is: "Today is the day before -- Are you ready for tomorrow?" And today (or, maybe, the day before?) I can legitimately answer: Aye, matey -- I am on me way! I am one tube of toothpaste and two cans of tuna closer to my goal.
Kate Scannell is a Bay Area physician and syndicated columnist. She is the author of "Death of the Good Doctor" and "Flood Stage."