Monday, March 14, 2011

Lessons We Do Not Learn

As I watched news coverage of the Earthquake in Japan, there was a well covered side story about the approach of a tsunami into Hawaii. One news agency was in contact with an employee who was there on maternity leave. They said they first noticed something when everyone at a restaurant was on their cell phones. OK, now we know how fast news travels by cell phone, but later, they said they were calling by "land line" because the cell phone system was "a mess," meaning it wasn't working any more.

She also said there were lines at the gas stations, and people panic buying at the grocery stores. (She needed formula, if I heard correctly.) When she got to wherever she evacuated to, people were filling tubs and any other containers with water. Everyone was trying to call everyone, which is why the cell phone system was not working. And she said: 'the people are reacting calmly - this is something they have practiced. '

What have we learned from this? Or realized that we have not learned? Here in Texas, we recently had a minor emergency, and the local govenment used one of those mass robo-caller systems to try to alert everybody. The cell phone system overloaded. Way back in the aftermath of the 9-11 crisis, this was identified as a problem, and a solution was proposed. Limit voice calls to emergency personell only, and upgrade the texting system to allow it to handle everyone at once trying to access it. That proposal was never followed through. So, one of the first lessons is that the primary commercial communications systems will be the first to fail.

In almost every emergency, people swamp the gas stations and grocery stores. If you always have a half a tank, you can go 100 miles at highway speeds or go for 4 hours in stop and go traffic. (Three if you run your air conditioner.) The crisis on Hawaii is likely to only last a few days, and you can keep enough food on hand for a few days if you aren't picky about taste and variety. Plan to eat beans and rice. Water is another big concern. You will need some way to capture, filter and sterilize water. Planning ahead allows you to watch every one else panic, while you remain calm. Lesson two. Do not leave your gas tank less than half full, have some rations on hand, and a means to obtain water.

One of the biggest lessons here is that all preparations and planning MUST be done BEFORE the disaster. When nothing seems to be happening. Take a few minutes and think through every possible disaster that could come your way. Think through some of the improbible ones too. Nearly everyone in the US is vulnerable to earthquake. Half are vulerable to flood (or losing power or water due to flood.) Epidemic could shut down the trucking system that delivers our food. A pipeline break could close all the gas stations tommorrow.

When evacuations are necessary, the government usually has a plan in mind to move you a minimal distance and then ship goods to you. That is fine if you are indigent. If you are a person of means (remember my test, if you can afford cable TV, you can afford to plan for disasters and help others), you need to do more. Evacuate to twice the distance. Leave the government and Red Cross help to others who need it more. You will be better off, and so will others.

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