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You’ve no doubt seen news coverage of the 35 tornadoes that hit five states this month: Tennessee, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky. Several dozen residents were killed, with many more injured.
While Doppler radar and tornado warning systems have dramatically reduced fatalities, many residents in tornado-prone states fail to take basic emergency preparedness precautions.
Preparation begins by listening for National Weather Service advisories. A tornado watch is issued when tornadoes are possible in your area. You need to be attuned to environmental cues:
Implement your Family Communication Plan, and make sure your disaster kit is within reach. Remind all family members where to gather if a tornado is imminent.
A tornado warning is issued when a tornado has been sighted or picked up by radar. You must immediately seek shelter. Don’t wait for twisters to appear or touch down. Follow these guidelines issued by the National Weather Service:
For more information on tornadoes, please visit our Be Ready Library, which contains numerous resources to help you protect your family.]]>
“Insect and rodent populations increase rapidly after disasters like hurricanes, due to vast supplies of food and ample harborage among abandoned homes,” says Allen James, president of Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment (RISE), a national nonprofit trade association representing producers and suppliers of specialty pesticides and fertilizers.
“The potential for the spread of disease from pests like flies, mosquitoes and rats often rivals that of the polluted waters,” he says. “Pest-control products applied properly in these affected areas help protect the public health and safety of those cleaning up after the disaster and residents moving back into their communities.”
If you spot pests in your home or around your property, assume others lurk nearby. Don’t wait until a horde descends: Check with your local disaster management agency to see what efforts are being undertaken to control pest populations. If infestation is limited to your home, call a qualified pest-control professional to locate and destroy habitats. More than one visit may be necessary to achieve complete eradication.
Instruct your children to stay away from debris piles, which contain hazards like broken glass, nails and other sharp objects. Piles are also havens for snakes, mice, rats, fire ants, ticks and bees, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).]]>
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was quick to accept the blame for underestimating residents’ needs in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties, taking some of the heat off a beleaguered FEMA that’s still reeling from criticisms over its slow response to Hurricane Katrina. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez and Hollywood Mayor Mara Giulianti were nonetheless furious as hurricane victims waited in lines for hours to receive ice and water, rationed to one bag of ice per family.
“Again, there’s been a failure,” Giulianti told the Herald. “If there’s a failure of the government over something this simple, I’m frightened to see what would happen in an even worse crisis.”
But Bush and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff were also critical of hurricane victims’ lack of disaster preparedness. Many Floridians failed to heed basic emergency guidelines, which I outlined in last week’s Hot Off the Press column. Let me repeat: It’s every citizen’s responsibility to maintain 3 gallons of water for every family member, which covers the 72-hour period when you’ll be on your own after a major disaster. In fact, you may require even more. (Click here for details.)
“The failure to maintain adequate stocks of water and food in a disaster can range from merely inconvenient situations to life-threatening scenarios,” says Dennis B. Warner, senior technical advisor for water supply, sanitation and water resources for Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, one of the largest humanitarian agencies in the world. “Depending on the climate, people require one to two liters of drinking water per day for essential life support. This does not include water for washing, bathing or any of the other functions that are necessary for long-term health. Over a few days to a week, a shortage of water for personal hygiene and household sanitation is an inconvenience; beyond that period, it can become a serious health hazard.
“Safe drinking water, however, is essential and must be available to all members of the household,” Warner adds. “Depending upon the contaminants in the water, the health consequences of drinking polluted water can range from mild intestinal upsets to severe dysentery and chemical poisoning. The quantity of available water is also crucial. People can survive for several weeks without food, but only a few days without safe drinking water. Our basic needs for water and food, therefore, should be an integral part of household preparedness for emergencies and disasters.”
Use American Family Safety’s “Are You Ready?” questionnaire to determine what you’ll need if a disaster strikes. Each AFS disaster kit contains a 3-day supply of drinking water and food. You may also purchase extra packages of emergency drinking water to supplement your kit.
America’s top disaster preparedness agencies have consistently offered the following advice: Maintain the equivalent of 3 gallons of water for every family member in your home. This covers drinking and sanitation needs over the critical 72-hour period when you may be on your own (1 gallon per person, per day), as rescuers tend to those most in need of assistance.
But after seeing footage of a ravaged New Orleans, should we keep even more water on hand? The answer may, indeed, be “yes.”
“The amount of safe water that should be on hand depends on the risks and hazards of the area in which the household is located,” says Dennis B. Warner, senior technical advisor for water supply, sanitation and water resources for Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, one of the largest humanitarian agencies in the world. “Hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, industrial accidents, disease outbreaks, heavy snowfalls and terrorism all have differing consequences and time periods associated with them. It is clear that preparedness for a tornado—which may cause severe point damage, but have little effect on the ability of public service agencies to provide assistance—is not the same as preparedness for a major hurricane, which may cause widespread severe damage, thus having a great effect on public services and emergency assistance.”
Warner, who has responded to disasters in many countries around the globe, believes every household requires a basic, sensible level of preparedness. He echoes the need for 3 gallons of safe water per person for 72 hours, as well as emergency food rations for the same period.
“This will provide a base of sustenance for short interruptions of electricity, transportation and other services that would require people to be self-sufficient for a few days,” he explains.
But you may want to consider keeping a larger supply of water and food on hand.
“For geographic areas that are at elevated risk of major interruptions of services—such as floods along the Mississippi River, hurricanes along the Gulf Coast, earthquakes along the San Andreas Fault in California and nuclear accidents anywhere—household preparedness would warrant keeping larger stocks of water and food on hand, along with other essential items such as first aid supplies, personal drugs and medications, and appropriate clothing,” Warner says.
The exact amount, he notes, depends on specific hazards in your particular area and the likely risks of a serious disaster. You need to use common sense and err on the side of caution.
“It is difficult to state how much additional water and food should be stored,” Warner says. “Historical experience in each area should certainly be used as a guide. Another source of information would be the disaster management agencies—federal, state and local—that are located in the area.
“Despite all efforts toward a reasonable level of preparedness, however, there is always the possibility that the type of emergency and/or the magnitude of the event may go beyond what had been anticipated,” he adds. “There is no way to prepare for all possible disasters. Both natural and manmade disasters will always have an element of unpredictability inherent in them. Our basic approach to emergency preparedness, therefore, should be one that tries to balance hazards, risks, customs, costs and basic human nature. At the same time, it is crucial that we continually learn from our experience with disasters and revise our thinking, planning and preparedness efforts accordingly.”
Use American Family Safety’s “Are You Ready?” questionnaire to determine what you’ll need if a disaster strikes. Each AFS disaster kit contains a 3-day supply of drinking water and food. You may also purchase extra packages of emergency drinking water to supplement your kit.]]>
At press time, Wilma is packing 75-mph winds, moving from the northwestern Caribbean Sea toward the Gulf of Mexico.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), we’re in Guinness Book of Records territory: This year, there have been 21 named storms, 11 of which have become hurricanes—five of which were major. During an average hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30, there are 10 named storms and six hurricanes, two of which are major.
“With one additional hurricane, this season will tie 1969 for having the most hurricanes,” says Scott Kiser, tropical cyclone program manager for the National Weather Service.
By now, all of us are used to hearing about hurricane categories, which are based on a five-point scale. In fact, most Americans are speaking weather-ese and abbreviating them (“a cat 3 is about to hit”). But what do these numbers actually mean?
The following NOAA chart describes hurricane intensity and potential property damage.
In last week’s Hot Off the Press column, I covered the health risks New Orleans residents have been facing since floodwaters inundated their city. But drinking polluted water is only one of the ways you may become ill if your town floods during a disaster.
Germs and hazardous substances can enter your body in several ways:
Floodwaters may contain pesticides, herbicides and lead/heavy metals—all of which you may be forced to wade through. In addition, you run the risk of cutting yourself on sharp debris or getting your feet caught in unstable pockets or holes. In some areas, drop-offs may be surprisingly deep, and you can become submerged in a matter of seconds. Downed electric lines from high winds may also be hidden in waters—and they may still carry an electrical charge.
So, how do you keep your family safe when your community experiences a flood?
Your best defense is knowledge:
“Floodwaters may contain fecal material from overflowing sewage systems and agricultural and industrial byproducts,” confirms the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Although skin contact with floodwater does not, by itself, pose a serious health risk, there is some risk of disease from eating or drinking anything contaminated with floodwater. If you have any open cuts or sores that will be exposed to floodwater, keep them as clean as possible by washing well with soap to control infection. If a wound develops redness, swelling or drainage, seek immediate medical attention.”
The CDC offers the following guidelines for handwashing in disaster or emergency situations:
New Orleans—Members of California Task Force 3 Urban Search and Rescue’s Decontamination Unit “decon” U.S. Coast Guard personnel working rescue missions by boat. The floodwaters are highly contaminated with E. coli and other health hazards. (Bob McMillan/FEMA photo)
“Water, water everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.”
These lines from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” immediately come to mind when you view footage of a flooded New Orleans. Experts have criticized Mayor Ray Nagin for encouraging residents to return to the city, where safe drinking water is in short supply. The Environmental Protection Agency has found high levels of lead, arsenic, fecal matter and bacteria—including E. coli—in floodwaters and sediment.
“The spread of disease from contaminated water will be the top health threat for the more than 2 million people impacted by the hurricane,” says Dennis G. Maki, MD, a professor of medicine and specialist in infectious diseases at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “Restoring fresh drinking water and repairing sewer systems is the most urgent health issue. Any delays would be catastrophic.”
But the real risks of contaminated water have been misrepresented by TV’s “talking heads,” according to Alan P. Zelicoff, MD, author of “Microbe: Are We Ready for the Next Plague?” and a senior scientist at ARES Corp., a risk-management consultancy whose clients include NASA and the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense. Experts “wringing their hands” over cholera, typhoid and tetanus have been providing the public with erroneous information, he asserts.
“There is no cholera in New Orleans—and there hasn’t been any for over 100 years—so the chances of it occurring were virtually zero,” says Dr. Zelicoff, inventor of the Syndrome Reporting Information System (SYRIS), a state-of-the-art surveillance system that alerts physicians, veterinarians and public health officials to the first signs of an outbreak of deadly diseases. “Typhoid, if it did occur, would be extremely difficult to spread—except among those foolish enough to drink the sewer water. Anyone with the slightest understanding of environmental [naturally occurring] infectious disease would understand this. And tetanus is caused by a soil organism that can get into cuts and bruises. It is certainly awful for the individual who gets it, but there were no cases. Tetanus has never been reported to transmit from person to person—other than among IV drug users who share infected needles—so it was way down the list of diseases of importance.”
The genuine major disease threats, according to Dr. Zelicoff, include:
Each of these diseases, he explains, may occur when individuals are confined to crowded quarters.
“With 20,000 people sleeping on the floor of the Astrodome, which is about 2 acres, this translates into a density of several million people per square mile—a perfect setup for meningococcus,” Dr. Zelicoff says. “There are only two ways to deal with this potential threat: Disperse people as quickly as possible, which is what has happened at most—but not all—refugee centers. The second is vaccination. The vaccine is very safe, but it has two problems: It is expensive, at around $100 per injection, and it only covers about two-thirds of the known types of meningococcus. One type, known as type B, has defied all of our efforts for developing a vaccine.”
Hepatitis A and influenza present the same public health challenges. Influenza is a highly mutable virus that can rapidly become more lethal in crowded conditions, Dr. Zelicoff notes.
“To not vaccinate everyone coming into shelters against influenza is, in my view, the single largest mistake made so far,” he says. “It is too soon to know if we’ll have a lethal influenza outbreak, but so far we’ve gotten by on pure luck alone.”
Dr. Zelicoff fears experts at federal and state levels will ignore the observations and wisdom of local public health officials.
“In the end, public health—like politics—is local, and no one knows the situation on the ground better than local public health officials,” he says.
The end result?
“Resources get wasted, and the outbreaks that need attention are either missed or untreatable because all of the resources are gone when they occur,” Dr. Zelicoff warns.
“Despite the painful lessons that actual outbreaks have taught us, we remain vulnerable to the inadvertent introduction of a serious disease, such as newly evolved strains of avian influenza in humans,” he adds. “Worse, we remain especially vulnerable to an intentionally introduced disease, which is possible as a terrorist act. But it needn’t be so. We need to replace our haphazard patchwork of a public health system, where isolated professionals do their daily work largely in a vacuum, without the slightest idea of what they might have to face in the next days or even hours. We need to improve communication among the nation’s 5,000 or more independent public health offices and with the ‘consumers’ of their information: physicians, veterinarians and government officials who must decide if, for example, a case of meningitis warrants a massive, immediate, region-wide vaccination campaign, at great expense to the public treasury, or if the situation can be observed for a period of time.”
Dr. Zelicoff says he has little faith that national and state public health officials will learn any lessons or change the way they approach a disaster like Hurricane Katrina until there is a massive outbreak of disease.
“We have already seen enterovirus, though it isn’t very transmissible if you wash your hands before eating,” he says. “I hope an outbreak doesn’t happen, but it is the only catalyst for change that I can realistically imagine.”]]>
Photos courtesy of Clemson University
Farmers in areas battered by Hurricanes Katrina, Ophelia and Rita face unprecedented challenges. Media coverage has focused primarily on high-profile cities like New Orleans and Houston, but “we are witness to immense tragedies in the rural areas of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana,” says Ralph Paige, executive director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives’ Land Assistance Fund.
In these three states, approximately 825,000 head of cattle and calves lived in counties that sustained hurricane-force winds, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. All Americans will likely be affected by reduced milk production. Of the 15,000 beef cattle in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, 10,000 are presumed dead—a loss estimated at $8 million.
Farm Aid is working to assist family farmers who sustained losses.
Americans may donate money to Farm Aid’s Disaster Fund by clicking here.
Dr. Tony Caver, South Carolina’s state veterinarian and director of Livestock-Poultry Health Programs at Clemson University, offers the following tips for livestock owners:
If you cannot evacuate your animals:
“The earlier you start planning, the better off you’ll be,” Dr. Caver says.]]>
“The people who are still there are staying because they have pets,” Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States told CNN reporter Anderson Cooper in a recent interview. “They don’t want to be separated from them. The people who are evacuated and who left their pets behind are calling us inconsolably, saying, ‘Please rescue our pets.’ ” Click here to view the broadcast.
Just yesterday, Humane Society rescuers, with assistance from the National Guard, pulled a large dog from a New Orleans rooftop, describing it as the most emaciated animal they’ve ever seen.
“These National Guard troops helped save this poor animal from impending death,” says Jane Garrison, who has helped rescue several hundred animals. “I have never seen a dog in worse condition in my two decades of doing animal rescue and care. The will to live exhibited by some animals—struggling on, even while enduring extraordinary suffering and deprivation—is so strong. The vet said this dog should have weighed 90 pounds, but he only weighed 40 pounds.”
The Humane Society has helped save 3,000 animals—from dogs and cats to horses and even a seal—trapped in the aftermath of Katrina, with thousands more in need of immediate assistance. More than 180 dogs have been reunited with their families. In many cases, pets were denied access to shelters and the capacity-stretched Superdome.
“It’s truly a race against the clock,” Pacelle says. “Our teams are working feverishly to rescue as many animals as possible and get out of the watery cesspool left behind by Hurricane Katrina.”
If you’re a hurricane victim with a missing pet, contact the Humane Society at 800-HUMANE-1. The organization is keeping a database of rescue requests.
If you’re a pet owner anywhere in the United States, follow the Humane Society’s guidelines for general disaster preparedness:
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has asked the media to refrain from taking photographs of recovered bodies, but many Americans believe it’s not about preserving victims’ dignity. In a poll conducted by America Online, 57% of survey participants disagree with FEMA’s request. Only 23% of the 224,352 poll respondents believe FEMA is demonstrating sensitivity toward the deceased and their loved ones, while 44% think the agency is trying to limit news coverage that reflects badly on the government; 33% feel it’s a combination of the two.
Death is not pretty. Disasters test our mettle as individuals and a populace. We don’t want to think about the potential for catastrophic events like Hurricane Katrina—and yet they occur. Denial is the No. 1 reason why families fail to purchase disaster kits that contain critical supplies that can save lives.
Dr. Joy Davidson, a Seattle-based psychotherapist, explains how denial works.
“When we were little tykes,” she says, “we indulged in a lot of magical thinking: ‘If I’m good, Mommy and Daddy won’t yell at each other. If I don’t step on a crack, nothing bad will happen to Mommy’s back. If I eat all of the food on my plate, people in faraway places won’t starve.’ On a cognitive level, most of us grow out of feeling responsible for events that are so obviously out of our control. We stop worrying when we step on a crack in the sidewalk. We don’t equate eating all our food with anything but our expanding waistline.
“Yet, on a subliminal level,” Dr. Davidson continues, “we still believe in magic. Now, our spells go something like this: ‘If I don’t buy an earthquake kit, there won’t be an earthquake. If I don’t stock up on water, there won’t be a disaster in which it’s needed.’ Granted, nobody would admit to thinking such thoughts or making decisions on the basis of abject denial. But our behavior says otherwise; it says that deep down in our infantile, spell-casting, primitive brains, we think we can keep bad things from happening by not readying ourselves. Conversely, we fear that preparing ourselves is a way of saying to destiny, ‘Bring it on, baby! I can take it!’
“These incidents remind us of our actual mortality and may serve to help us appreciate the life, the freedom and the health we have. Being shown how quickly all of these privileges can be lost is an eye-opener. It’s healthy to take these moments seriously and pause to reflect upon them.”
Indeed, the federal government seems to be reflecting upon its heavily criticized disaster response. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff today relieved FEMA Director Michael Brown of his command of hurricane relief efforts. Brown, who still heads the agency, has been under scrutiny for FEMA’s slow reaction time. He is being replaced by Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen, who has been running rescue and relief operations in New Orleans. Some speculate Brown will soon leave FEMA altogether.
Postscript: After this column was written, Michael Brown resigned as FEMA director on Monday, Sept. 12.]]>