This week, the northern half of Georgia is enduring the effects of an unusually heavy snow/ice storm. Practically all of the precipitation fell Sunday night/pre-dawn Monday morning, but continuous sub-freezing temperatures have prolonged its effects, causing, for example, widespread school closures for three or more consecutive days – unprecedented in my memory. One might characterize this as a “once in a decade” winter storm for Georgia, though it is the second significant winter storm in the span of a month…in a state that often goes an entire winter without a significant snow/ice storm.
I grew up during the Cold War, and I saw how personal disaster preparedness became deemphasized for most people with the collapse of the Soviet Union and with it, the freedom from the ever-present threat of nuclear war. Of course, our nation was shaken from its complacency a decade later, and since then, there has been a renewed emphasis at all levels of government in encouraging us to be prepared and equipped to deal with disasters, natural or man-made. The federal government has been doing an outstanding job of communicating to individuals and local governments that, in the event of a catastrophe, we may need to survive on our own for several days before outside help reaches us. The rule of thumb for individuals and families is to maintain the resources to sustain themselves, while either evacuating or sheltering-in-place, for three days.
Though physical disability limits my evacuation options, I am fortunate that, because of my background (growing up in the Cold War, a former Boy Scout, a veteran, an outdoorsman, work experience in public safety/emergency management, etc.) my life required no changes in order to attain that level of preparedness and much more. The only long-term survival need outside of my control is my reliance on prescription medications, a few of which are absolutely vital and, since they are tightly-controlled narcotics, would be difficult to obtain in the event of a prolonged breakdown of social services.
While I’m confident in my ability to weather a disaster and help others do so, an event occurred this week which shook my confidence in my local government to do the same, even at the level of essential services. This ice storm, while heavier than initially predicted, did not occur without warning. On Monday morning, after the precipitation itself, I had a medical emergency that I believed might be imminently life-threatening and could not be treated outside of a hospital. I dialed 911, and a fire/rescue truck and an ambulance were immediately dispatched. I live about 3 miles from the nearest fire station. About 15 minutes later, the dispatcher called to inform me that help was on the way, but the rescue truck and ambulance were having trouble getting to me due to road conditions. Another 20 or so minutes passed, and the dispatcher called to tell me that they could not get into my apartment complex due to the ice and asked if I could walk (several hundred yards) to the entrance of the apartment complex to meet the ambulance. Since my manual wheelchair lacks all-terrain tires, I told her that was not possible. I began to think about whether a LifeFlight helicopter would have enough room to land safely in the parking lot in front of my apartment. Help finally arrived, well over an hour after my initial call, in the form of a fire department paramedic’s personal pickup truck equipped with snow chains. The paramedics assessed me and transported me to the waiting ambulance. Fortunately, though there was no way to know without going to the hospital, I did not need to be admitted. (On the ride home, though the temperature had remained well below freezing and road conditions inside my apartment complex had not changed, the cab had little difficulty taking me all the way to my door.) Last night, my home blood pressure monitor (faulty, as it turns out) provided a reading that indicated that heart damage or a heart attack was imminent. I called 911, and rescue and an ambulance arrived within 15 minutes. It only took the fire department and ambulance service 3 days to discover the invention of snow chains and to use this discovery to their advantage.
My life may depend on how well I prepare for every conceivable contingency as I stock my disaster kit. Many lives depend on how well our city and county governments prepare. YOU NEED NOT WAIT UNTIL AFTER THE DISASTER to find out how prepared your first-responders are. Every local government should have a written disaster plan, and you should be able to view it. In Georgia, you can probably obtain a copy at nominal cost, pursuant to the Open Records Act. Ask your elected officials what the local government’s plans and capabilities are in the event of X. If you aren’t satisfied with the answer, get your county and state emergency management agency involved. Get involved yourself, if you have the time and the skills (this is very common among HAM radio operators).
Don’t wait until AFTER it hits the fan to find out whether your community is prepared for it!
More information about preparing for various types of disasters can be found at Ready.gov and The National Weather Service StormReady Communities Program.