EMA Director: Now is the time to prepare for disasters

In these are scary times, the list of things to worry about seems to grow daily, but there are things we can do to take back some control and prepare our families for a variety of threats. Preparing a plan and communicating it to everyone in the household goes a long way toward making tough situations go more smoothly, according to J. Anthony Clifton, director of the DeKalb County Emergency Management Agency.

“And have a Plan B that is as ‘old school’ as possible,” Clifton said, referring to landlines and other baseline communications. Cell towers can only carry about 200 lines at any given time, so in an emergency situation, users will flood the system and most calls can’t get through.

In such a situation, he recommends sending a text (which uses less data) and designating a relative in another city who can act as the “central hub for the family” for everyone to call for information.

“If it’s not grandma, maybe it is an aunt, and you just go down that call tree until you are able to reach someone. You need to know how to get your kid back if something happens at their school while you are separated.”

These days, many people rely on phone numbers stored on their phones rather than having numbers memorized, so it becomes important to store a prepared list of contacts and medications, plus proof of ID in a waterproof container that can be quickly grabbed. The identification may be essential to caregivers at a shelter handing custody of children back to their parents.

“We need to be a resilient community. People say, ‘Well, FEMA will help us,’ but that’s some great big wheels to get turning, and it may take three or four days to get things to us. Our society relies on technology and assumes that just because something hasn’t happened it, it won’t,” Clifton said.

Each Spring, the DeKalb County EMA offers a 20-hour CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) class to the community to teach a variety of skills that make ordinary citizens deployable during a disaster and better equipped to help one’s own family or neighbors until professional first responders can arrive.

Clifton’s job is to think about worst case scenarios so his office can quickly spring into action, bringing order to chaos. His greatest concerns include an ice storm that could destroy the roads and power grid, both taking months to rebuild.

“We have 300 miles of dirt roads that could disintegrate and 60 miles of interstate and railroad,” he said. “Most people think that natural disasters like tornadoes are the worst thing we could face, but there’s some really mean, nasty chemicals that pass through our county. It scares me to death that there are three schools in this county right next to railroad tracks where we could have a derailment.”

He’s also concerned about the local impact of catastrophes elsewhere in the region.

“I worry about what happens if our transportation system gets shut down and suppliers can’t get food from warehouses to local stores for several days or weeks. So many people order things over the Internet now, but what if UPS can’t get through? You need to keep three gallons of water per person in the closet, have more than one vial of insulin in the house, backup oxygen...”

In other words, be proactive instead of reactive.

“Don’t wait for us to tell you it’s going to snow before you start preparing because everyone runs to the store and empties the shelves.”

Filling the car with a full tank of gasoline ahead of a potential storm is a good idea, he said, because cars can keep us warm, provide shelter, and charge phones as long as they have fuel. He recalled how, two days after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, local stations ran out of gas.

Clifton worries about millennials who were young during the 2011 tornadoes and may have no memory of what can happen after an event like 9/11. Many of them have become completely reliant on the internet to survive. Many homes no longer have manual can-openers to peel open canned foods stored in kitchen pantries.

He pointed to century-old concrete dams like the one in Guntersville that could give way in the event of an earthquake, potentially flooding Huntsville, a nuclear disaster at Brown’s Ferry or a terrorist attack at Redstone Arsenal.

“ISIS is not coming to Fort Payne,” Clifton said, “but we need to prepare for people fleeing the places where they might attack the country. If someone sets off a nuclear suitcase in Atlanta, for example, that’s 6.5 million people who’ve got to escape to somewhere. They’d be coming here. We also have to think about protecting against disease because the worst natural disaster this planet has ever seen was the Spanish Flu that wiped out a third of the global population.”

One challenge in planning what to do in the event of a disaster is that the proper response can depend on the direction the wind is blowing. Plans should include destinations in different directions so you have multiple options during an emergency.

“Sometimes the only way you can prepare is to talk to your family and come up with a plan of what you would do if you had to quickly evacuate,” he said.

The good news is that families can find a huge amount of information on the Internet with tips on what to do in times of crisis. Just don’t wait until the storm clouds are on the horizon to start planning what to do.

The federal website, ready.gov, offers a “preparedness calendar” detailing seasonal risks including winter weather, earthquakes, tornados, floods, wildfires, hurricanes, extreme heat, lightning, disease and others. There’s also information on cyber security, holiday safety, fall safety, fireworks safety, pet preparedness, building safety, dam safety and more.

Clifton also reminded the public of the Alert DeKalb system with phone notifications for up to five different locations.

“It’s a free service that you can subscribe to and customize which texts you want to receive,” he said.

People can find the sign-up from a banner ad on the county commission website at http://www.dekalbcountyal.us/ema/

Clifton also recommends purchasing a $29 weather radio that can receive alerts and said the news media can be a valuable channel for communicating what to do after a disaster.

While there’s a long list of things to worry about, resources allow citizens to anticipate and prepare for the worst while hoping for the best.

Recommendations include:

  • Know what disasters and hazards could affect your area – Risks specific to DeKalb County include tornadoes, ice storms, earthquakes, drought, floods, and possible explosions due to hazardous materials stored at factories or being transported daily on the roadways or railroads.
  • Buy flood insurance – Floods are the most common natural disaster in the United States. Failing to evacuate flooded areas, entering flood waters, or remaining after a flood has passed can result in injury or death. Flash floods can come with no warning. If your insurance agent does not sell flood insurance, you can contact the NFIP Referral Call Center at 1-800-427-4661 to request an agent referral.
  • Upload password-protected copies of important documents to the cloud – These documents may include photo IDs, proof of address and insurance, medical records, and bank docs. It may also be a good idea to upload copies of irreplaceable family photos, just in case. Physical copies of important documents should be kept in a waterproof container if possible.
  • Sign up for emergency alerts – The Emergency Alert System (EAS) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Radio provide emergency alerts. The DeKalb EMA offers a free subscription service called “Alert DeKalb” that can be found on the county website at http://www.dekalbcountyal.us/ema/. A list of open shelters can be found during an active disaster in your local area by downloading the FEMA app. Listen to a battery-powered radio and follow local evacuation instructions.
  • Make sure your family has a plan and practices it once a year - Tailor your plans and supplies to your specific daily living needs and responsibilities. Don’t forget to include pets in the family plan. Decide on ways to maintain contact and take the best actions for each of you and re-unite if you are separated. Ready.gov/kids offers kid-friendly ways of discussing disasters and how to prepare.
  • Be ready to evacuate on little or no notice - Keep a full tank of gas in your car if an evacuation seems likely. Include 3-4 day’s worth of prescriptions, bottled water, snacks, and toiletries in a “go bag.” Learn and practice evacuation routes and shelter plans. Identify several places you could go in an emergency such as a friend’s home in another town or a motel. Choose destinations in different directions so that you have options during an emergency.
  • Decide where your family would re-unite if you needed to evacuate – We can’t always count on cell towers working, so everyone should know what to do, even if separated by distance and unable to communicate by phone, text or email. If time allows, call or email a trusted out-of-state contact designated in your family communications plan and tell them where you are going. Also, leave a note telling others when you left and where you are going.
  • Be alert to your surroundings – Man-made risks can also threaten us. It pays to observe what is going on around you and avoid distractions such as texting, listening to headphones or being on your cell phone. You can identify exits and areas of protective cover for the places you go such as work, school, and special events.
  • “If You See Something, Say Something” - Report suspicious behavior, items, or activities to authorities. Observe warning signs such as unusual or threatening communications, expressed grievances, ideologies promoting violence, suspicious behavior such as excessive questioning or attention to security details, and unusual items or packages.
  • Learn lifesaving skills – Take a first aid class so you can assist wounded people before first responders arrive. Recognize and respond to illnesses such as heat stroke and the ways to respond. Sign up for CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) classes in February or March to learn basic first aid and triage or a separate CPR class. It teaches the basics of emergency response to all kinds of situations from tornadoes to winter weather. It teaches things like how to turn off your power, turn off gas and water. How to determine if a building is unstable. How to use a fire extinguisher. How to direct traffic.
  • Protect yourself against a cyberattack – This can include identity theft, holding documents for ransom, or disrupting services. To protect yourself, keep software and operating systems up-to-date, create backup files, use strong passwords, check account statements and credit reports regularly, use two-factor authentication (two methods of verification), use encrypted (secure) internet connections, do not give out personal information, and don’t click anything when in doubt.
  • Get professional help after traumatic events - If needed, seek help for you and your family to cope.

For more information on making a disaster plan for your family, visit https://www.ready.gov/plan

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