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Americans are unprepared for disaster

Hurricanes threaten the Gulf Coast, wildfires have scorched a record number of acres and tornadoes are striking in swarms. With weather events reaching extremes, you'd think that Americans would put extra effort into disaster planning.

But they haven't.

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Americans are shockingly unprepared for disasters"We are shockingly unprepared for disasters in spite of the fact that we've experienced major traumas ever since 9/11," says Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.

The reasons vary: state of mind, state of the economy and the state in which you reside. On the Gulf Coast, residents play chicken with impending hurricanes, defying storm warnings. Western homeowners plant shrubbery and keep shade trees around their homes, providing more fuel for wildfires. Nearly half of all respondents to a Persuadable Research Corporation study said that they don't have enough money to prepare for disasters.

More than half of adults in the U.S. believe that the government will come to their rescue if a disaster occurs, according to an Adelphi University Center for Health Innovation poll. They may be very wrong.

Cash flow problem

Several Alabama counties received two shocks this year. First, tornadoes touched down in the pre-dawn hours before residents received adequate warning. Then the shattered homeowners were denied federal disaster relief.

"The federal government has a cash flow problem," says Redlener, "and there's an ideological clamor for less government."

Inadequate government funding and preparation has contributed to the problems encountered in recent major disasters. During Hurricane Katrina weakened levees broke and flooded much of New Orleans; on 9/11 police and fire radios were unable to communicate with each other.

"There's a lack of preparedness at all levels, and coordination between agencies is lacking," Redlener says.

James Lee Witt and James Loy, national co-chairs of ProtectingAmerica.org, a non-profit group representing emergency management professionals, first responders, insurance companies, disaster relief experts and others, agree that that the biggest communication failure is not making people aware of the dangers they face and the steps they need to take to mitigate them, until it's too late.

The news media replays the clips of charred homes and grieving homeowners, but ignores the nuts and bolts of what should be done to prevent it, or at least lessen the damage, Redlener says.

Here's a checklist of what you should do:

1. Maintain situational awareness

While each crisis -- flood, fire or earthquake -- has its own footprint, some defenses are common to all. One basic tactic taught to the police and military is called "situational awareness": knowing your surroundings and what is happening at all times. During a disaster, this means keeping track of your family and neighbors. One way to accomplish this is to compile a list of phone numbers of your relatives and neighbors, as well as the people you will contact if you need help or have to leave unexpectedly.

2. Take inventory

Photograph and list your valuable assets, such as art, clothing, electronics and jewelry, to help you recover their worth from your property insurer if they are damaged. The pictures and list can be stored in your cell phone, as well as other family member's cell phones. And know how much your home insurance company will actually pay for your possessions. Contents coverage might be up to only 50 percent of the coverage amount of the insured home.

3. Reach out and touch

Have a plan for reconnecting with friends or loved ones following a disaster. Landline phones are a good alternative to cell phones if cell towers are down or out of service.

4. Keep a "go kit"

During an emergency, you have to make an important decision. Do you stay or go? Either way you should have emergency supplies on hand, often called a "go kit." These supplies will vary depending on your needs, but necessities include: a battery-operated or crank radio, a case of bottled water, a change of clothes, toiletries, a standard medical kit, at least one flashlight, and a cash reserve. Keep your car gassed up to ensure that you can get where you need to go.

5. Consider staying put

It might make sense to ride out the danger in a familiar place. If you decide to stay you should have a gasoline-powered generator. Fill up the bathtub with water, set the refrigerator and freezer to the highest setting to keep them colder longer, and turn off the air conditioner. You also should secure the outside of your home by turning off fuel sources such as propane tanks, tying down or taking inside any object that could turn into wind-driven missiles, and covering windows with storm shutters or plywood if high winds are expected.

6. Plan for home defense

The police and emergency responders will be overwhelmed, so you may encounter looters during a disaster. Some wealthy people add security and private fire protection services to their home insurance policy. And more people are arming themselves with guns, which may be a deterrent to criminals but could be a danger to themselves and their friends or families. An active neighborhood watch group can help keep people and property safe, particularly if someone stays behind when others evacuate.

7. Make a plan for your pets

Many pets were abandoned by their owners during Hurricane Katrina, when people scrambled to find shelter in places that wouldn't take pets. Others chose to risk death by staying in their homes with their animals. The result was the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act, which authorized federal funds for emergency facilities that take in small animals. If an emergency situation is imminent, ask your vet where these shelters are located or, if time permits, check your state's emergency management website.

8. Learn more about your workplace

Home may not be the safest place for you in a disaster. Consider riding it out at work. Find out if your company has an emergency evacuation plan, as well as what stresses the building is able to withstand in case of an earthquake.

9. Don't relax too soon

The crisis isn't necessarily over when you return home and find your house to be still standing. Watch out for hazards like sinkholes, or snakes and alligators that may have been washed out of their natural habitat. Be aware of danger from downed electrical lines and gas leaks.

So how much of this checklist are you going to follow? Polls have shown that most Americans are unprepared. Recent weather patterns have brought nationwide drought and tropical diseases like the West Nile virus have shown that global warming is a reality. "You can see it in the rise in sea levels along the East Coast," says Redlener. But he admits that even his own children don't always follow his advice.

More from Ed Leefeldt here

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