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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

Reader Feedback On Washington Post Article — “It’s An Emergency: We’re Not Prepared”

June 3rd, 2008 · No Comments

I received lots of interesting reaction to my Washington Post Outlook Section Article, “It’s An Emergency: We’re Not Prepared” and the subsequent online discussion on

The comments have come from people at all levels of the emergency management/homeland security/public health community as well as many average citizens who are not directly involved. There have been suggestions, questions, encouragement, criticism and offers of help. I appreciate all of it. Over the next several weeks, I will be following up on all the comments and will integrating many of them into the site. In the interim, I wanted to share a sampling of the feedback on the site as a way to disseminate the information and stimulate discussion:

                                                   READER FEEDBACK

“I read with great interest your Outlook piece in the Washington Post and this afternoon’s online discussion. As a historian of Cold War civil defense, with special focus on Washington, D.C., I especially welcome and applaud suggestions 3, 4, and 9. If I may, I’d like to offer some historical perspective on these suggestions, learned from my research.

#3: “Don’t laugh at ‘duck and cover.’” In the 1950s, civil defense planners faced a difficult challenge. They needed to educate Americans about the terrible consequences of all-out nuclear war while also convincing Americans they could survive such a war. At the same time, preparedness campaigns and guidelines did not keep pace with the rapid increase in the power of nuclear weapons and the speed of their delivery systems. Thus “ducking and covering,” when being practiced by countless schoolchildren, was obsolete against hydrogen bombs and missiles. As well you note, instead of laughing at this gap, we should heed the preparedness ethic exemplified during the Cold War. I would add this point: federal emergency authorities need to respect and nurture citizen interest and engagement by ensuring that the guidelines and preparedness campaigns provide timely, relevant, and reliable information, so that a “credibility gap” does not grow.

#4. “Knowledge Is Power.” Exactly. And here the Cold War offers a lesson on how not to act. In 1953, Robert Oppenheimer practically begged President Eisenhower to undertake a national campaign to educate Americans about the enormous differences between hydrogen and atomic weapons. As Oppenheimer said, “Only a wise and informed people could be expected to act wisely.” But Eisenhower declined. I fear that the DHS is making a similar error today by failing to provide sufficient detailed information on what a dirty bomb is. Note, for example, that advises that “It is important to avoid breathing radiological dust that may be released in the air” but does not explain how to do this.

#9. “Drilling.” During the Cold War, drilling was usually compulsory, and this had a negative impact on participants’ attitudes. Although in a perfect world, all citizens would recognize their own self-interest in learning plans and taking part, are there ways we can offer incentives, like the ones you mention in suggestion 6, to encourage participation, so that we avoid the Cold War resentment toward drilling? One thought: businesses could offer discounts on emergency supplies to people who take part in a drill, whether for their children’s school or in their community.

David Krugler
Associate Professor of History, University of Wisconsin, Platteville
author, _This Is Only a Test: How Washington, D.C., Prepared for Nuclear War_ (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006)

I enjoyed the Washington Post article but thought of 2 other items missing from your list.

11.  Americans should get back in the habit of putting up food for a rainy day.  A 1 month to 3 month supply of food should be in every American home to be ready for the unknown.  A year supply of food would be best but you have to start somewhere.  When we get snow storms in my area, just the meteorologist predictions send people in panic to the story cleaning out every last loaf of bread and carton of milk.  Have a small food storage would alleviate the panic reaction and give Americans some sense of safety in being ready for the unknown.

12.  Americans should store water and/or have some way or knowledge on how to clean contaminated water.  When flooding sets in, finding clean drinkable water is sometimes a difficulty.  It’s the essential element of survival of the human race, clean drinking water.  Without clean water, sickness could set in quickly leading to large scale problems.  Knowing out to purify water with bleach, or boiling, or purification tablets should be a skill every American possesses. 

Best regards,

Corey Gravelle
Athens, PA


Good suggestions. Keep driving home the need to take care of yourself and your family for at least 3 days if you are in a “safe” area of the country. IF you live in a “disaster zone” plan on 5 to 10 days. Include a tent, blankets/bedding, clothes, way to cook food, a way to purify water, and of course food.

You left out a few things.

1. Get a NOAA All Hazards Weather radio, plug it in, and pay attention to the alerts. This is the best use of $25 to $100 you could possible get.

2. Once you get your family to know what to do in all disasters that can hit your community, start talking to the people on all sides of your home. Impress upon them that they must tell those around them. That way the 4 people you tell will hopefully tell at least 2 people and soon the whole block will be informed.

3. Bring a disaster plan to your work place. Practice how to evacuate your building, how to account for all the workers, and identify safe areas of your work place.

4. FEMA has a website that contains online classes for people to learn what they can to do ensure their safety and increase their odds of survival.

5. Impress upon city mayors/managers that building codes must include safety features. Sprinklers in fire areas, NOAA All Hazzards radios in all homes like smoke detectors, safe rooms in hurricane/tornado prone areas, and stuctural enhancements in earthquake areas, like the New Madrid fault areas. Cities/counties also need to budget for drills and citizens must volunteer to help run them.

6. DO NOT look to anyone to take care of you after a disaster. Take care of yourself.



 You are right that Americans are woefully unprepared for disasters – natural or man-made – and that we should get to work now to fix these problems.

For my part, I’ve been prepared for well, anything, since Sept. 11. I live less than two miles north of the Pentagon and I remember seeing the smoke as I – and thousands of other scared and dazed Washingtonians – walked home during that awful day. I also remembering two things…1) Something like this WILL happen again and 2) I will NOT be unprepared anymore.

 So, I went to work: I have “go-bags” in my home and in my office on Capitol Hill. I have at least $100 cash ready at the apartment. I also have enough food and water for three weeks in case I have to shelter in place at home.

 My friends think I’m a little odd or some sort of apocalyptic nut. I just tell them I was a former Boy Scout who never forgot the group’s motto: Be Prepared.

 Let’s hope your op-ed inspires more people and policymakers to be prepared for disaster…wherever and whenever it may be.

Andrew Blasko, Arlington, VA


Thank you so much for writing on this topic. I have been working with county emergency management offices for the past 25 years in all of the different parts of the country in which I have lived in.  Some have been great some have been horrible.  We need to get back to the basic principles of the 1950’s.  Here is a simple case in point; a month or so ago we had a tornado warning issued for the town I live in, I am a trained storm spotter.  I thought to check on the latch-key kids who live next door before I headed out to spot.  The kids were afraid, did not know what to do.  I told them to put on shoes, grab a pillow and a blanket and go to the bathroom in the middle of their house.  I stayed until their grandmother got to the house. The grandmother asked why I told them to put on shoes and grab a blanket and pillow.  I told her simply that the shoes would protect their feet from debris afterwards, the blanket and pillow would help protect them from flying debris during.  She looked surprised that something so simple would help and even more that she had no clue of what to do despite living in “Tornado Alley” all of her 65 years.  As it turned out, before I could even get to the spot I where I watch from, a rotating wall cloud formed two blocks from my house.  A funnel never fully formed but our homes received wind and hail damage.  The kids were very afraid at first but once they were given instructions and carried them out, they were not so afraid.  Ross, the older of the two wants to grow up to be a storm spotter and know what to do in tornadoes.  

 It is also surprising how many communities do not have Civil Defense sirens and even those that do, many times they cannot be heard inside a home.  People think that they will receive warnings via their TV’s. Well here in Texas and across the South, tornadoes can happen 24 hours a day.  The TV does not help much when you are asleep.  A NOAA All Hazards radio will wake the proverbial dead.  Well even with this radio you are not 100 percent assured of getting advanced notice of a disaster, but it is always better than TV. People also need to know how to turn off the utilities in their home.  Knowing where the main gas shut-off can save a whole neighborhood. 

This is important and getting Americans prepared cannot wait.  We cannot count on FEMA or local, state, Federal governments to take care of us.

Shelley Jeltema


Of course it one thing to be prepared for “an” emergency and another to be prepared for every imaginable catastrophe. Clearly if one lives in an earthquake, huricane, or tornado zone a few steps to weather a week without running water and/or perhaps operating grocery stores would be sensible. However, most people already have a week’s supply of food tucked away in their larder–although fewer have week’s water, because its not as easy to store. However, with a bit of warning we can do so in bathtubs and bottles.

The idea that everyone should be live in fear–as often implied by such emergency pieces–is a rather large stretch. Clearly, one cannot prepare for all “emergencies” nor should most people spend much time and energy thinking about them, beyond a few sentences over the supper table: “What would we do if the house burnt down? etc.”

One could waste a lot of time and energy preparing for emergencies that never come–as with all those fine bomb shelters built in the 1960s and all that wonderful and wasteful practice hiding under school desks. All “emergency talk” normally do is to produce fear and deference to authority. Instead, why not spend five minutes talking about a few simple steps relevant for one’s own family, rather than trying to mobilize the whole country for invaders from outerspace, falling asteroids, or the next great plague.

Thinking about what to do if “grandma falls and hurts herself” might sense, but not training 300 million people to become first responders in some great imagined “disaster.”



Thank you for your article in the Washington Post regarding Emergency Preparedness.  It is one of the best and most concise articles I have ever read.  I agree with you on so many points.  I love the idea of National Preparedness Day.  It takes the 9.11 disaster day a positive.  No one died in vain!

I am from Oklahoma and lost friends in the OKC bombing 4.19.95.  It’s amazing how life can change on a dime.  We were having the most beautiful April morning and at 9.02am things changed forever!

Dianne Davis


 My reason for writing is to ask you to focus on a part of emergency preparedness that will evade most of us.  You touched on it in your article when you discussed the cell phone problem and hoped that text messaging will work in a disaster.  The problem, of course, is that it will be unreliable.

 As one who has lived always in the DC area and with kids in NYC during the blackout and 9/11, and a dad in Florida during a hurricane, I know how hard it is to find out if they are OK.  BTW, I expect to see another attack on DC similar to the one on 9/11, but probably worse.  My family is more prepared in one area than all others – communication.  I have equipped them with two way mobile radios and portable radios they can use to contact each other.  These are not the cheap bubble pack radios but real commercial UHF radios operating on the GMRS UHF band through two personal repeaters.  One here in Rockville and the other in Frederick where our mountain retreat is located, exactly 50 miles from the White House (unfortunately, just 10 miles south of Camp David).

I am also a ham radio operator — we are trained and always prepared to help out in disasters. Please encourage your readers to have at least one ham operator in the family.  The written test is easy (no more morse code) and a radio for great local communication costs less than $125.00. Local ham clubs teach courses, organize training, and help all beginners.

 Richard Hayman 


Here is a thought. We have so many veterans returning from OIF, wouldn’t it make sense to utilize their skill set in preparing regional or even county disaster boards? Far to often it is not the most knowledge person in-charge it it some friend of a friend. When it comes to preparing for disasters or emergencies you need to utilize those that have the knowledge that our tax payer dollars paid for. Who would you trust, someone who has actual experience or someone who trained on a computer and gets a certificate. America use the skill set you have available and also this will give people much needed jobs and a feeling of value.



Two weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, I remember traveling to France and talking to Europeans who first expressed sympathy — and then certainty that Americans would soon forget the terrorist attacks and return to life as they had always known it. I felt insulted and insisted that this was a life-changing event that no American would ever forget or feel any less intensely about.

Unfortunately, it often seems that the Europeans were right. People constantly complain that their rights are violated by, among other things, airport searches. We might be our own worst enemy — fighting and challenging anyone and anything trying to protect our safety. It’s a whole new world out there — certainly not one that anyone could have imagined — and there will be mistakes. Me? I’d rather err on the side of safety and experience a little inconvenience until we get it right.

That’s why, as a member of the Fairfax Medical Reserve Corps, I was disappointed to read John D. Solomon’s May 18 Outlook article, “It’s an Emergency. We’re Not Prepared.” Solomon made good suggestions about educating the public and urging it to get involved in emergency preparedness. But he was wrong to suggest that “we are not prepared.”

As a registered nurse with an emergency room background who has participated in numerous disaster drills in the District and Virginia over a 26-year career in health care, I believe that our regional officials are hard at work to ensure our safety in the event of an emergency. Their shortfall may be that they have not done a good enough job of advertising their emergency preparedness plans; instead, they’ve been focused on the priority of caring for and protecting citizens in a disaster — which is no small task.

Recently I participated in a drill in response to an “anthrax dusting” of the Washington area; it was one of several such drills that Fairfax County has conducted over the past two years. Of course, it cannot anticipate every possible threat — but officials in the county’s health and emergency services departments, in cooperation with other government agencies, have made educated guesses and have put plans in place to protect residents. Of course, more can be done.

The general public needs to take a more active role in emergency preparedness, as Solomon suggested. We need more volunteers to work in the event of a disaster. Next year, instead of “Take Your Child to Work Day,” we should have kids participate in preparing home disaster kits for their households. We are a society of “What have you done for me lately?”

It’s time for us to step up and get involved in emergency preparedness, before it’s too late. Our local officials and agencies are prepared for the next emergency. Are you?

– Gina Baxter

I’m reading your column in today’s Houston Chronicle and I would like to give
you a tip.  I don’t know if you’re aware of it or not since I’m new to this
website, but if not please post the following:
I am a Californian (though I now reside in Texas) and I thought I knew all
about emergency preparedness because of the numerous earthquakes I’ve endured.
However, during the Loma Prieta quake of 1989 (the so-called “World Series
Quake”) I was caught completely unprepared because it never registered with me
that gasoline pumps are ELECTRIC.  I lived in Salinas at that time, and we were
without power for almost three days.  I had allowed my car to get to “E” and
planned to fill up the next morning on my way to work.  Instead, someone had to
come over and siphon gas out of his car to get mine running!
Please NEVER let your car go below 1/4 tank.  Not only is it bad for your fuel
pump but if power goes out for days or weeks you will be without

LaDonna Mosier








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