Imagine the chaos if a tremendous earthquake suddenly struck the Northwest tonight. What if the quake and its aftershocks were powerful enough to rip up streets, destroy bridges and buildings and knock out power and water supplies in Portland or Seattle?
It would be devastating for some. But because our local emergency services teams have spent years preparing for a disaster, they would have everything under control in a few hours. Right?
Wrong. The harsh truth is that you will have to take care of yourself and your family for at least three days following a disaster. This holds true for natural disasters such as earthquakes, winter storms or flu epidemics, and also for man-made disasters such as a radiation leak or terrorist attack.
"Before the National Guard or FEMA arrive it's going to take time — it's going to take days," says Linda Swift, emergency preparedness manager with the Oregon Trail Chapter of the Red Cross. "We always say make a 72-hour kit, but if it was a week that would be better.
"You're going to have to survive for a minimum of three days and possibly more. You won't see the police department or the fire department. Our fire department might be destroyed. People need to realize those things will not be there for them."
Emergency staffers at the state, county and city levels all agree that every one of us needs to prepare for at least 72-hours without government assistance.
"There is that expectation that government will take care of me in an emergency," said Bob Grist, a senior planner with Multnomah County Emergency and Disaster Management. "You can just walk down to the corner and get food and water. It doesn't get there by magic. It takes time to get that kind of assistance effort organized. In Portland supplies may have to come from Eugene, from Medford — from outside the area. You're talking about a logistical nightmare."
Emergency planners at state and local levels say government and first responders will be working hard to save lives, secure neighborhoods and restore services. But in any major disaster, emergency responders would quickly be maxed out dealing with the most immediate problems.
In fact, past research on disasters shows that 80 percent of rescues are performed by untrained private citizens, said Lawrence Behmer, who coordinates the City of Portland's Neighborhood Emergency Teams program, known as NET. Sometimes, however, because these ordinary heroes don't know the safest way to proceed, they risk their own lives unnecessarily. That's why Portland offers free NET training in how to save lives in a disaster. The program, (known in Seattle as SDART, Seattle Disaster Aid and Response Teams, and nationally as the CERT, Community Emergency Response Team) seeks to boost emergency response capacity throughout the country by teaching volunteers basic search and rescue and first aid skills.
"The idea is that in a massive disaster citizens are the first responders," Behmer told The Skanner. "It can take a while for the fire department to get to you — they are going to be in the most dangerous areas.
"Net volunteers learn to work as a team to elevate debris and pull a victim to safety."
Unprepared and Out of Luck
Public awareness campaigns such as the Red Cross's "Together We Prepare," King County's "Basic, Better, Best" or the national "Ready" campaign urge every household to make a disaster plan and put together a 72-hour emergency kit containing at minimum a gallon of water a day for each person, enough food for three days, a flashlight, a first aid kit and a radio. So far, however, the volume on that message has been low, so low that a majority of us have tuned it out.
Cynthia Thomas-Johnson, who runs a foster care agency, said she thought about making a disaster plan after the Katrina disaster.
"I thought about putting an emergency kit together, but I guess I'm one of those people who think it will never happen," she said. "I know what goes in it, but I just haven't got one in place."
Thomas-Johnson has plenty of company. A national survey by the American Public Health Association in 2007 found that almost half of us have no emergency plan or supplies.
Asked about how well they would cope with a public health crisis, 27 percent of those surveyed said they felt prepared. However further questions revealed that only about half of them — 14 percent — had put aside the recommended three-day supply of water, food, medicines and a first-aid kit. The reasons? About 38 percent of us say we simply would rather not think about what would happen in a public health crisis. And 44 percent of Americans say they don't believe in worrying about things that may or may not happen in the future.
Linda Swift said that in reality emergencies happen all the time. The Red Cross responds to an emergency about once every 12 hours, where at least one family has suddenly become homeless. Most of these small disasters are fires.
But emergencies that affect whole communities are not rare either, Swift points out. Severe storms last January caused flooding and landslides all over the Northwest. In the worst affected areas, such as the Oregon coast, telephone communications were knocked out so the 911 system was useless.
In Vernonia, Ore., it took days for rescuers to reach many victims.
The floods showed how many people lack basic survival supplies. People with serious medical problems realized they had no back up generator to power their medical equipment, Swift said. Relatives from all over the country flooded the Red Cross with calls.
"We had to explain that no-one was getting in or out and we had no way of contacting their relatives," Swift said. "It was very hard."
Swift recognizes that putting out extra money for emergency supplies is a hardship for many low-income families.
"Water is going to be a critical issue," she said. "Perhaps you turn on the tap and nothing comes out or it is contaminated.
"What we try to do is encourage people to just one time a month start to put water aside. Wash your own containers, fill them and put them aside. Water bottles don't have to be new. We recommend a gallon a day per person."
You know you have what it takes to save lives during a disaster. All you need is a little knowledge, a chance to practice your skills and some tips from the experts. That's the big idea behind the Neighborhood Emergency Team program, which offers free training to anyone aged 14 and older who lives in Portland. Funded through the city's Office of Emergency Management and run by seasoned firefighters, the program offers eight sessions of concentrated hero training.
"It's absolutely critical that people get trained," said the program's coordinator, Lawrence Behmer. "This is about neighbors helping neighbors when it has to count."
The trainings are held at a large firefighter training campus in Northeast Portland, and usually run for eight weeks on either Wednesday evenings or Satu-rdays. Firefighters teach NET volunteers essential disaster skills such as how to act quickly to secure homes and streets by turning off unsafe utilities, and how to deal with hazardous materials. Volunteers learn how to assess injuries and administer first aid. They even learn how to pull people out of wrecked buildings safely.
Clarence Harper, a former youth counselor who is now a volunteer dispatcher for the Red Cross, has been an emergency volunteer since 1995.
"I would recommend people to call the NET program," he said. "It's a really valuable training: you get first aid training and it's a good confidence builder. I'm really happy, it's been a very positive experience for me."
Harper said that thanks to his training he has been able to help others – possibly saving their lives. On the scene when a stranger collapsed with a heart attack, he was able to administer CPR until an ambulance arrived. On another occasion, Harper saw smoke coming from an apartment.
"I broke the glass and grabbed a fire extinguisher," Harper said. "I put my hand on the door to make sure it wasn't hot — and it wasn't so I went in. The bed was on fire so I just used the fire extinguisher to put it out.
"A guy had passed out in the bathroom and I could smell alcohol on his breath. He was unresponsive so I dragged him out of there." When firefighters arrived they joked he was putting them out of a job.
Ethan Jewett, who heads the Woodlawn Neighborhood Emergency Team, said he hopes more people in North and Northeast Portland find out about the training and join up.
"The whole point of NET is that no city could have enough firefighters on hand waiting in case of an emergency. It's just not possible."
Diversity is the key to an effective team, Jewett said, because it makes trust and communication possible during a crisis. He's keen to work with more people of color and people who speak Spanish, for example.
"It's not like I just want some Spanish speakers on my team: it's that I need them on my team," he said. "NET teams need people who can communicate with people in their own languages."
The next NET training starts Sept. 17 and is open to anyone over 14. Sign up at the Web site pdxprepared.net or call Lawrence Behmer at 503-823-4421.
What's in a 72-hour Emergency Kit
A Plan for what your family will do in a disaster is essential. Choose a meeting place and discuss what you will do if phone service is disrupted.
Water: One gallon a day for each family member is recommended.
Food: Canned and ready to eat food for at least three days. Don't forget the can opener.
First aid kit
Flashlight with batteries. Lightsticks also can work.
Radio: solar powered, wind up, or battery powered. Don't forget fresh batteries.
Other Suggested Items:
Cash. In a disaster plastic bank cards often are useless
Prescriptions and medications
Diapers and baby food if you have a young child
Protective clothing such as gloves, sturdy shoes and warm clothes
Clock with batteries
Duct tape and tools such as pliers and a wrench
Camping stove, with fuel
Contact information for out-of-area friends
Map of your local area to identify evacuation sites etc.
Important papers such as health and vaccination records, insurance policy information
Medical essentials such as extra eyeglasses, hearing aid batteries
Personal hygiene items, bleach
Find Out More Online
A wealth of information about how to prepare for an emergency is available on the Internet: the problem is how to find the information you want. To save you hours of frustration, The Skanner compiled this list of useful sites.
72-hour Emergency Kits and family plans.
To find out how to make a family plan and create a 72-hour emergency kit visit the Washington County Web site or the City of Beaverton. This site includes a labeled photo of a kit kept in a garage.
Similar information in a video slideshow format is available at The Oregon Trail Chapter of the American Red Cross Website. The presentation is comprehensive, but takes some time to view.
Another user-friendly site is the King County Web site. The "Be Prepared" section covers everything from making a plan to . Check out the videos section for useful information on everything from natural gas and electricity safety measures to what would happen if Mt. Rainier erupted.
Disaster Preparedness in Other Languages
King County, offers disaster preparedness videos in Spanish, Hmong, Khmer, Lao, Vietnamese and Somali and online pamphlets in Russian, Spanish and Vietnamese and disaster kit information in 17 languages.
Disaster Volunteer Trainings
Find out how to train to be a disaster volunteer in Seattle or
Portland. Sign up online or call to have an application packet mailed to you.
Services for Elderly or Disabled People.
If you or a family member is disabled, elderly or would need special help in an emergency, you can sign up with Multnomah County's new Voluntary Emergency Registry.
Resources and information for people with disabilities is available from King County.
Many of the listed sites include information on how to plan and prepare for your pets during a disaster. For expert information visit the Humane Society of the United States.