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Making a Family Disaster Plan

By Sharon Smith

I was excited to finally escape the family routine and get away for a weekend to celebrate my friend’s big birthday by rooting her on the sidelines of her celebratory half Ironman. I climbed onto a Southwest Airlines flight from San Diego to San Jose last July with my carry-on bag ready with a good book to read on the flight when as soon as I clicked my seat belt the guy next to me asked some basic question and we began to talk for the entire flight. Michael Sicilia is the Public Affairs Manager of the Office of Homeland Security for the state of California and works with Governor Schwarzenegger in Sacramento. We talked all about natural disasters as well as other possible disasters. When we stood to leave he challenged me to write an article encouraging the city of La Jolla to prepare a Family Disaster Plan. I smiled, thanked him for the challenge, but honestly didn’t consider the topic. “Facing reality is hard when we live in the paradise that is California,” Sicilia said. It is even a state where earthquake, flood, and fire are common yet disaster can be far from our minds. It wasn’t until the landslide off Mt. Soledad did I even consider maybe a Family Disaster Plan might be a good idea. And then after the fires of a couple weeks, I knew we all needed a Plan. Sicilia commented, “When the memory of so much pain is fresh is the best time to take action to protect our families.”

There are many helpful Web sites out there that can walk you and your family through a disaster plan. The American Red Cross with FEMA has a very complete plan (found at www.redcross.org) with “Four Steps to Safety” which include:

  1. Find out What Could Happen to You – What can happen in your neighborhood or in your city and plan for each disaster if each one of them should occur.
  2. Create a Disaster Plan – encouraging us to meet with our family to discuss and prepare for a disaster. Explain each one of the dangers and plan to share responsibilities and work together as a team. It also points out in case of a disaster to not only call your local Red Cross (on the landline not cell phone), but to have already established an out of town contact person who your entire family knows to contact in case of an emergency. It may be easier to make a long-distance phone call than to call across town, so an out-of-town contact person may be in a better position to communicate among separated family members. Discuss in your family meeting what to do in an evacuation and where to meet outside your home or outside of the neighborhood in case you can’t return to your home.
  3. Complete A Checklist – which includes posting phone numbers, teaching your kids to call 9-1-1 and show each family member how to turn off the utilities at the main switches. It also encourages each family to assemble a Disaster Supplies Kit. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security also has a section called “Ready Kids” (www.ready.gov) that walks you and your kids through how to plan for a disaster and has a complete “Family Supply List” and ways to include the entire family in finding each of the items through games and simple communication.
  4. Practice and Maintain Your Plan – which reminds us to quiz our kids on what to do in case of an evacuation, replace our stored water and food, recharge our fire extinguishers, and test our smoke detectors every six months.

Other helpful ideas:

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-- Consider scanning your family photos and storing them on online sites such as Picasa on Google (https://picasa.google.com) or on a disk placed in your safe deposit box.

-- Establish an off-site Safe Deposit box at your bank or other establishment. Keep a copy of all of your insurance and other documents in the safe.

-- Back up your computer and keep your disk in your off-site deposit safe

-- If you live in a fire prone area, take steps to clear 100 feet of defensible space around your house

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-- Sign up for the new county reverse 911 alert system (www.reverse911.com) – “it clearly saves lives.”

Sicilia also points out that the state of California has come along way since 1992 when 25 people died in the Oakland Hills fire which burned 2,800 homes and more than 3,500 total housing units in a far smaller fire. He continues, “We’re improving our response, but everyone has a role to play.”

So here is a challenge to each one of us to gather our family together for a meeting to discuss our family emergency plan and put our family kit together. We don’t need to wait for another disaster to remind us to be ready.