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This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the April 2, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Family Disaster Planning
The winter of 1996 featured the same freezing temperatures
and blizzards that visited New Jersey this past winter. The Delaware
River, running along the edge of Mercer County on its eastern bank,
and of Bucks County on its western bank, froze dramatically, with
great sheafs of ice pushing against one another to form a gorgeous
panorama of craggy white hills. Then, during a January thaw, the ice
started to go out all at once.
Returning from a grocery run to Pennsylvania, we turned the corner
onto our block, in a Trenton neighborhood just yards from the river,
and were met with an astonishing sight. Dusk was just falling, and
in the dim light it appeared that herds of wild horses were rampaging
down the river.
I rubbed my eyes, and realized that what I was seeing were gigantic
slabs of ice and the trunks of enormous trees flying — literally
flying — down the swollen river, just about at road level.
In the hours that followed, our neighborhood filled up with fire trucks,
curiosity seekers — and rumors. "An ice dam has broken up
river," many people, most of them city officials or emergency
management professionals, said. "A wall of water is coming this
Firemen set flares to measure the river’s advance toward the houses,
which sit not more than 50 feet away from the water in some spots.
The advancing river, alive with big chunks of ruined docks, put out
one line of flares, and then another, coming to within inches of the
narrow street. While the curious took pictures, residents grew increasingly
apprehensive. With the suddenly-wild water becoming more and more
menacing, an evacuation was ordered before midnight.
It was a truly small emergency in the larger scheme of things, yet
it is hard to describe the depth of the emotional upset. Some residents
refused to leave. Even after all of the utilities were shut down,
and the firemen had gone house to house to order everyone out, a few
of the most wily hid out in upstairs bedrooms. The rest of us got
My son was enlisted to carry our furniture up to the second floor,
and to help get out cats, by then hysterical from witnessing the unexpected
sight of sofas being hurriedly hauled upstairs, locked into a third
floor bedroom. Then he and my husband went off to help neighbors cart
their belongings upstairs. A call went out to account for the elderly
in the neighborhood. One woman, who was then living alone, could not
be roused, despite repeated knocks on her door, and no one had the
phone number of a relative.
Some of our neighbors decamped for a shelter in a nearby school. We
couldn’t follow, because Bear, our sheepdog, an animal capable of
inflicting as much damage as a flood if left alone in the house for
any length of time, had to come with us. Luckily, a friend had just
moved and offered us her vacant — and unheated — home as a
The emergency workers, still talking about a broken ice dam and a
wall of water, assured us that the water would soon reach our houses,
and predicted that we would not be allowed back home for several days
— or longer.
It is hard to describe the wrench of leaving a home behind to an uncertain
fate. In providing food and water for our severely travel-averse cats,
in grabbing up a few photo albums, and in sleeping on the floor of
an ice-cold house, we got a tiny glimpse into what it would be like
to lose a home. The feeling of sadness and dislocation was immense,
and that despite the fact that we knew the worst would be a one-week
exile and a ruined first floor.
Unable to sleep, I kept running to the car to try to get news. But
it was a strange little emergency. Only a little stretch of Trenton
and a little stretch of Bucks County were affected. There was absolutely
no mention of our evacuation on any radio station. I strained to listen
to low-signal, scratchy stations, but there was nothing.
It turns out that the river stopped some five inches from the one-lane
street in front of our houses, and we were back home the next day.
I swore that I would be better prepared next time. I would take the
negatives from all of our rolls of film and put them in a safe deposit
box. I would collect important papers and stow them safely too. I
would figure a way to get a mini-herd of skittish cats to safety.
Not surprisingly, though, I was caught up in the ongoing stream of
life even before the river completely returned to its normal level.
The pictures never made it to the safe deposit box.
Mostly, I am left with a feeling, which that fills me with empathy
every time I hear of fire, or flood, or tornado victims losing their
homes, and which is nearly unbearable as I think about war refugees
forced to leave their homes, belongings, and jobs behind to seek safety,
knowing there is little chance the life they have known will exist
in any recognizable form when they return.
The practical need I identify as I go over our tiny evacuation in
my mind is communication. It still beats me how emergency professionals
kept talking about what turned out to be an imaginary "wall of
water." I think how much more easily all of us would have slept
if we had had a number to call for updates. And I think about that
elderly woman no one could get to answer her door, and how valuable
it would have been if someone in the neighborhood had had a way to
get in touch with her children.
The Red Cross has a lot of good advice to help
area families to prepare for all kinds of disasters. A list like theirs
would have been a help to us as we coped with a most unexpected evacuation.
Red Cross chapter or emergency management office before a disaster
occurs — be prepared to take notes. Ask what types of disasters
are most likely to happen. Request information on how to prepare for
each. Ask about animal care after a disaster. Others may scoff, but
for some people, "family" is a pair of cocker spaniels or
a finicky tabby cat. The Red Cross reminds us that animals are not
allowed inside emergency shelters because of health regulations.
Knowing this, families might choose to keep the car gassed up, the
pets’ cages and food at the ready, and a Rolodex of pet-friendly out-of-town
why you need to prepare for disaster. Explain the dangers of fire,
severe weather, and earthquakes to children. Plan to share responsibilities
and work together as a team. Discuss the types of disasters that are
most likely to happen.
by phones (fire, police, ambulance, etc.). Teach children how and
when to call 9-1-1 or your local Emergency Medical Services number
for emergency help. Show each family member how and when to turn off
the utilities (water, gas, and electricity) at the main switches.
Determine the best escape routes from your home.
for your home: water, food, first aid supplies, clothing and bedding,
tools and emergency supplies, and special items. Keep the items that
you would most likely need during an evacuation in an easy-to carry
container. Possible containers include a large, covered trash container,
a camping backpack, or a duffle bag.
and books in an emergency kit to help keep children amused and calm.
will be easier if important family documents are kept safe. Keep records
in a waterproof, portable container. Store your kit in a convenient
place known to all family members. Keep a smaller version of the supplies
kit in the trunk of your car.
six months or so. Locate wills, insurance policies, contracts deeds,
stocks and bonds, passports, social security cards, immunization records,
bank account numbers, credit card numbers, an inventory of valuable
household goods, important telephone numbers, and family records (birth,
marriage, death certificates). Replace stored water and stored food
every six months. Test and recharge your fire extinguisher(s) according
to manufacturer’s instructions. Test your smoke detectors monthly.
Meet with your neighbors to plan how the neighborhood could work together
after a disaster until help arrives. If you’re a member of a neighborhood
organization, such as a home association or crime watch group, introduce
disaster preparedness as a new activity. Know your neighbors’ special
skills (e.g., medical, technical) and consider how you could help
neighbors who have special needs, such as disabled and elderly persons.
Make plans for child care in case parents can’t get home.
— Kathleen McGinn Spring
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