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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.

It includes:

Find Out What Could Happen to You. Contact your local

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

relatives handy.

Create a Disaster Plan. Meet with your family and discuss

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.

Complete This Checklist. Post emergency telephone numbers

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.

Gather Supplies. There are six basics you should stock

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.

Fight boredom. It’s a good idea to include toys, games,

and books in an emergency kit to help keep children amused and calm.

Look toward continuity. Picking life up after the emergency

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.

Practice and Maintain Your Plan. Quiz your kids every

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.

Join with Neighbors. Neighbors can save lives and property.

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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