What if all power and water went out for a week or longer, cell phones didn’t work, businesses were closed, gas wasn’t available and chaos erupted in the streets? Would you be prepared to survive?
El Paso County Commissioner Peggy Littleton is on a personal and professional crusade to make sure every resident can answer “yes” to that question.
“If you can’t call anyone and go anywhere and YOYO — ‘You’re On Your Own’ — while structure is reorganized, will you be ready?” she asks. “I want to make sure everyone has a personal preparedness plan with a 72-hour emergency kit packed and in the car or by the front door.”
After attending two Federal Emergency Management Agency seminars for 12 days in July in Emmitsburg, Md, Littleton returned to Colorado Springs armed with ideas for not only personal preparedness but also improvements to the region’s strategies for dealing with natural and man-made disasters.
Some think the community is ready enough, though.
Littleton was one of 50 city and county government officials at each seminar, which FEMA paid for with the exception of meals. Participants experienced real-time, spontaneous disaster exercises in a fictitious city. As 8,000 concert-goers descended on the pretend city, three tornados touched down, a hazardous materials truck collided with a tour bus and knocked out a bridge, and flooding loomed.
“It was disaster after disaster, and it really reinforced the need for a recovery plan and gave me more insight of my job as a policy maker and what I can do,” Littleton said.
In El Paso County, wildland fires, floods, blizzards and tornadoes are real concerns. Even more reason to get ready for a crisis, Littleton said, are predictions from NASA and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration that a solar storm with the potential to wipe out the nation’s electrical grid for an extended period will take place in May 2012.
Another consideration: “It’s obvious with the financial situation that something’s coming, like triple-digit inflation and a run on the banks and people can’t get their money out. The government’s not going to be there for you,” she said.
While it’s hard to imagine the failure of public services or technology, the possibility exists, Littleton said. And she isn’t satisfied with long-term recovery plans for the region.
The city of Colorado Springs has a recovery plan. It was successfully put to the test during the 2005 arrival of 2,000 evacuees from Hurricane Katrina, blizzards in 2006, 2007 and 2009, and other disasters including hazardous waste spills and flash floods, said Bret Waters, head of the emergency management department.
El Paso County does not have a recovery plan per se, which Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. Michael Schaller said would “provide great detail to what we have been doing for many years.”
Both the city and county have operations centers, which, in an emergency, call together representatives from government, law enforcement, health care, safety net organizations and military installations to work on pre- and post- action plans. The centers also are on standby to respond during such events as Monday’s USA Pro Cycling Challenge bicycle race and last month’s U.S. Women’s Open golf tournament.
To encourage personal responsibility, the city and the county offer citizen emergency response training courses. Waters said the city’s classes fill up quickly. The city also publishes an emergency preparedness and safety guide and has distributed 30,000 to residents, he said.
City and county governments, along with local military installations, also collaborate on mock disaster exercises.
But Littleton wants to establish neighborhood communication centers in churches, schools and fire stations, where people could go after an emergency, and identify trained volunteers to spread the message of personal preparedness.
She also wants to set up partnerships with businesses that would donate supplies in the event of a long-term crisis.
Waters said government is limited in how much it can do: “Government is who puts the plans together, but ultimately, the whole community steps up in a disaster, and we’ve seen that happen. Katrina evacuees who arrived with just a shirt on their back received food, medical care, clothing, housing and other services.”
Littleton would like the county to expedite writing a recovery plan, but Schaller said that takes money and time.
“Emergency preparedness plans are always evolving and being updated, and the recovery plan is not something that can be done overnight. It’s a process that takes well over a year, and once completed, requires funding to implement,” he wrote in an email.
“County commissioners have the power to approve the necessary funding to allow for the rapid completion and implementation of the recovery plan. Right now, we are moving forward on the plan with the resources we currently have available,” he added.
Littleton said she’s been meeting with city and county staff to come up with no-cost ideas to improve emergency management strategies and would like to look at current budget restrictions.
Littleton also wants to revise the county’s overall emergency operations plan and possibly publish a small brochure with a checklist of supplies residents should have on hand, such as food, water, medications and copies of important documents.
For now, she’s copying a checklist and passing it out at meetings and other public functions she attends.
Waters said while there’s always room for improvement, “I think we do a very good job in preparedness and recovery planning. We have a small office, but it is a very important function to plan for and manage disasters, and we’re very invested in providing the framework so that the community can step up and provide the overall support.”
PERSONAL EMERGENCY PREPAREDNESS
Water, one gallon per person per day for at least three days
Food, at least a three-day supply of non-perishable food
Battery-powered or hand-cranked radio and weather radio
Flashlight, extra batteries
Wrench or pliers to turn off utilities
Cell phone and chargers
Source: Peggy Littleton