Talking to Family Members about Disaster Preparation

Doppler Radar over Maryland on Friday June 30, 2012

This is a hard one, folks. None of us wants to think our family will face a serious situation such as a fire or weather related calamity. But the truth is that part of preparation involves making a plan and involving everyone concerned in the details.

I was thinking about disaster preparation this past June when I awoke in the middle of the night to a cacophony of wind that sounded like an enormous freight train was passing ten feet from my bedroom window. Our family was staying at my parent’s house on the Maryland Eastern Shore for the weekend, very near the town of Cambridge. Shocked by the noise level, I reached for my smart phone and pulled up a satellite map. What I saw surprised and alarmed me; the entire length and breadth of the Chesapeake Bay was covered in the bright red that these maps use to indicate a severe weather event. Usually, this type of map display looks more like a thin series of green bubbles interspersed with red to indicate thunderstorm activity. I had never seen a broad swath of red, as if the state of Maryland was wearing a sash across its center. I have always enjoyed the fury of summer storms. Thunder and lightning have never been frightening. This time, I was afraid and it was a terrible feeling.

My fear was for my family. We never talked about what we would do in a weather emergency while visiting grandparents. We had some good conversations when Hurricane Irene came through the Philadelphia area – our house has a basement, we have an emergency kit, each person had a role. The house in Maryland has no basement, just a crawl space. Tornadoes are rare in this part of the world or, at least, they used to be. The red on the map looked exactly like the kind of event that could harbor – if not tornadoes – than winds of enormous destructive force. I lay there and listened for the uptick in wind tone that would tell me I had to gather everyone in the house and find an interior room. It would be difficult; none of us had ever contemplated such a situation before and everyone would be alarmed and confused. We had never discussed anything like this. My parents, children of a time with gentler weather patterns, do not have an emergency kit that consists of more than some bottled water, a flashlight with dubious batteries and a candle. Thank goodness the wind stayed at a dull screech and we were lucky.

According to the National Weather Service, what occurred in Maryland on Friday, June 30th,  2012 is referred to as a derecho. Before it came to scream outside my bedroom window, it had already brought serious destruction to cities on the Western Shore: Baltimore, Washington, DC and extensive suburbs. We now know that thousands of people in those metropolitan areas lacked power for the entire week following the derecho, during one of the most serious heat waves of the year.

We live in a time of changing weather patterns. Places that used to be “safe” from severe weather might no longer be able to claim that distinction. When I spoke to my family the next morning, I did not focus on my fear or the increased risk. Instead, we talked matter-of-factually about “the plan” if something like this happens again. We picked an interior room, we talked about how to turn off utilities and  we made a list for a new emergency kit. We involved everyone in the discussion, from my 68 year old parents to my four –year-old nephew. Everyone felt empowered. We all felt less anxious. It was time well spent.

I urge you to check out what the American Red Cross has to say about making a plan and disaster preparation. Be safe; be prepared.

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