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Never Can Tell

Russ Paulsen (@RussPaulsen) is Executive Director of Community Preparedness and Resilience Services at the American Red Cross

Because you never know.

About 800 people gathered in Oklahoma City yesterday morning for the first Tornado Preparedness Summit. Back in January, when the organizers asked me to speak, I had planned a pre-season speech along the lines of let’s get ready for this year, remember how bad last year was, don’t get complacent. Little did I know that the morning I would speak, about 50 people would be waking up in Red Cross shelters because tornadoes had taken their homes a week earlier and done so much damage to their towns that they had nowhere else to go.

That’s the thing about disasters. They don’t care about “seasons”. They don’t know that “tornado season” hasn’t officially started. They don’t know that earthquakes aren’t supposed to happen in Oklahoma or Virginia.

It wasn’t lost on the crowd that we were sitting not too far from where a disaster of another sort had happened about 17 years ago. Again, there is no “season” for those seek to harm us, and nowhere is totally immune.
What should we do, then? What can we do?
Four things, really:

  1. Learn what to do.
  2. Do what you need to do before disaster strikes.
  3. Tell people you’ve done it.
  4. Do what you need to do when disaster happens.

Learn what to do
Do it: If you live in a tornado-prone area, before the weather gets bad you should at a minimum figure out where in your home and workplace is safest, get a battery-operated weather radio, and practice your plan. Better still, you could take a first aid course so you can help injured family, neighbors or coworkers.

Tell people: Telling someone that you are tornado-prepared might save their life. Studies show that people are more likely to be prepared if they think people they know are prepared. Nobody wants to be seen as going overboard in preparedness.

Act: When the tornado warning comes, going to a safe place can save your life. Some experts are now advocating that people put on bicycle, skateboarding, or motorcycle helmets to protect against flying debris. None of this takes much time, but it is easier if you have practiced during a calm time.

Recognize that there will be false alarms. You will probably go to your safe place many times without a single actual tornado strike, which is a good thing. It means that your house is still intact. But there’s no way to tell a false alarm in advance, so we have to take every one seriously. As I blogged after the tornadoes of late February, anyone who has seen the fear in the eyes of people who have hung on to their bathtub for dear life is okay with some false alarms.

We cannot control Mother Nature. We cannot save our homes and businesses if they’re in the path of a tornado. But we can save lives. And we cannot let down our guard, even “out of season”.

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