Get a kit.” “Make a plan.” “Be informed.” For years, Evonne Richards had seen the signs and read the messages urging her to prepare for an emergency.
A mother of four, she found it easy to push off the task. After all, the only threat that seemed likely in the landlocked 21 acres where the family had lived 27 years was a house fire.
In September, she finally printed off the checklist from ready.gov. She stockpiled about 60 gallons of water in empty milk and juice containers, adding a dash of bleach to each.
She bought a three-day supply of dried beans, brown rice, oatmeal and raisins. She stored gas for their generator, fuel for the camping stove and extra batteries.
Then came April 27, late evening. Richards, her husband, Bill, and youngest son, Ellis, watched their computer as storms moved in. Their three oldest children were not home.
Richards walked over to the door and opened it.
“Something seems weird,” she told her husband.
He screamed, “Get under the stairs.”
In seconds, the tornado twisted and tossed thousands of tree missiles, cascading them like dominoes into the living room and across the driveway. The whirlwind wiped out dozens of their neighbors’ homes and killed eight people in their community.
The Richards family survived unscathed, but their driveway was blocked for a day, their well unusable for five days and their power out for eight days. It was two weeks before their landline phone worked. Even six weeks later, the family is still in survival mode, living without air conditioning in a home where insulation dangles from what used to be a living room ceiling.
They could have survived without their supplies, Richards said. Even in the rural community where they live – with neighbors spread out between woods and pastures and the nearest store miles away – friends came by to check on them and volunteers helped clear their driveway the next day.
But their preparation made them less dependent on others during a time when so many people needed help.
“Having the supplies, being ready, made our lives a lot easier,” 59-year-old Evonne Richards said. “It also allowed us to stay in the house. In the middle of all the chaos, it felt so good to be able to climb into our own bed every night.”
Disasters this spring – tornadoes stretching from the Great Plains to Massachusetts, floods in Montana and Memphis, fires in Georgia and Arizona and an earthquake in Japan – show that anyone can be hit by a natural disaster, experts say. Having emergency supplies, a response plan your whole family knows and information about what could happen in your area can make the recovery process easier and less stressful.
“People realized from the recent tornadoes how upsetting and devastating disasters can be,” said Claudia Moore, with the Greater Chattanooga Area American Red Cross. “It can happen to you.”
“Children, in particular, can better process things and deal with the aftermath a little better if they have knowledge about what to do and a plan in place,” Moore added.
The federal government launched a preparedness campaign in 2003, with public awareness messages and a website about how to prepare for a disaster. But after eight years, the number of people who are ready to deal with an emergency is still “very low,” Moore said.
Most people say having an emergency kit and a plan for a disaster is a good thing, but only 27 percent actually have made preparations, Moore said. Even out of those 27 percent, many likely are not as fully prepared as they should be.
“A MATTER OF FOCUS”
Richards said she was surprised at how little effort the project took. She began the process after reading Matthew 24, a Biblical passage that speaks about natural disasters. Over several months, she gradually ticked off items on her checklist.
“You don’t have to do it all at once. I wasn’t doing anything massive,” she said. “But we still had plenty to get us through those first days.”
Preparing is relatively inexpensive, she noted. Most of the food she stockpiled, like one bag each of dried beans and rice, a large box of oatmeal and some canned vegetables, cost very little and can feed a family for a quite a while.
The plastic containers and water were free, although she also purchased several 6-gallon plastic containers at Walmart for $10 each. A first-aid kit costs about $10, she said.
The family, avid campers, already had sleeping bags and a camping stove. She added a water purifier.
The important part is getting started, Moore said. Both the Red Cross and the federal government have websites with checklists. On the Red Cross site, a video featuring actress and volunteer Jamie Lee Curtis walks people through every step of the process.
The government website even has a calculator that allows people to plug in the number of adults, children and pets in the family and the number of days they will need food and water. It then produces a custom checklist.
“Most people don’t even really look at the list,” Moore said. “It is just a matter of focus, of saying, `I’m going to do this today.’ It doesn’t have to be elaborate.”
A BETTER CHECKLIST
After living through a disaster, Richards said she realized there are things she will change if there is ever a next time.
She didn’t think to call their pastor at Ladd Springs Seventh-day Adventist Church to let him know they were OK. After the recent tornado in Joplin, Mo., it took a long time for authorities to account for the missing because many survivors didn’t check in with local authorities.
Richards didn’t have a list of neighbors’ cell phone numbers so she could have told rescuers who was safe and who needed help. The darkness, the tangled masses of trees and the debris strewn everywhere made it difficult for rescuers to locate the injured and dying that night.
“There was no way to check on our closest neighbors that night, and it was two weeks before our pastor was able to locate everyone in the church,” she said.
She didn’t have enough photographs of their home and belongings to adequately document what was destroyed. She’s spent a lot of time dealing with nine insurance agents about their damaged home, several pancaked vehicles and water-soaked musical instruments.
“Better pictures would definitely help,” she said. She also recommends having copies of all important documents.
Ellis Richards, 16, recommends flashlights with working batteries. His mom had flashlights and new batteries – they just weren’t in the same place as the family, he said with a rueful laugh. In those first frantic hours as the family struggled with insulation, tree limbs and water in various parts of their house, lights were crucial.
“Every flashlight I grabbed just had a tiny beam and I had to hold it up close to see anything,” he said.
The uncertainty of knowing what kind of disaster may strike can make preparing seem difficult and uncertain, Evonne Richards said. If their entire house had been wiped out, they would have dealt with a different set of challenges.
But any kind of preparation is better than nothing, no matter what the circumstances, she said.
“A lot of people are not ready because they heard people cry wolf so many times,” she said. “But it can happen. And you have to realize your life as you knew it before is gone.”
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