Unplanned lessons in preparedness were everywhere last Thursday. Hours into a conference on disaster preparedness at the Gaillard Auditorium, panelist Rick Radar noted that the conference did not begin with the identification of building exits in case of an emergency.
"How are we doing? We're not doing too well," he said of preparedness, noting his hotel room did not have emergency plans posted on the back of the door either and that other passengers on the flight in from Tennessee were disinterested in the standard explanation of in-flight emergency procedures. "We've become indifferent. We've become immune."
Later in the day, leaders of breakout sessions were expected to report on their findings, but a panelist from the Special Needs session, one of the three main focuses of the conference, could not mount the main stage from his wheelchair.
But the crux of Thursday's meeting hosted by the National Council on Readiness and Preparedness, was to look at Charleston's best practices and envelop them into a national Readiness Blueprint that will be presented in Washington in February.
Considering the examples of missteps in planning for the small stuff, it's ironic that the City of Charleston was honored at the event with an award for worrying about, well, the small stuff.
A city program that trains neighborhood leaders to get the community through the first hours of a natural or manmade disaster, received a best practices award from NCORP. The nearly 30-year-old program birthed by Mayor Joe Riley now includes 99 neighborhoods and focuses on making sure the elderly or disabled are prepared for storms and that community leaders know who those in need are in emergency situations.
"This initiative really does ensure that there is no citizen left behind," said NCORP executive director David Anderson. "They understand that there's a certain period of time when the city and its citizens must be able to operate without outside help."
Another focus of the event was Charleston's port security. The harbor's pilot program, Project Seahawk, a clandestine coordination center that monitors ship traffic and local threats, received praise from NCORP and panelists at Thursday's event. Capt. John Cameron, of the U.S. Coast Guard, noted daily briefings at the center involving local, state, and federal agencies prepared to share a variety of resources and information.
"The level of assessment that happens here on a daily basis is far superior to what I would be able to do with my own resources," Cameron said.
As for container searches, Cameron says the port has some of the best state-of-the-art X-ray equipment to scan questionable containers and that the history of every container, every crew member, and every ship is meticulously analyzed for anomalies.
The event also highlighted evident and unexpected needs in the case of a mass evacuation, something that longtime Charleston residents are all too familiar with but that eludes newcomers. Folly Beach Mayor Carl Beckmann Jr. says that the island town spends a lot of time preparing residents for leaving and securing their homes.
"Most of them are from Ohio and they don't even know what a hurricane is," he said.
Panelists noted that a safe evacuation takes more than coordinated traffic patterns and making sure people have transportation.
"People are going to be born on that trip, people are going to die on that trip," said Ralph Shealy of the Area Health Education Consortium. "We have to think about supplying the other needs for a population in that movement."
In regards to special needs, DHEC Regional Public Health Director John Simkovich noted the broad tent of special needs individuals, from the blind to the deaf to the wheelchair bound, requires the local emergency responder to prepare for a variety of situations during an emergency.
"We have a whole section of people that don't need hands-on help but do require special accommodation," he said.
Michael Godkin, director of the Disability Resource Center in Charleston, says that the key is making sure that special needs people have prepared themselves in case of an emergency.
"Educate and inform the population of their need to be better prepared and to plan ahead," he says.
Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, chairman of NCORP, says that is a message that everyone should take to heart.
"There has to be a general discussion about what could happen," he says.
Watch Out! It's a ______
• Make an emergency kit (easy-to-forget items: dust mask, can opener, and garbage bags for trash and poop)
• Create a family emergency plan (including an out-of-town contact)
• Find out what disasters are more likely in your area (Hurricane? Yes. Snow blizzard? You wish)
• Check emergency plans at work and at school (especially when you're there more than you're at home – like us)
Preparations for special needs individuals:
• Create a support network with people who can get to you in an emergency
• Make sure you are on the local list of special needs people for emergency responders
• Wear medical alert tags that explain your condition
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