DISASTER PREPAREDNESS - WHO NEED IT?
DISASTER PREPAREDNESS - WHO NEEDS IT?
Jack McLaughlin, Ph.D.
You do and I do! And everyone in this country needs to be prepared! In today's climate of natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, tornados, floods etc., and man made disasters such as those caused by aging utility systems and terrorism, every person and community needs to be prepared for such an event. I arrived at this emphatic statement from a recent experience while on summer vacation.
During early August, a few years ago, my wife Bev and I left for our annual seven-week stay in Northville, Michigan. Northville is in the southeastern part of the state about 35 miles north west of Detroit. We traded Southern California's desert's usually hot and dry weather for the east's and midwest's hot and humid weather. Northville was hot, rainy and humid when we arrived on August 5th. Many of the eastern and midwestern states were enjoying(?) the same weather as Northville. Hot and sticky weather usually means everyone uses power, lots of it. Now you know what is coming next.
On Thursday, August 14 at 4:14 PM, eight eastern and midwestern states suffered the effects of the nation?s biggest power blackout in history. It was also felt in Toronto and Ottawa, Canada. It reportedly was caused by the failure of three transmission lines in northern Ohio. It affected an estimated 50 million people, surpassing the 30 million in the 1965 Eastern Untied States power blackout.
Now the fun starts that prove how vulnerable the entire country is and how all citizens need to be prepared for such an emergency. When the power went off in the greater Detroit area, it affected 2.1 million homes and businesses served by Detroit Edison, the area's power company. When it hit, Bev and I were in our furnished apartment. We, like many people were not prepared and suffered the consequences.
The first thing that went out was communications, radio, cell and cordless phones. We didn?t know what had happened and that was the scary part. Terrorists? Natural disaster? How widespread? How long will it last? No one knew. There were no immediate answers.
Thanks to their emergency generators, radio stations were back on line in short order but cell phone service was spotty throughout the ordeal. Since we didn't have a battery-powered radio, we listened to a car radio and learned the degree of the outage. That still didn't answer the question; What caused it ? Terrorists?
Bev and I tried to call nearby friends but they didn't answer their phone. We drove there and discovered they only had cordless phones connected to their lines. Cordless phones didn?t work because they need ac power to operate. Corded phones do work because they use dc power supplied by the Telephone Company and is distributed to the small wall sockets phones are plugged into. Fortunately, they had a corded phone and plugged it in.
Unfortunately, these friends did not have a small battery powered radio but did have a boom box that required six-D size batteries. They only had five. They couldn?t buy another because the stores were closed. Stores had no power to operate lights, refrigeration, cash registers or their machines to run credit card purchases. Our friends did have an extra, dimly lit, small flashlight to loan Bev and I to supplement the tiny one Bev carry's in her purse.
Bev and I took the back roads to another friend's house in Northville to avoid traffic. Our friends loaned us a battery-powered radio, candles and matches. Since we don?t smoke we don't carry matches. They don't smoke either and could only find a half package of matches to give us to light the candles. They also gave us a D cell battery but didn't know if it was any good. They didn't have a battery tester. We took our loaned treasures and returned to our other friend?s house and gave them the battery. Fortunately it worked and they could run their boom box radio. While there, we discovered their toilets wouldn't flush because the water pressure was dropping. We were able to fill buckets with water from slow flowing faucets and flushed the toilets by pouring the water directly into them.
The people in Detroit?s center city and surrounding communities were having a bad time too because the power outage hit at quitting time on a Thursday afternoon. The traffic signals were not operating and caused immense traffic jams. The commuters were generally polite and took their turn at traffic signals, now four way stop streets, but it took some of them three to four hours to drive home.
Bev and I returned to our very hot and humid apartment with our loaned radio, candles and matches. We took an inventory of what we had and didn't have. We didn't have any bottled water but we did have a supply of diet coke and Vernors ginger ale in the pantry and in the refrigerator. Our kitchen range and microwave were useless because they too are electrically powered. Our freshly stocked freezer would be OK for about 24 hours or more if we didn?t open it, which we didn't. We knew our refrigerator held some cooked pork chops and chicken, fruit, soft drinks, lunch-meat, vegetables, bread and cheese. We planned what we wanted out of the refrigerator before we opened it, removed what we wanted and quickly closed the door. We wanted to keep what cooling remained to avoid spoiling the rest of the food.
That evening was spent listening to the radio for news about the blackout and when it would end. We sat and sweat in the heat and humidity. When we weren't listening to the radio, we read to keep our mind off our immediate problems. It got dark around 8:45 PM so we lit our three candles. Their wicks were stubborn and didn't light easily. We used almost all our matches. Finally all three were lit and we had a few matches left for later use.
Since there was nothing to do we went to bed early. While brushing our teeth, we noted our faucet water pressure was dropping fast and the water was now just a trickle.
Overnight our water situation worsened thanks to Detroit's Water and Sewage department. It operates the world?s third largest water system and provides water to 126 southeastern Michigan communities and 4.3 million customers. The water department's pumps didn?t work because it didn't have power either. Apparently it had no backup power generators.
On Friday morning, we woke up around 6:30 AM to a very hot, powerless and waterless apartment. We still had no electrical power to run our air conditioner and appliances. To make matters worse, no water to drink, brush our teeth or flush our toilets. To keep our toilets from clogging we deposited soiled toilet tissue in a plastic bag for later disposal.
Bev and I dressed and went to our Apartment's office & clubhouse at 7:15 AM to see if it would be serving a continental breakfast for residents as it does on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. It was and an office employee was setting out milk and orange juice (cooled by ice purchased yesterday), Bear Claws, breakfast bars and cereal. We enjoyed the milk, juice, cereal and bear claws.
The young lady setting up the breakfast said her parent's apartment, where she also lives, owns a fish aquarium filled with rare fish costing thousands of dollars. When the power failed, the aquarium's pump stopped. By morning, the expensive fish were dead. A young working resident joined us for breakfast. She had to travel on her job but had no cash, not even a penny, nor could she get any at ATM's because they require electricity to work. She eventually borrowed from her mother.
Our apartment?s community's swimming pool was off limits to residents because the pool pump couldn?t run without power. This meant the water couldn?t be circulated, filtered and purified. Residents however were allowed to collect pool water in buckets to flush their toilets. If residents didn't have a bucket, the office had a few to loan. Our apartment building was a block away from the pool and our apartment was on the second story with no elevator. The trek, with filled bucket in hand, was worth the effort, considering the alternative.
Later in the day I decided to empty our garbage. I took it to the community's disposal area and the driveway to it was blocked. A sign on the disposal bin asked residents not to use it because there was no power to operate the compactor. Residents were asked to use a maintenance bin located a half-mile away.
Radio newscasters were constantly giving updates on traffic conditions, open gas stations and stores. Some freeways were closed during the day because of scattered heavy rain causing some flooding. Other freeways were crowded with people driving to areas in Michigan that had power and water.
Most gas stations were without power and were closed. The few that were open had their own backup generators and were swamped with customers with dry or near dry gas tanks. Lines at these stations were hours long. Police monitored these stations to prevent altercations between hot and impatient customers. A couple altercations did take place but the police quickly quelled them before anyone was hurt.
Some Meijers super stores were reported open and one was located near our apartment. I drove there hoping to buy ice, water and D batteries. I got there too late. The huge parking lot was filled as well as the store. Meijers was running on its own backup generators. Not all the store lights were on and the few open checkout lines backed up almost to the rear of the store. A sign at the store's entrance said it had no ice, water or batteries. I promptly left empty-handed.
Bev and I spent the afternoon at our friend's house in Northville. For an unknown reason, they had water but at reduced pressure. We washed our hands and face. That felt really good! At 4:25 PM, their power came on. We were overjoyed. We returned to our apartment and it too had power. We checked the food in our refrigerator and determined everything in the freezer was still frozen except two large sausages that were beginning to thaw. Bev cooked both packages of meat, ate some and froze the rest. We checked the food in the refrigerator and decided what had to be discarded. Fortunately, there wasn?t much in it because we?re on vacation and we generally buy only what we need on a daily basis.
At 9:55 PM our tap water began to flow, slowly at first, spewing air in the lines as water trickled out, then hours later, full pressure. Water for bathing, but not for drinking, at least not directly from the tap. We were cautioned not to drink the water unless we boiled it for five minutes. Bev boiled a pot for brushing our teeth. We showered then went to bed, very happy and relieved.
By early Saturday morning most, but not all of Detroit Edison's customers had power but not at full strength. Users were cautioned not to use their air conditioners and large appliances. The system was fragile and was only one power station away from collapse. 3,000 Customers were still without power by Saturday night and were not expected to have it back until Sunday.
Throughout Saturday, supermarkets and restaurants began to open. Gas stations were pumping gas, albeit with higher prices by as much as 15 cents more per gallon. Stores were restocking water and ice brought in from surrounding areas not affected by the blackout.
On Monday, things returned to normal with one major exception; tap water was still not potable unless it was first boiled for five minutes. At 3:00 PM, a laboratory in Dearborn tested the water and declared it potable. The crisis was over ...for some! The financial toll on restaurants and supermarkets was heavy because of the spoiled or questionable food they had to throw out. The cost is in the tens of thousands of dollars for each restaurant and hundreds of thousands for markets. It will take months for them to recover from these losses.
I've shared my lessons learned in this disaster to illustrate how important it is to be prepared ... individually and the community. Many communities have Disaster Response Teams who prepare action plans that can be acted upon if the need arises. If your community does not have one I urge you to petition your elected officials to put one in place. Many of us are complacent without out an immediate need. But, we all appreciated it when the need arises. In these perilous times, a disaster, natural or otherwise can strike at any time. Like the Boy Scout Motto says, BE PREPARED!