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Disaster Preparedness Needs YOU -- especially in coastal areas.
If a manmade or natural disaster strikes Linn County, Iowa, such as a leak at its nuclear power plant or a storm that might trigger devastating river floodslocal officials are prepared to bring in 650 buses and move 35,000 of the county's most vulnerable residents to safety.
The county emergency manager knows exactly where frail older residents and others with special needs are in Cedar Rapids and in the countryside surrounding it because he has mapped their locations by computer.
"A high proportion of Linn County citizens are retirees, and we've got this GIS programgeographic information systemthat puts every nursing home, assisted living and congregate care facility in the county on a map," he says. People who live at home and need help register and are put on the map, too.
This plan for special-needs residents has been cited as a model by federal emergency officials and by the National Association of Counties. Linn County has planned every stepfrom setting up a large shelter with emergency power for those on dialysis or life support to how to ensure that city, county and school bus drivers report for duty in a crisis to transport these residents.
Most communities have not even considered the issue of how to evacuate people with special needs, let alone made specific plans. "It's a problem that is going to get bigger, not smaller, and it's going to get bigger particularly in those coastal areas where the risk is the greatest," says Jack Harrald, director of the George Washington University Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management.
Linn County developed its special-needs plan on its ownIowa has no specific laws governing that evacuation issue. Only a handful of states require that kind of planning by communities. Florida is one.
Dennis S. Mileti, an expert in disaster planning who co-founded the "Natural Hazards Review" journal, suggests that to plan ahead for disasters, you need to look at what your local government has planned.
Florida has developed a comprehensive program and "is one of the few states that has seriously dealt with this issue," says Jack Harrald. Since Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Florida has passed a number of laws spelling out what communities must do to prepare for and respond to a disaster. Its lengthy special-needs legislation includes provisions for:
"This is the window of opportunity for people and organizations to demand better disaster preparation from the bottom up," says George Haddow, a research scientist and disaster planning consultant who has co-authored a textbook on emergency management. "People have to demand it now."
Preparing means more than just writing a plan. About 15 times a year Linn County conducts disaster exercises, which, experts say, are essential to help an emergency plan work even when it encounters the unexpected.
General rule: Improvisation works best for those who study and practice the most.
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