Thursday, March 24, 2011

Preparing for the worst

Rain turns to sleet turns to snow turns to bright sun turns to howling south winds bringing the smell of salty Gulf moisture. One afternoon I hobble through the yard plotting a garden and the next I shovel snow from the driveway. Scheduling an outdoor photo shoot is little more than a gamble because the weatherman is never right. On cloudy days when it looks cold and dreary it’s actually warm, and on bright sunny days when it looks warm it’s actually cold. I no longer believe what my eyes tell me.

During almost three decades of living along the Front Range of Colorado, I thought I’d witnessed some of the most unpredictable and erratic weather patterns Mother Nature had to offer. The poster child for goofy extremes was a March day that started with temperatures in the low seventies and ended with two feet of snow. Dressing for such variations was a challenge, usually requiring the addition of winter gear even when short sleeves were called for. 

After 11 years of life in northeastern Kansas, however, I realize that Colorado was merely a training ground. Spring, once so cordial, has become capricious, even mercurial. What should be a season of joy, with buds popping on trees, wildflowers pushing through damp soil, lengthening days and the steady demise of winter, is instead met with with trepidation and not a little suspicion. I don’t trust spring to be benevolent. I expect, in fact, the worst.

The hoopla surrounding National Severe Weather Awareness Week only deepened my presentiments. With much fanfare, tornado sirens were blown and residents advised to assemble “disaster kits” for their homes and vehicles. The kits, outlined in great detail in a thick sheaf of papers distributed by the Kansas Emergency Management Association, were as inclusive as possible to overcome any eventuality. People were cautioned to stock a three-day supply of water for each member of the household, first aid supplies, flashlights and extra batteries, extra medications, blankets, tools, cash, photocopies of important documents and nonperishable, ready-to-eat food items such as peanut butter, dried milk and high energy foods. Laughably absent from the list was chocolate and booze. What were they thinking?

With refreshing candor, our county emergency preparedness director admitted that very few people actually followed her advice. Still, that didn’t prevent her from passing out the information year after year, as if the very act of doggedness would hammer through their complacency.

To reinforce the message, the packet included a blow-by-blow recap of the previous year’s greatest hits. Tornadoes in our neck of the woods were scarce but other parts of the state had enough to keep residents in perpetual states of unease. Tornadoes, it turned out, were the least of our problems. Straight-line winds were the real bugaboo, and when it wasn’t 80-mile-an-hour howlers it was hail, torrential rain and/or flooding. 

I left the West for this? Sometimes I question my sanity, and then one of those rare bur perfect days comes along and I get an inkling of why pioneers settled here in the first place. They could have kept going to where mountains grace the horizons and tornadoes are unheard of, but something about the Great Plains resonated with their sense of place. Of course, some of their mottos were fatalistic—“to the stars through difficulties”—and the names of their towns grimly realistic—Cope, Last Chance, Severance, Scrabble, Fleatown, Grasshopper Junction and Half Hell, for starters—but at least they were honest about it.

I’ve never been known as an over-achiever or suffered from paranoid delusions, but the idea of preparing for the unthinkable makes sense to me. I’ve cleared a space in the basement and stocked a small shelf with necessary items, many similar to the list plus a few extras like ammunition and beer. Backups of my computer hard drive are kept in a safe deposit box off-site and another ready to snatch and grab on my way down the stairs. Weather radios have fresh batteries. Perhaps most important, my wife and I have a plan in place for when to go, where to go and what to grab on the way. When an F-4 is uprooting your prized apple tree is not the time to discuss your next act. 

If anything, the events in Japan have only reinforced the point. My sister-in-law, Connie, was on evacuation notice last week as a wildfire ravaged her small California town of Big Pine; 19 homes were destroyed and, for most of a day, every road out of town was closed. (Which begs the question: evacuate to where, exactly?) 

As our emergency preparedness director said, it’s up to each of us to be ready. We can’t rely on the TV, the Internet, the weatherman, tornado sirens, the government—think Katrina—or our neighbors. Taking personal responsibility might seem antiquated and old-fashioned, but in the end it could mean nothing less than survival. 

Meanwhile, climate specialists and meteorologists are predicting a milder storm season for northeastern Kansas. Do I trust them? Let me put it this way: I just added a bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon to my disaster kit.


Deb Southerland said...

I love this sentence: Taking personal responsibility might seem antiquated and old-fashioned, but in the end it could mean nothing less than survival. Kind of off subject but some of the same: I am always amazed at people such as those who took a sailing boat to pirate waters to what? Deliver Bibles? To pirates? Really? Then what do we as a nation have to do? Try to save them? Feel badly when we can't? Personal responsibility. I guess I am just getting to be a curmudgeon. After reading your blog, I feel it's my personal responsibility to pack in some bottled water, etc., etc. So off I go.

Tom Parker said...

I worry, and wonder, about the misguidedness of religious people who think that the act of giving bibles to pirates, murderers, forest pygmies or others automatically transforms them into believers. Pirates? Really? The best method of ministering to pirates is through firepower, and I don't mean the Holy Spirit.

It's really just another way of sticking your nose in other people's business, and a means of self-validation. They'd be better off donating money to the Red Cross, their local food pantry or homeless shelter.

Stock up, by all means. Taking care of ourselves is the ultimate act of self-preservation.

cheryl said...

A local emergency management person once said that for the first 48 hours (or so) after a disaster, the YOYO policy is in effect: You're On Your Own.

Tom Parker said...

I love it!!! Thanks for the laugh!

shoreacres said...

Don't forget the chainsaw, generator, gasoline and WIRED telephone with an answering device. Venerable hurricane survivor say: person who can phone home to answering machine knows whether house is standing and when electricity is restored. ;-)

Oh - and at a cool 90 miles from the South Texas nuclear project... uh...Well, I've got my potassium iodide.

Truly, though - that YOYO business is for real. After Hurricane Ike, I drove through the northern edge of its swatch just hours after its passage. From Tyler to Nacogdoches, the back roads were already cleared of trees and wires because the people who lived out there got out and did it. Who knows where the bureaucrats were.