Are people convinced yet to take seriously the possibility of emergencies? The news out of Texas during the extreme cold there was horrible as people lost power. A woman and girl died from carbon monoxide poisoning when they tried to run their car in the garage for heat. A family of six was hospitalized after burning a charcoal grill indoors. Some people slept in their cars to stay warm, water pipes froze, and people had trouble running their medical devices. Parts of Texas lost potable drinking water. At least one hospital had to be evacuated.
We’ve seen other problems over the past year. Early during the current pandemic we faced some problems with shortages of certain goods. Thankfully, for the most part, our supply lines held. But imagine a worse pandemic in which even more of the people who work to process and deliver basic goods got sick or quit due to safety concerns.
On January 6 the country suffered an assault on the U.S. Capitol. As bad as that was, at least such violence did not become more widespread. At times during the past year “mostly peaceful” protests put parts of certain cities in turmoil. In December, sabotage of natural gas lines in Aspen resulted in thousands losing heat. Further back, I remember stomping around in waste-deep snow after the big 2003 snowstorm.
True, because we’re used to the cold in Colorado, our infrastructure is far more able to stand up to extreme cold than Texas’s power grid was. We did have some minor problems with the electricity supply. Still, isolated and widespread emergencies remain possible. Furnaces can break. Gas lines can rupture. Power lines can fall. Snow and wind and fire and flood can wreak havoc. Mother Nature is not always gentle, and other people are not always wise and benevolent.
Given the potential for emergencies, it makes sense to spend some serious thought and effort arranging plans to help keep yourself and others safe in an emergency.
Storing a week’s worth of easy-prep food, such as nut bars and dried fruit, along with some bottled water, is trivially easy for almost everyone. The more ambitious can stock in a supply to last three months or longer. And don’t forget a water source. The Mormons recommend storing at least a year’s worth of food. Costco and other stores will sell you emergency food by the pallet. Certainly if everyone stored food to last a year our nation would be far more resilient in the face of natural disasters, domestic turmoil, or war.
Of course if you store food that requires cooking you also need a way to heat food if you lose gas or electricity. For short-term emergencies, anyone can buy a camp stove and a couple small bottles of propane or other fuel. Just beware of ventilation issues!
Space heat is harder. Lots of Coloradans have wood or pellet burning stoves; some pellet stoves require electricity. Some portable propane heaters are rated “indoor safe,” but I personally wouldn’t trust that without good ventilation. Usually Coloradans at least have warm winter clothing and sleeping bags. If you can’t keep your house from freezing, at least know how to turn off the water to protect your pipes.
You have no good excuse for not having functional carbon monoxide detectors in your home (poverty aside). If you’re not 100% confident you have them, check now, and, if you need them, go buy them, or place an online order, right now. The same goes for smoke detectors; you can get integrated units if you like. In the United States no one should be dying of carbon monoxide poisoning in a residence.
Don’t forget your neighbors
We should be able to take care of our families during an emergency, and, for those with the capacity, we should also try to look after others in our neighborhoods.
I called up Officer Luis López of the Westminster Police Department to see whether Neighborhood Watch programs are set up to handle things like extreme cold weather emergencies. He said such programs have mostly been replaced by things like the Nextdoor social media site and Ring security. Nextdoor definitely has its detractors, but I imagine that if used prudently it can be safety-enhancing.
López said that his police department is (of course) prepared to work with such organizations as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross to handle large-scale emergencies. But, he said, “We don’t have the means or the bandwidth” to do things like create and manage a database of potentially at-risk people. It’s not like the police are going to go door-to-door making sure people are okay if the power goes out.
So what’s the answer? “It’s important to know your neighbors, to look out for each other,” López said. He said he will go out and speak to people in his city who are interested in forming something like a Neighborhood Watch (in the context of pandemic safety), provided people generate interest first. Otherwise, people can use existing networking sites or just informally watch out for at-risk neighbors.
CNN’s Sandra Gonzalez points out that not everyone can afford emergency preparations. “Saying people should have prepared better is assuming they had the means to prepare at all,” she said. I replied that many people pretty easily could make simple preparations but just never get around to it. Not only do the well-prepared ease the strain on emergency resources, but they’re better able to help others in distress.
The sort of scenario that most worries me is someone who is elderly or disabled, who doesn’t have a robust social network, and who isn’t able to access help via the internet. In some emergencies some people might not even have phone access. For a localized problem, standard emergency services can handle a lot of such issues, provided the person is able to make a call. But, especially if police and other emergency workers are already busy, it’s easy to see how some at-risk people could be overlooked during something like a power outage in a cold snap.
The upshot is this: I don’t want to read news stories about our neighbors succumbing to carbon monoxide poisoning, freezing to death, or otherwise dying in an emergency when that can be prevented. So I encourage you to make some concrete plans now to help keep your family and your neighbors safe if things get rough.
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