Chertoff: Preparedness Depends on People
Associated Press | October 31, 2005
By LARA JAKES JORDAN
Stockpiling supplies and developing family response plans in case disaster strikes not only might save lives — it's also a civic duty, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Monday in an interview with The Associated Press.
Two months of hurricanes ravaging the Gulf Coast should prove that people need to make preparations so emergency officials can focus on those who are poor, elderly or otherwise can't help themselves, Chertoff said.
"For those people who say, 'Well, I can take care of myself no matter what, I don't have to prepare,' there is an altruistic element — that to the extent that they are a burden on government services, that takes away from what's available to help those who can't help themselves," Chertoff said. "That is a matter of civic virtue."
Chertoff's comments mark a new stage in Homeland Security's "Ready" campaign — which was widely ridiculed two years ago for urging homeowners to stock up on duct tape and plastic sheeting to safeguard their homes against a chemical or biological attack.
Now, Chertoff said, the department plans to reach out to school students to carry the preparedness messages home to their parents. Additionally, Homeland Security and the Ad Council launched a newspaper and radio campaign Monday pitched at small businesses to develop disaster plans for workplaces.
Whether the public will listen, however, is another matter.
Even with a week's notice of Hurricane Wilma, many Floridians failed to evacuate areas the storm flooded or to stock up on food, water and other essentials. The cavalier attitude prompted Republican Gov. Jeb Bush to scold constituents, noting that people who sought relief from Wilma "had ample time to prepare."
"It isn't that hard to get 72 hours' worth of food and water," Bush said last week.
Michael A. Wermuth, homeland security director at the RAND Corp. in Arlington, Va., said getting the public to participate will be a struggle lasting years.
"Even something like Katrina — where everybody watched that unfold and understood what those poor folks were going through — as compelling as that was, we're all busy people. And how long does it stick if you don't get reminded again and again and again?" Wermuth said.
Pitching the preparedness campaign to school children could be successful, he said, noting the fire prevention and anti-smoking programs that targeted students.
But Dr. Vincent Ferrandino, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, cautioned against using the schools as messenger except "when it's absolutely necessary, and we consider it an issue of national importance."
"Schools need to be a place where important issues are discussed," Ferrandino said. "But we need to be careful that we don't use the schools constantly for everybody's latest and greatest new idea."
Chertoff's plans are an optimistic and pragmatic mix.
If gas stations keep power generators on hand, Chertoff argues, they can pump fuel for commuters to drive to work. If utility company employees can get to work, they can provide power to grocery stores. Once grocery stores are open, households can restock food, water and first aid needs while emergency responders focus on people who can't get their own.
"The great lesson of all of these events is interdependence," Chertoff said. "We're all dependent on everybody else. Everybody has their role to play, and if people fail in their role, it's going to have a cascading effect."
Last modified November 1, 2005