People make a list and check it twice during the holidays but not necessarily in preparation for any type of emergencies. Thankfully, Typhoon Soudelor didn’t claim any life on Saipan but it showed how poorly prepared many are for a typhoon whether they admit it or not.
For example, did you know that a good rule of thumb is to have a disaster kit with enough food, drinking water and basic medical supplies to cover your households for three days to a week in case of a disaster?
You probably know that now but it was apparent that this wasn’t common knowledge when Soudelor hit Saipan on Aug. 2 and 3, leaving hundreds of people homeless, without food and water within a day or two, and thousands more without power and water.
Soudelor, however, may just be the catalyst for rethinking island household emergency preparedness that goes beyond having a fully-charged mobile phone to be able to call 911 for help.
“Learned helplessness,” as experts call it, leaves people unprepared to cope when disasters strike because they only rely on traditional sources of emergency services such as the American Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and recovery support such as cash handouts and food stamps within a few days. Major disasters can overwhelm any emergency response agency.
Luckily, Saipan has people who readily took it upon themselves to reach out to fellow typhoon victims by directly delivering water and food to them within the first few days after Soudelor pummeled the island with destructive winds and torrential rains.
In this case, neighbors and ordinary citizens became the first responders and the first to provide relief to a number of victims. And the outpouring of generosity from people near and far is incredible.
In this modern age, there are always advisories and warnings days ahead of a storm’s passing over or near the area. A typhoon like Soudelor cannot sneak up on an entire island. Whether Soudelor was forecast to pack below or over 100 miles per hour of winds, the fact remains there was a typhoon coming and everyone was supposed to have some kind of preparation.
That could be boarding up typhoon shutters, seeking refuge at emergency shelters, buying food and water to last for three to seven days, preparing flashlights with batteries, gassing up one’s vehicle, cleaning up one’s backyard, and securing loose items or having cash on hand.
Citing examples of what should have been done is in no way further victimizing the victims but an attempt to help better prepare for future disasters. A typhoon-prone island’s apparent lack of preparedness for a typhoon is an eye-opener and should spring every level of society into action, from households to the government level.
Experts say people should be prepared to look after themselves for at least three days after any major disaster. They could be on their own for days. Even neighbors may not be able to come to each other’s aid right away.
A simple test is asking whether one’s household can still eat or cook when the power goes out for days. Does the household have enough drinking water? Can the household still wash the dishes, flush the toilet and take showers when there’s no water coming out of the faucet?
Does the household have cash at hand when credit cards or ATMs stop functioning? Is there enough gas in the vehicle to go to the hospital when needed? Does anyone have enough clean clothes to wear when doing one’s laundry becomes impossible for a week?
Can anyone in the household walk a distance to get help in case mobile phones and landlines do not work and the family vehicle gets damaged after a disaster?
Unfortunately, typhoons are not the only ones that island households should be prepared for. There are also earthquakes, tsunamis, catastrophic flooding, and terror attacks.
Add to the list some of the popular disaster themes played out by Hollywood as of late, such as when the world stops having power supply (think of the TV series Revolution) or a virus or zombie apocalypse (think of the movie World War Z or the TV series The Walking Dead and Z Nation).
Saipan also knows too well the impact of being cut off from the rest of the world when the only undersea cable connecting the island to the rest of the world is cut: No mobile phone and landline services for calling or texting, no Internet, no ATMs, no credit cards, and no flights to and from the island.
As for longer-term recovery and preparedness, will the rebuilding of the same substandard tin-and-wooden houses using federal funds be allowed, only to be knocked down again by the next typhoon?
While the U.S. military and American Red Cross, for example, will always come to the CNMI’s rescue when disasters strike, one can’t expect these entities to be by one’s doorstep within minutes or hours.
Saipan is thankful for the U.S. Marines for converting seawater to drinking water within days after Soudelor disrupted Saipan’s water supply. But can and will the CNMI acquire the same technology as part of longer-term disaster preparedness?
Will the CNMI government better train and better equip its emergency response personnel? Will it invest in better, disaster-resilient equipment and infrastructure, or will it always rely on the U.S. federal government or Guam for even the most basic of needs such as food, drinking water, and power poles?
If the CNMI is to better survive the effects of Soudelor and future disasters, then now is the time for a more profound change in the way people think, prepare, and deal with emergencies. The sooner, the better because there is always another storm or typhoon coming.