by Larry Miles
June 24, 2010 at about 4:30 p.m. was when it began to hit home for me. I was at the Omni, in Charlottesville, wrapping up a meeting when suddenly the power went out and the double doors that open onto the downtown mall blew open with a startling crash. Looking out the windows I noticed amidst the menagerie of flying umbrellas, hats and leaves that rain was literally blowing sideways and at times it even looked as if it were defying the laws of gravity and going back up to the heavens.
I didn’t realize how bad things were until I decided to get in my car and go home. Since the storm was over in approximately seven minutes, this seemed like a logical thing to do. Thirty minutes later, after I’d only moved about 500 feet on McIntire Road, it seemed slightly less logical. The whole trip from the Omni to my home on the east side of Crozet took a little less than two hours that June afternoon (and evening). But it wasn’t the length of time it took me to travel that relatively short distance that struck me so hard and created the lasting impact on my psyche that afternoon, rather it was what I heard them say on the radio as I struggled to make my way home. I don’t remember if it was AM 1070, or AM 1260 (I listened to both stations during the long trip home) where I heard it, but I do clearly remember hearing the announcer say it, and all I could say when I heard it was, “Whoa!” So what did I hear? I distinctly remember hearing the announcer say, “Don’t bother calling 911 unless it is really a life or death situation because no one will come.”
For those of us who’ve been “conditioned” by living in suburbia for the past 30 or 40 years, one thing we all know is that if you’re ever in trouble, you call 911. We teach our kids to dial 911; in fact I’ve even heard stories about pets dialing 911. A shock came over me as I realized that a seven minute thunderstorm had effectively neutered the response of at least three local police forces and untold rescue squads.
That was 2010. Next came 2011, which, as it turns out was one of the biggest years for natural disasters in the history of the US. “There have been more billion-dollar natural disasters in the U.S. during 2011 than any year on record, and we have seen our share of grief throughout Virginia,” noted Michael Cline, state coordinator of emergency management.
This time it was the earthquake in Louisa that shook my confidence in things that I had supposed were unshakeable, like cell phones. I experienced the earthquake on the second floor of our company headquarters in Waynesboro and my wife experienced it at friend’s house in Barboursville. The only problem was I couldn’t call her to make sure that she and my two young daughters were OK, because my cell phone didn’t work. Hers didn’t either, but I didn’t find that out until later. It dawned on me that evening, after we’d re-united and shared our separate experiences, that so many things we take for granted, like cell phone communication, like the ability to dial 911 and have someone respond, are actually very unreliable in times of even minimal widespread destruction, and perhaps the most unreliable at the times when we may need them the most.
One more quick anecdote before I move on. I read an article in the Gazette a few months ago (I’m sure many of you read it, too) about Lake Anna’s nuclear facility shutting down during the earthquake, about how they were going to restart it, and various other scary facts (like the fact that it’s built on a fault line). One thing that struck me in particular was that I happen to live inside the 50-mile radius of Lake Anna, (the radius that might be in a mandatory evacuation order if there were in fact a problem). I read that and immediately remembered my trip back from Hilton Head last summer. (I know, strange connection, but bear with me for a moment). We were travelling north on I-95 about fifty miles south of Richmond when we hit a 6-mile backup. It turns out that the traffic was backed up for six miles because one lane of Interstate 95 had been closed by construction crews. I wondered aloud to my wife how in the world it was possible to evacuate everyone out of a 50-mile radius of Lake Anna, if closing just one lane of I-95 caused a six-mile backup on a sunny Saturday afternoon?
So what’s the point of these strolls down disaster lane? Well, as I thought about these different events I came to some conclusions.
First, though they work diligently and train repeatedly for multiple catastrophe scenarios, and undoubtedly do their absolute best to prepare, our local government, fire, police, and rescue services are totally incapable of responding to all of the different needs that suddenly arise during an emergency or disaster situation (or for that matter, even during a seven-minute microburst thunderstorm).
Second, if we can’t count on the authorities, then that only leaves us.
Third, the “us” consists of: you, me, and everyone of our friends, neighbors, and close community members.
That brings me to the real purpose behind this article and the ones that will follow it. If 2011 was the biggest year for disasters in U.S. history, we can play the odds and figure that 2012 won’t be as bad, or we can all use a little wisdom and think about how we can be prepared—just in case—and be there to help our families, neighbors and friends in the event that 2012 does bring some unpleasantness upon our small community.
During the next several months, a number of people including me, and a few other forward-thinking Crozet citizens, will pen a series of articles largely modeled after the Virginia Department of Emergency Management’s website. Their website at http://www.vaemergency.gov/readyvirginia, contains great information about some of the wise actions we should all take so that we’ll be “helpful,” and not “helpless,” in the event that something unpleasant occurs. But don’t wait for the next article to do something. Check out the emergency department’s website now and begin to take action. When it comes to being prepared, there’s no time like the present to start.
Finally, remember this: if a real disaster comes, we are the ones who will be there to help one another. So get to know the folks in your community, your neighborhood, and on your street. Urge one another to start planning and get ready. Together, our community will be stronger and better prepared for whatever may come our way than we ever could be on our own.