Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

May 19, 2013

Prepare for real disasters, not the movies

— For the last five weeks, my weekends have been a disaster. Well, they haven’t really been disasters, but they have been about disasters. The Bluefield Daily Telegraph’s newspaper group, CNHI, has been running a series about disaster preparedness. Each week, we receive a national story and then we localize one to pair with it.

The first story asked emergency management officials if we are prepared for the next flood or blizzard, and all the problems coming with them. Southern West Virginia has seen plenty of these occurrences. They might not be the events worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster, but they were bad enough for the people who had to endure them.

From what I learned, Mercer, McDowell, Tazewell and other counties in our region are as prepared as they can be for the next flood or storm. Both agencies and individuals have learned a lot from the last events. For instance, more people are stocking up on water and shelf-stable food — preferably food that doesn’t have to be cooked — and battery-powered radios so they can last for 72 hours without any help.

If you are ready to take care of yourself for three days, emergency service personnel get to focus more on people who really need help. You want to be ready so nobody has to rescue you.

Having so many of my thoughts in disaster mode brought back memories from my childhood. Back in the 1970s, it was the age of the disaster movie. I think it started with “Airport” starring Dean Martin and a big all-star cast. That movie started a string of “Airport” movies featuring airlines in a variety of emergencies.

Then came “The Towering Inferno.” In that fiery plot, the world’s tallest building catches fire on the night of its dedication. Naturally, a bunch of people partying on the top floor fail to go downstairs until it’s too late. And naturally, it’s too windy to land a helicopter on the roof. Lots of bad circumstances come together to make a movie. Think of “Towering Inferno” as a landlocked Titanic.

Another disaster movie tried to out do the Titanic by flipping an ocean liner upside down. The result was “The Poseidon Adventure.” Another all-star cast had to roam  through upside-down sets in order to reach the surface.

Hollywood ran through the litany of possible disasters; in fact, I think scriptwriters were starting to run out of disasters. “Earthquake” hit California and forced Lorne Greene of the “Bonanza” television show to lower people to safety on a fire hose. Disaster movies went nuclear with “The China Syndrome” and Jane Fonda plus Jack Lemmon.

Finally, there came “Titanic” with Kate Winsett and Leonardo DeCaprio. It was a disaster movie plus a love story; think “The Poseidon Adventure” meets “Dr. Zhivago.”

Why are we so fascinated with disasters? I think H.P. Lovecraft, who wrote horror stories back in the 1920s, said fear is one of humanity’s primal emotions. It’s also one of the most interesting emotions. For many people, fear equals excitement. We’re fascinated by all the bad things hovering beyond the horizon.

Sometimes I watch a show called “Doomsday Preppers.” In it, individuals, families and sometimes entire communities prepare for a major disasters. Some of these “preppers” are expecting super volcanos. Others think huge solar flares knocking out power grids or a polar shift flipping Earth upside down will herald the end of civilization. Pandemics, economic collapse and that old classic, nuclear war, make the end-of-the world list.

Doing this series of disaster stories has reminded me of one simple truth: I can’t prepare for everything. Keeping extra food and water on hand, making sure my car is in working order, monitoring the news, and having a plan ready if I have to leave home is all I can do. I can’t build a bomb shelter or bug out to Canada. If nuclear missiles start to fall, all I can do is watch the fireworks. If a more conventional disaster like a flood or a major blackout strikes, I’ll hold myself together and help others around me. If I am ready to help instead of hinder, it will be enough.

Greg Jordan is senior reporter at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at gjordan@bdtonline.com.

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