Are you prepared for disaster?

To help you get started, we turned to two people for advice: Tony Guerra, director of emergency services for the Northland Chapter of the American Red Cross; and Jim Skoog, health educator for the St. Louis County Department of Public Health and ...

To help you get started, we turned to two people for advice: Tony Guerra, director of emergency services for the Northland Chapter of the American Red Cross; and Jim Skoog, health educator for the St. Louis County Department of Public Health and Human Services.


While American Red Cross crews respond to disasters all over the country, from hurricanes to floods to tornadoes, the top local need is responding to victims of house fires, Guerra said.

The best way to prepare for a fire is to try to prevent it, he said. Some common causes are candles left burning, overloaded electrical circuits and people who come up with creative ways to heat their homes with such things as space heaters or by leaving a stove door open.

Among Guerra's suggestions:


* Install a smoke alarm on every floor and place them outside of bedrooms. Check with the manufacturer to find out the alarms' life expectancy because they will need to be replaced every five years or so.

* Have a fire-resistant safe at home for important documents.

* Both homeowners and renters should have insurance.

* Families should have an evacuation plan and a designated meeting place outside or at a neighbor's house.

* Families should designate an out-of-town contact person who can field calls from family members trying to reach each other. When a disaster hits an area, it sometimes is easier to make long-distance calls than local calls.

* Have some cash on hand because banks may be closed and ATMs may not be operating.

* For weather emergencies, disasters and other events that can interrupt utilities, it helps to have an easy-to-carry emergency kit with supplies for three days. The Red Cross sells a plastic tub stocked with supplies for $99 that will accommodate a family of four for two or three days, but Guerra said people can easily make their own for less because they may already have many of the items around the house. Among the items are flashlights and batteries, plastic tarps, work gloves, a first-aid kit, food, a manual can opener, water, personal hygiene supplies and a radio.

The Red Cross also sells a hand-cranked radio for $49.95 that will get commercial radio stations as well as the emergency broadcast station. It also will charge a cell phone, he added.


"Preparedness starts at home -- for anything," he said.


While the heavy media coverage of the threat of an avian flu pandemic died down more than a year ago, the threat is as real as ever, Skoog said.

In the past three centuries, there have been three pandemics in each century. Last century there were two mild pandemics and one severe one in 1918-19, he said. Next year will mark 40 years since the last pandemic -- the longest span of time there's been between pandemics, Skoog said.

A pandemic happens when a new influenza virus emerges and people have little or no immunity to it and there may be no vaccine for it. Then the disease spreads rapidly around the world. It can happen any time of year.

"Some people think we're overdue," Skoog said. "Most people think it will happen sooner rather than later."

The avian flu (also called bird flu) that health officials are worried about is the H5N1 strain, which has killed people and domestic flocks of birds elsewhere, he said. It lacks only one thing to morph into a pandemic -- the ability to be easily transmitted from human to human, Skoog said. "If it becomes easy to catch, then it's a pandemic," he said.

The World Health Organization estimates that an avian flu pandemic could affect one-fourth to one-third of the people in the world.


In a pandemic, it's likely that schools and child care centers will close, there will be a drastically reduced work force and there will be shortages of supplies, Skoog said.

During the 1918-19 pandemic, when some food was in short supply, people were able to get by because they had gardens and canned goods they had stored, he said.

If you think you can wait to prepare until avian flu hits North America, it will be too late, he said.

"The first few who get to the store will have time," Skoog said. "... If you're not prepared and it happens, it will be hard to get prepared. You will be a drag on others who are prepared."

The goal in preparing is to increase your self-sufficiency by having a stockpile of such things as food, water and things you need to stay clean, such as bleach, hand sanitizer and soap. It also will help to have personal protective items, such as gloves and a face mask to prevent the spread of germs. The type of face mask recommended is an N-95 mask, which will prevent you from breathing in most germs, Skoog said. You can buy the mask at drug stores, he added.

The rule of thumb for emergency preparedness is to stockpile three days of food, water and supplies, but the more you have past three days the better, Skoog said. You might want to have a four- to six-week supply of dried and canned food, he said.

A Web site created by the Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota Department of Public Safety is one of the best sites Skoog has seen to help people prepare. The Code Ready site asks users to fill in how many people and pets are in their household and then creates a customized list of supplies for three days, a week, a month or a year.

"The more people are prepared, the better off they will be when something happens," Skoog said.


LINDA HANSON covers family issues and religion. She can be reached weekdays at (218) 723-5335 or by e-mail at .

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