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The last safe place in the world

A canvass of emergency specialists reflects many options on preparing for disasters. What’s common to all reflects a need for planning, calm, and the ability to distinguish plausible from implausible.
Anytown, U.S.A.: A canvass of emergency specialists reflects many options on preparing for disasters at home.
Anytown, U.S.A.: A canvass of emergency specialists reflects many options on preparing for disasters at home.
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You’re watching the unthinkable on TV from the safety of your own home: A low-yield radiological weapon, a dirty bomb, is detonated in a major U.S. city at rush hour. Traces of potassium cyanide are found in the reservoirs serving another metropolitan center.

High demand and two explosions at power-generating facilities on both coasts wreck the electrical grid, causing blackouts for 30 million Americans. The day you thought would never come has arrived. Can you count on the safety of your own home?

For today's homeowners, facing threats unimagined in the Cold War era, life may not hinge on asking “What’s possible?” but “What’s prudent? What’s reasonable preparation for terrorist threats that range from the plausible to the fanciful to the ridiculous?”

Choosing the rational over the hysterical could be the best way to address the real sum of our fears: not so much the threat of catastrophe as the uncertainty of how best to prepare for it.

Distinguishing threat from scare
A canvass of specialists, consultants and Web sites reflects a range of options on preparing for disasters. Most of their suggestions are as applicable to life’s ordinary calamities — fires, floods, earthquakes — as they would be to a terrorist attack.

But what’s common to all reflects the need for planning and calm — and the ability to distinguish plausible threat from improbable scare.

“You want to have a plan in place,” said Mike Howard, of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “You don’t want to wait until the power’s off and things aren’t working. It’s unrealistic to expect that your family, home or business will be a first priority for emergency responders.”

Howard said FEMA has long advanced the idea that people make plans enabling them to be “reasonably self-sufficient for at least 72 hours. … The individual homeowner should have water, food, medication and a little cash on hand.”

Food, fire, first-aid
With minor variations, specialists connected with disaster preparedness suggest stockpiling:

Water, the absolute necessity for life. It should be saved at about one gallon per person per day. More is suggested in warmer climates, and for children, pregnant women and nursing mothers.

Nonperishables and long shelf-life foods like nutrition bars with protein and carbohydrates; peanut butter; dried fruit; vitamin supplements; healthy snacks like trail mix, raisins and nuts; and dried foods like beef jerky. Canned foods are great for long-term storage.

The American Red Cross says a basic first-aid kit should contain adhesive tape, antiseptic ointment, bandages in assorted sizes, disposable gloves, gauze pads and other items. Besides special meds — insulin for diabetics, nitroglycerin or blood-pressure medication for heart patients, inhalers for asthmatics — consider aspirin, acetaminophen and other pain relievers.

And don’t forget those items from your Boy or Girl Scout past: a flashlight and fresh batteries, needle and thread, compass, matches and a multipurpose device like a Swiss Army knife.

Other good ideas
Other items aren’t specifically recommended but sensible just the same:

Cellular phones will be valuable if land-based telephone lines are down. The use of cell phones and wireless services spiked dramatically in the days after Sept. 11.

If the power grid in your state goes down, a lack of electrical power could be the first immediate proof of an attack or a similar catastrophic event. A generator gives you an alternate source of power — important for operating appliances and cooking, and a safe alternative to camp-style stoves. Portable generators are available from about $500 to $3,000. Experts recommend using a generator listed by Underwriters’ Laboratories - look for the “UL” label.

There are choices: gasoline generators need ventilation, so indoor use isn’t recommended, but they’re generally more powerful and versatile than electrical generators. Electrical generators can be safely used indoors and out. And they’re easier to use — you can plug them in and charge them while power’s available; when power’s out, you can plug appliances into the generator and turn them on. But electrical generators usually have lower wattage, for fewer devices.

For personal warmth, a portable catalytic heater, a staple for outdoor-minded vacationers, would be effective for indoor use. Newer models — some using fuel-cell technology — heat enclosed spaces quickly and safely, without open flames.

And a cross section of Web sites surveyed suggest keeping cash available. If worse comes to absolute worst — a nonfunctional electrical grid, civil insurrection, panic in the streets, ATM machines besieged or inoperable — few things are likely to give you more immediate post-disaster leverage than the coin of the realm.

Consult the “For more information” box below for more emergency-readiness options.

Being unprepared
Chris McGoey, a California-based security consultant and expert witness in security-related trials, finds that for most Americans, such preparation has largely been anathema. “People don’t buy into prevention,” he said. “Most people are not prepared. They live almost vicariously, watching the news and reading newspapers, never thinking it will happen to them.

“After tornadoes, fire, whatever, you’ll hear [the victims] say, ‘we didn’t have an inventory of documents, we didn’t have our wills updated, we didn’t have durable power of attorney.’ People don’t think about it. They don’t dwell in that world.”

While echoing the need for preparation, McGoey was downbeat on the possibility of preparing for any specific terror-driven scenario. “There’s nothing you can do physically as a homeowner that would be practical to prepare for terrorism,” he said.

Where Americans can improve, he said, is at a more basic level of preparation: not doing what U.S. intelligence agencies were blamed for after Sept. 11 — relying more on technology than on human intelligence.

“People don’t know their neighbors,” he said. “Houses used to have front porches ... Now, everyone’s sitting in front of the TV watching 150 channels, and logging on to the Internet.

“It’s all about personal relationships and planning,” he said. “Sometimes, the best tech is no tech.”

Armed and protected
Still, technology has its role. Even before Sept. 11, the popularity of home security systems was increasing. In 2000, Americans spent $17.5 billion on electronic security products and services — up from $16.2 billion in 1999 and $14.9 billion in 1998. Spending on security products, like those marketed by ADT and Brinks, is growing at more than 8 percent a year.

Dr. Russell Kormann, a psychologist and associate director of Rutgers University’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders Program, said the sales boost in home security “is more psychological than anything else.

“The attacks themselves were something we had no control over,” Kormann said. “People are in a chronic state of anticipatory anxiety; they’re worried about what might happen.”

“A terrorist isn’t coming to John Q. Public’s house; he’s going to go blow up a bomb downtown,” Kormann said. “But a security system gives you something you can actively do. It increases a person’s sense of safety.”

Scott Black, president of Protecting America, a Seattle home and commercial security company, agrees. For Black, home systems have two benefits. The first is as practical deterrent: “The goal is to keep someone out in the first place. If your home is harder to get into undetected, you’re less of a target.”

The second benefit is peace of mind. “You’ve got all this fear out there,” Black said. “We turn on the news and read the paper and see what’s going on. Nowadays, the idea that ‘it can’t happen to me’ is shattered. The mindset nowadays is, where can I finally feel safe? Where can I feel comfortable, feel relaxed? It’s in your home. It’s the place where people can control the environment.”

And for Black, the job of home-security evangelist has gotten easier since Sept. 11. “They’re more receptive to the idea,” he said of potential customers. “I don’t have to sell them on it.”

Duck-and-cover products
Other companies are capitalizing on fears of another domestic attack, selling products presumed to enable Americans to prepare for catastrophe. The re-emergence of fallout shelters and other paraphernalia recalls the Cold War, when the duck-and-cover mentality permeated American life and culture.

Today’s hot product is potassium iodide, which is used to prevent thyroid cancer by shielding the thyroid gland from radioactive iodine. It must be taken almost immediately after exposure and only protects against absorption of radioactive iodine, offering no protection against other radioactive isotopes.

For Steve Aukstakalnis, director of Two Tigers Radiological, sales of such products and others — from radiation kits to fallout shelters to high-filtration masks — are a matter of marketing the proverbial ounce of prevention.

“We provide the tools and sensors used in the event of an emergency,” said Aukstakalnis of his company, based near Wilmington, N.C.

He said Two Tigers’ business has increased “at least a hundredfold” since Sept. 11. “We put passion and pride in what we do, but we hope like hell no one has to use the products we sell,” Aukstakalnis said.

Fortress (Your Name Here)
The products he sells are a reflection of how our world view has changed since Sept. 11. In 1981, futurist Faith Popcorn identified the trend she called “cocooning” — “the need to protect oneself from the harsh, unpredictable realities of the outside world.”

Now, more than 20 years later, after the worst attack on U.S. soil, Popcorn’s notion has taken on the weight of a law of nature. Since Sept. 11, the single-family home has truly become our panic room, the last secure redoubt, Fortress (Your Name Here).

Consider home sales — A record 900,000 new single-family homes were sold in 2001, according to the Commerce Department. For previously owned homes, sales reached an all-time high of 5.25 million last year, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Or the popularity of home improvement centers — Two companies, Home Depot and Lowe’s, dominated the market last year with $76 billion in revenue.

Or last year’s spike in gun sales — FBI statistics show that in the six months after Sept. 11, the agency conducted 455,000 more background checks for gun purchases than the same period a year earlier.

Life, liberty and cocooning
These and other trends underscore cocooning’s hold on society, and today’s version of the quest for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Maybe, in a relative instant last September, our very idea of a “survivalist” was transformed — from the popular notion of an armed and dangerous Ted Kaczynski-style misanthrope seeing the world through khaki-colored binoculars to a view of survivalists as everyday people aware of their surroundings, knowing the names of neighbors, making distinctions between what’s believable and what’s just bull.

It’s safe to say that in the face of a range of terroristic possibilities, from outside the United States and within, securing that last safe place in the world has probably never been more challenging, or more necessary.

Regardless of whether we live in the mountains of Montana or the canyons of New York City, we’re all survivalists now.