Monday, December 19, 2011

Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore – Thank Goodness!

Don’t get me wrong. I love Kansas. In fact, my mother was born in Coffeyville and I still have many family members who live there. If you have not been there, you really should go there some summer. It holds the largest piece of untouched prairie grassland in the country*. Standing in those grassy fields will let you feel nature in which native people thrived and early travelers encountered as they drove their wagons westward.

This morning Kansas was visited by a snow storm that is currently dumping several inches of havoc, especially in the southwest part of the state. Depths of over a foot are expected in many places, with gusty winds whipping those unique ice particles across highways and reducing visibility to practically zero. In short, no one is going anywhere any time soon.

I have now lived in California for over 20 years and even though I grew up in Michigan (complete with “snow days,” digging my car out of the driveway with a tractor, driving through blizzards, and shoveling snow for hours...), now I can barely survive a short walk to my car when the temperature dips below 50! So, truthfully, my chances of survival there are slim to none, with or without Toto. How do those hardy Kansans make it through something as severe as this? Well, one thing I can tell you is that they are definitely prepared for harsh weather. Whether it is a tornado blowing houses on witches, or snow drifting 6-foot high walls across highways, they know what to do. Been there, done that.

It is one of the things that we as emergency managers struggle against all the time. It is easy to get people to get prepared for something that they encounter regularly. In Kansas, for example, it is common for houses to have storm cellars for seeking shelter from tornadoes. In lieu of that, people know to seek shelter in low, inner floors, often in bathtubs where people have saved themselves. You can also bet that cars also carry a shovel, some chains and possibly a bag of salt in the trunk during the winter. Their survival depends on being prepared for these things and they know it.

Which gets me to my point (FINALLY, Sue...)... Getting people to prepare for things they have never or rarely seen or experienced is very difficult. A recent poll of students on campus found that most were not worried about nor prepared for earthquakes. Few were old enough to remember the Northridge earthquake that was the last quake to give the region a good shake. Even though they have seen images of Haiti, Chile, New Zealand and Japan in recent years, those are things that happen elsewhere. Not here. No experience with that, so it doesn’t exist.

So, this is what drives me. I don’t really want to be the Chicken Little with all that shouting about falling skies, but I do care about others. I really want them to be prepared, just like those Kansans. I want us to be prepared so that when something does happen, we can simply pull something out of the trunk. Dig ourselves out and go on because there is no place like home. Right, Toto?

*To “experience” a walk across the prairie, I highly recommend reading “PrairieErth” by William Least Heat-Moon. Long, but worth the journey.

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