The disaster next time

As Hurricane Sandy batters the Eastern seaboard, graying Northwesterners sigh and mutter sotto voce, “There but by the grace of the 1962 Columbus Day windstorm go I.” Frankenstorm’s magnitude, like a steroidal cross between the Puget Sound Convergence Zone and a Yukon ice storm, seems unimaginable to locals practiced in all things duck-and-cover (it was a smooth post-Cold War transition from the Bomb to the Big One.) Nevertheless, the nightmare of a weather cataclysm visited upon Washington and Oregon a half-century ago this month, killing 50 people and laying waste to a massive swath of the urban Northwest, from Medford to Vancouver, B.C.

Like Frankenstorm, the Columbus Day windstorm was a long time coming, beginning life as Typhoon Freda, bouncing around the Pacific, and then recharging when she hit the Aleutian Islands. As HistoryLink’s Alan Stein notes, the Northwest has never experienced anything like it before or since. We have volcanoes, tsunamis, lahars (humongous mudflows from volcanoes) and mega quakes. All the while, we forget about non-plate-tectonic disasters at our own peril.

Some catchphrases of emergency preparedness — especially those recommending families keep a three-day supply of food and water — are inadequate. Two weeks is a realistic figure, particularly in the event of a large-scale catastrophe (And whether a natural or manmade disaster, ammo stockpiling won’t help with dehydration and first aid.) The Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management provides a number of online resources for families to prepare. (http://www1.co.snohomish.wa.us/Departments/Emergency_Management/P_n_R.htm) This includes a template for a disaster plan, a supplies’ kit, a preparedness plan for pets and livestock, and a handbook. Families should look to calendar cues — update your supplies and family plan every Halloween or summer solstice (just as we’re reminded to change the batteries on our smoke detectors.) Association is the linchpin. Tax day and disaster preparedness? It seems like a natural correspondence.

Factors to remember include how to manage without electricity and access to stores. In mass disasters in particular, help can take 100 hours or more to arrive. Then the emphasis becomes communitarian, including knowing your neighbors, especially seniors and those with medical issues. In 1995 over a five-day period, 750 Chicagoans died in a July heat wave. Most of these elderly and often disabled victims lived alone, with no one to check or care for them. Not unlike the horror of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Chicago stands as a sobering illustration of what becomes of an increasingly atomized and disconnected society.

The Pacific Northwest, for all its passive-aggressive tendencies, can and will do better. Let’s remember the Columbus Day horror — and Mount St. Helens, and Frankenstorm — and prepare.

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