When the Unexpected Happens

For almost nine years I have been a volunteer with the American Red Cross. (To be precise I was a paid staff member for three of those years and a volunteer the other six.) In that time I’ve done quite a few things, beginning with two months as a volunteer doing data entry on the World Trade Center disaster response, then working for the September 11 Recovery Program (that was the paid position). After downsizing in 2004, as the Recovery Program was completing its work, I became an active volunteer with the Greater New York chapter.

Last Thursday I was scheduled to give a presentation on emergency preparedness in Staten Island at 7:00 pm. After five years of giving presentations I almost had to cancel one for the first time–there was a tornado warning for Staten Island and Brooklyn until 6:00 pm. And I had figured that I would need to leave at just about 6:00 to get to the location with a little time to set up.

Now this was a serious conflict for me. Although as a volunteer I work many fewer hours than paid staff (and some other volunteers) do, I take my volunteer commitments seriously and once made I almost never cancel–and not at the last minute! Yet would it be appropriate to go out when there was a tornado warning? I was on pins and needles, listening to the radio and watching for text messages from Notify NYC.

To my great relief, the tornado warning was called off on schedule at 6:00 and I left a few minutes later, arriving just a few minutes before 7:00. Most of the attendees were late, delayed by the storm or traffic tie-ups that resulted from it. But by about 7:20 we had a full house–and I had one of the most attentive audiences ever. I opened the presentation by asking who had heard about the tornado warning (slightly fewer than half, although almost everyone knew that severe thunderstorms were expected), then talked about the many communication channels we have available in the early 21st century–radio, television, telephone, text messaging, e-mail, online social networks–and then progressed to the usual discussion.

The original preparedness materials we used were written in late 2003–immediately after the August blackout, I think, because there were frequent references to flashlights and battery-powered radios. They are important, certainly, and yet when I volunteered on an American Red Cross call center in 2005, after hurricane Katrina, no one ever told me they wished they’d brought a flashlight or radio. What most people needed (aside from getting back to their homes, which unfortunately wasn’t likely to happen any time soon for many) were prescription medicines and communication with their families, friends and neighbors. I incorporated that into my presentation, emphasizing the need to have a detailed list of prescriptions and an emergency communication plan.

The presentation materials have been revised several times over the years. Each time I notice fewer references to flashlights and battery-powered radios (though they’re still there) and a broader view of the hazards that could affect the New York City area. This is good–people are understandably inclined to think of the most recent emergency they’ve faced when preparing for the next one. While that’s certainly a reliable guide in some respects, it’s still important to consider all possible emergencies–even a rare tornado in New York City.

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