Answering “What If?”

Unanswered questions are scary. That’s what I scrawled in my blog notebook back in October after I gave a Ready New York presentation in Brooklyn, not far from where a tornado had touched down a few days earlier. Tornadoes are rare in this part of the country, but every couple of years we have a small one. Or, in this case, two—one in Brooklyn and another in Queens.

EncouragementSomeone at the presentation had said she knew emergency preparedness is important, but thinking about possible emergencies scared her. I can’t help but agree. Sometimes watching the news is scary, but I believe that the only way to take the fear out of “What if?” is to answer it-and then do whatever is necessary to be ready if “What if?” happens.

When I became an American Red Cross volunteer I started to think seriously about emergency preparedness; now I give presentations to help others prepare. I even gave a presentation the night of the tornadoes—and believe me, I’ve rarely had a more attentive audience! The funny thing is, the more I think about hazards, the less frightening they become.

As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” The most frightening things that have happened to me came out of the blue, and by the time I realized what had happened it was too late to be afraid. It was over and I was alive: take it from there. They were not things I could have anticipated ahead of time, but they were things I could be prepared for, at least partially, by taking standard precautions.

Those tornadoes in September, for example. At the beginning of the month hurricane Earl was approaching the northeast. The Red Cross and other agencies urged people to prepare. But Earl stayed over the Atlantic and lost power to the cooler northern waters. By the time it finally reached land in Canada, it was no big deal. And then a few weeks later New York City was struck by two tornadoes. Ah, but if you’d given thought to preparing for the hurricane, you were well prepared for the twisters.

All Hazards & “What If?”

Emergency managers sometimes talk about an “all-hazards approach.” While it can become quite technical at the professional level, the application at the individual and household level is pretty simple: you don’t need a dozen plans for different kinds of emergencies, you really just need two. Your options in an emergency come down to deciding whether you are safe where you are and need to hunker down until the crisis is over, or whether you are unsafe and need to evacuate to another location. Have a broad plan for each of those possibilities, then tweak your plans slightly for different kinds of emergencies. For example, you might consider staying at a friend’s home if your own home was damaged by fire, but if that friend lives near the coast it wouldn’t be a good place to go in a hurricane or other major storm. But you’d still take the same supplies for your family while you’re away from home.

Here’s where asking “What if?” can help you prepare. When you hear about a disaster somewhere in the world, maybe something scary that gets a lot of media attention, ask yourself what you’d do if something similar happened near you. (Don’t worry; the worst case probably won’t happen to you. This is a thought experiment.) But here’s the catch: you have to answer the “What if?” question. If you don’t answer the question, you only create anxiety, but you don’t adjust your plan. Answer the question and adjust your plan, your Go Bag, and your at-home supplies accordingly.

What Am I Afraid Of?

I doubt that #UsGuys made topic of the #UsBlogs project “What Are You Afraid Of? (And what are you doing about it?)” on the first weekend of American Red Cross Month on purpose. But it sure fits!

So I’ve asked myself what I’m afraid of, and the answer is that I can’t really think of anything. There are a many things that concern me, even a few that worry me, but when I lie awake at night preoccupied by something it’s because I’m making plans, not because I’m fretting.

Lennon was right: I’ve worried about possibilities that never happened, while the worst things I’ve seen were completely unexpected. The blade at my throat. September 11, 2001. The other one I don’t talk about. Let’s just say that at the age of 25 I understood, deep in my gut, that everyone dies and some day it would happen to me. Once I accepted that, nothing much is scary.

Google Maps – Save a Life Saturday, March 19

As it is Red Cross Month and we’re blogging about what scares us, let’s talk about preparedness. On March 19 more than 100 Red Cross chapters will offer classes in hands-only CPR—and they’re free! It’s the Gabrielle Giffords Honorary Save-a-Life Saturday, and it’s the first time the Red Cross has offered free CPR training on such a large scale. The list is too long to post, but participating chapters can be found on the map below.

5 thoughts on “Answering “What If?”

  1. Steve Birkett March 10, 2011 / 11:29 am

    Anticipation and the unknown are certainly big parts of fear, Karen. There has to be a balance in the preparedness and acceptance that sometimes we can only control a portion of what feeds our fears. Often that acceptance in itself serves to quell fear, reducing the anxiety you mention.

    Good stuff to reflect upon, the next time I get unsettled, thanks!


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