Last May, when former SLO City fire chief Bob Neumann and his countywide compatriates were trying to get local residents into the disaster preparedness training program called CERT, the County Emergency Response Team, most were hearing about it either by word of mouth, through fliers in utility bills, or by reading about it in our New Times cover story dated May 5.
The all-volunteer program offered by officials from local fire departments from Paso Robles to Nipomo teaches people how to become self-reliant in the event of a major earthquake, fire, flood, or tsunami when help might not be immediately available.
And now that our country since then has been wracked by three major hurricanes that destroyed much of the Gulf Coast and the flooding that nearly wiped out all of New Orleans, interest in self-reliance during an emergency has really taken off.
'Self-reliance has heightened. It's really picking up," Neumann said, after having returned with his team who was hired to help in the wake of hurricane ravaged Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida last fall. 'Katrina especially. People hear a lot about natural disasters in third-world countries, but never think it happens here. We've updated our programs with pictures we've brought back."
CERT training prepares people to survive, protect themselves so they can help others, and to work as part on emergency response team. Neumann said Florida was prepared, but not Louisiana.
'I don't know if anything could have helped people in the Ninth Ward [in New Orleans], but everywhere else clearly people being prepared would have made all the difference in the world."
Neumann stressed that governments during major calamities aren't going to be there, especially in the first 72 hours.
'There was a lot of fingerpointing and blame during Katrina, but that was a huge hurricane and hit us in a very vulnerable spot and I don't care how much money we spend in this nation on disaster preparedness, if people don't take it on their own and take care of their immediate needs, there's not a government in the land that's going be able to provide for people. It just isn't gonna happen. People have to take their responsibility on themselves."
Neumann said it wasn't the damage that amazed him ... it was human suffering and hopelessness.
'I wasn't at all shocked at how disruptive it all became or how much damage there was ... the thing that impacted us was the amount of human despair. Everywhere you turned somebody was in trouble. And you felt helpless."
He said CERT is more important than ever. A bilingual class is being prepared in Oceano come January, and interest has picked up for additional CERT training in SLO county.
'The thing that frustrates disaster planners is that no matter how much we preach about this 72-hour preparedness stuff, people just don't seem to take it seriously."
After all the death, damage, and destruction caused by tsunamis, earthquakes, and hurricanes in the past year and a half, and all the blame that goes with it, maybe they will.
Managing Editor King Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.