On Watch

Be Prepared

Posted: Oct 30, 2012 5:09 PM ET Last Updated: Oct 30, 2012 5:09 PM ET
I don't know if it was ever "cool" to be a Boy Scout.  Then again, no one ever accused me of being cool.  So it should come as no surprise that, growing up, I was a Boy Scout.
 
Our troop regularly tested the Scout motto: "Be Prepared".
 
We'd trudge off to meetings, our pockets stuffed with safety matches so safe they wouldn't light, penknives so blunt they couldn't cut paper,  and fish hooks and twine that would get snared in our uniforms.
 
We were prepared.
 
All it took was one hurricane to knock that childhood hubris right out of my mind.
 
Like many Nova Scotians, I under-estimated Hurricane Juan.  I made sure my garbage cans and patio furniture were secure.  But that's about all I did before the storm hit.  Then, just after midnight, I heard a bang, followed by the quiet whir of electric motors on the fridge and furnace dying.  For the next couple of hours, it sounded like our home was under a railway bridge with a long, heavy freight train thundering overhead.
 
In the morning, I discovered the tree branch that had torn the power line from the side of our house.  Fortunately, everyone was safe and the building was intact. 
 
It was more than a week before I could get electricity restored.  I learned a lot in that week, starting with that first night.  I had to stumble around in the dark looking for flashlights.  I now keep one on my bedside table.
 
I was lucky with transportation, because I had a nearly full tank of gas in my vehicle, so I could get around once roads were cleared of debris.  Remember, gas stations also lost power.  No power, no pumps, no gas.
 
I wasn't as lucky with my barbecue.  I hadn't bothered to get propane before the storm hit, and couldn't find anyone selling it afterward.  So instead of cooking all the food in my freezer, I had to watch it spoil.  I was especially sad to lose five pounds of fresh-shucked scallops.
 
These are the sort of lessons I learned the hard way from Hurricane Juan; lessons that come flooding back every time we go on storm watch, like we did this week with Hurricane Sandy.
 
They even teach emergency preparedness in elementary school now.  My daughters long ago initiated an earnest conversation with me about an evacuation plan from our home and a safe meeting place if we were ever confronted by disaster.
 
Emergency coordinators ask that we prepare to fend for ourselves for at least three days after disaster strikes.  In those three days, they hope to have most of the basic infrastructure restored.  The last thing first-responders need is to have 911 operators tied up by people who are simply nervous or failed to adequately plan ahead. 
 
Even if you're not calling 911, you're asked to limit phone calls in a disaster.  Phone lines and cell phone towers can be damaged in disasters and the remaining lines should be dedicated to emergency use.
 
A lot of us don't bother to carry cash any more.  But if there's a power outage, you could lose access to your money.  Banking and debit machines can go down.  Even if the store you're in has a working debit machine, there's no guarantee the system that supports your card will be working.
 
It took a hurricane to figure all this out.  It's like the song lyric: "you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone."
 
I'm a long way from being a Boy Scout.  But now, at least, thanks to lessons learned the hard way, I am prepared. We all should be.
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About the Author

Blair Rhodes has been a journalist for more than 30 years in Atlantic Canada, covering everything from princes to politicians to prostitutes, and a whole lot of stuff in between. These days, he focusses on stories involving crime and public safety.

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