Here’s the situation I found myself in: I was in Mexico, and my visa had run out. I was heading back to Ciudad Juarez to get a new visa, but there was a very real chance that I could be punted out of Mexico, stranded in El Paso. I didn’t know anyone in El Paso. So how was I to handle this situation if it actually happened? I thought about it for a few minutes, and then I did what I needed to do to be prepared: I bought a U.S. quarter off a guy so that if I found myself on the other side of the border, I’d have the money to make a phone call. Sure, I could have called collect, but I figured it was more responsible to be prepared to pay for that first call. Buying more quarters would have been even better, but the guy I found only had one. Happily, I was able to get a new visa without being unceremoniously tossed out of Mexico.

How would you have reacted in this situation?

Let’s try another, but this time I’ll delve into a Gedankenexperiment: imagine that you wake up in an alternate reality that’s exactly like this one, but for one thing — you were never born. To add further insult to this It’s a Wonderful Life ripoff, you find yourself in a city you do not recognize. You have the clothes on your person and the memories of your life still in your head, but no money and no identification. What do you do?

I know what I would do. First I’d look around for Clarence or Rod Serling, and administer a serious smackdown for getting me into this mess. After that I would look for the closest LDS meetinghouse. I know that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints helps people in need. It’s one of the things we do. I wouldn’t have to limit myself to just the LDS Church; there are many other religious and secular organizations who help the needy. I am confident that within a year after waking up, I’d be employed and paying my own way. I would not be on the street, in a shelter, or sitting in some government housing waiting for a welfare check to come.

Why do I think about these things? Because it exercises my imagination. If I know what I would do in a really bad Twilight Zone episode — a worst-case scenario — then I should be well-prepared to handle any similar, lesser incidents. Pilots do this all the time. During drills, they simulate various power failures, hydraulic malfunctions and engine fires. If any of these things happen during a real flight, the pilots will react quickly and with the correct actions because they have already mentally prepared themselves for the crisis. Knowing what to do is a critical component of any emergency situation, because knowledge is power.

Another key factor in handling an emergency is recognizing when it’s time to leave the scene, and having the wherewithal to do so. In his book The Chernobyl Syndrome, author Dean Ing discusses at length the importance of being prepared for disaster. He writes about the necessity of being properly prepared to leave “Disasteropolis.” In his case, it referred to a specific city in California, but Disasteropolis is any place you need to flee when the emergency hits.

Perhaps, though, you’re of the mind that as long as your local government has a disaster plan in place, you don’t really need to do much preparation yourself. After all, isn’t that the job of your local officials — to make sure you’re cared for in a time of crisis?

Well, no. The dirty little secret of American civil defense is that, in the overwhelming majority of our cities and towns, mayors and city councils have no preparations for even the smallest disaster; many officials, if they’ve thought that far, simply expect the citizens to live by their own wits until the crisis has passed. Perhaps, in an ideal world, one could depend on one’s local officials to be calm, cool-headed and well-prepared to handle any emergency. But in Louisiana, there was a world of difference between emergency plans on paper and the actual execution of those plans. The New York Times printed a long article about this situation:

The governor of Louisiana was “blistering mad.” It was the third night after Hurricane Katrina drowned New Orleans, and Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco needed buses to rescue thousands of people from the fetid Superdome and convention center. But only a fraction of the 500 vehicles promised by federal authorities had arrived.

Ms. Blanco burst into the state’s emergency center in Baton Rouge. “Does anybody in this building know anything about buses?” she recalled crying out.

They were an obvious linchpin for evacuating a city where nearly 100,000 people had no cars. Yet the federal, state and local officials who had failed to round up buses in advance were now in a frantic hunt. It would be two more days before they found enough to empty the shelters.

While it is understandable that Governor Blanco wanted assistance from FEMA to help with the evacuation, there are many now asking why she did not use the buses that were already available within the city. There are numerous pictures showing lots full of flooded, useless buses in New Orleans, some of them parked not two miles from the Superdome. I cannot help but think that, had they used their own supply of local buses to start the mandatory evacuation, the city and state officials in Louisiana wouldn’t be turning to Washington D.C. in a panic, expecting the federal government to provide buses. Meanwhile, people were drowning.

Drowned Buses

A glut of stories have been streaming out of the Katrina disaster, and already several have been shown to be false, so take this next bit with a grain of salt. I have read reports that Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans demanded, “Get every Greyhound bus in the country and get them moving.” Apparently he wanted the more luxurious Greyhound buses for the evacuation, even though he had hundreds of yellow school buses at his disposal. That’s like one of Noah’s neighbors giving the Ark a pass because it didn’t have the luxuries of the QE2. “You mean there’s going to be animals in there? Thanks, but I think I’ll wait for the next boat.”

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