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Red Cross events teach disaster preparedness away from home

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 8, 2012 - When we picture ourselves coping with disaster, we often imagine running to the basement where we've ideally stashed our canned food, bottled water and hand-crank radio.

But even if you're prepared at home, there's a good chance you might not be there when disaster strikes. Adding up car time and hours at work, places of worship and in numerous other activities, it's common to be away for half the day or more.

Creating a culture of preparedness in offices, churches, temples and other away-from-home locations is the purpose of a pair of Red Cross events next month. On Monday, March 26, the Red Cross St. Louis Area Chapter offices in Olivette are hosting a hands-on training, including triage and mass-casualty simulation and search-and-rescue exercises.

The idea to include a faith-based track came about after event planners heard of a pastor's inaction during the Good Friday tornado that ripped through the St. Louis area last year. As the sirens sounded, the pastor continued his sermon while the congregation looked around for clues about what to do, then shrugged and stayed seated, according to event organizer Nicole Holtgrefe.

"I thought, 'Oh, my gosh, because one person didn't take charge and didn't know what to do, they kept their routine going and no one else spoke up,'" Holtgrefe said. "The tornado didn't affect them, but if it had, it could have been catastrophic for that congregation."

Social Media Increasingly Important

National social media expert John Orlando of Vermont will appear via webcam at the March 27 event to address the use of wireless technologies and social media during a disaster.

The importance of cell phones, social media and the internet becomes more apparent with each emergency, according to Holtgrefe. It was during Hurricane Katrina that responders first realized the usefulness of texting. Making and receiving cell phone calls is often difficult during an emergency because of sporadic cell tower signals. But even when calling is impossible, texting may not be.

"Typically, on most phones, the text will stay in a hold position until it finds a signal and then it will send itself," Holtgrefe said. "So you can write the text, hit 'send' and 20 minutes later it might work."

The internet is an efficient way of letting families and friends know that loved ones are OK in a disaster. The Red Cross places computers in shelters so that evacuees can log onto itsSafe and Well website to alert people to their location and to search for others.

During last year's tragic tornado in Joplin, social media proved its usefulness and efficiency.

"Facebook and Twitter seem to be really good places to get information during emergencies," Holtgrefe said. "I would find out across the state who was affected and I'd hear the stories on Facebook before they ever hit the news."

To Register for Events

The March 26 event costs $80 a person; the March 27 presentation ranges from $110 to $130. If you sign up for both days, it costs $180. Registration runs through March 20, and $10 early-bird discounts for the March 27 event continue only through Wednesday, Feb. 15. More information is available online at the Red Cross website.

The Edward Jones Dome downtown is the site of a much larger presentation on Tuesday, March 27. This event offers three tracks of preparedness: workplace, faith-based and general interest. A variety of speakers will address topics in each category, including disaster planning in a tough economy, evacuating people with functional needs and preparing religious congregations for emergencies.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.