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American Red Cross kicks off St. Louis-based disaster preparation program

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 23, 2009 - If help were available to make preparing for a disaster less overwhelming and time-consuming, 82 percent of Americans would jump at the opportunity, the American Red Cross learned through a survey it conducted recently. Now the Red Cross is providing the help through a program launched in St. Louis last year and officially kicked off Tuesday here and in 16 other cities.

The Ready Rating Program assists businesses, schools and other organizations in emergency preparedness. It publicizes a list of members who have completed five steps:

  • Joining;
  • Identifying their vulnerability to various hazards;
  • Developing an emergency-response plan;
  • Implementing the plan;
  • Helping others in the community become prepared.

The $2.1 million nationwide program, funded through a grant by Anheuser-Busch Foundation, began in St. Louis in March 2008. Since then, 150 local members, including an assortment of elementary, middle and high schools, several colleges, employers and organizations such as religious institutions and non-profits, have joined.
Because of the proliferation of local governments, the local area has an even greater need to coordinate diverse efforts. "The presence of so many governmental systems in the St. Louis area presents a unique situation," St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said at a news conference held to announce the program.

The Ready Rating Program encourages businesses to make contingency plans for any number of situations, including a half-empty office resulting from a swine flu outbreak, flash flooding in the streets that may strand employees at work or a disaster that shuts down highways and necessitates evacuations. School officials also examine the possibility of similar situations.

The Red Cross does not approve or even look at any emergency preparation plans of Ready Rating Program members. Members score their own quizzes in once-a-year assessments. But St. Louis area Red Cross Communication Coordinator Katie Nagus said the agency is not worried about members inflating scores to improve their image.

"That's kind of the point of the program. It's not the Red Cross telling you what to do; it's just us giving them tools and everybody is able to customize it for themselves," Nagus said in an interview.

Individual readiness is also a goal. According to the Red Cross survey, 50 percent of St. Louisans do not know how to prepare for an everyday emergency, much less a catastrophic event.

"Personal preparation is a key component. When individuals, businesses and schools are all prepared, the community is better able to stand and respond," said Charles Bryson, St. Louis director of public safety, at the news conference.

According to Cindy Erickson, CEO of the St. Louis chapter of the American Red Cross, the first step toward individual preparedness starts with one question: "What matters most to you and to your family, to your health and to your safety -- and what would you do to protect those things if a disaster hit?"

Nancy Larson is a freelance writer in St. Louis.