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Commentary: St. Louis can be better prepared for a major emergency

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 8, 2011 - April was Disaster Preparedness month, and, right on cue, we had several stark reminders of the impact disasters can have on our daily lives. The storms just before Easter devastated nearly a dozen North St. Louis County communities and were the latest in what seems like a relentless string of severe storms that have battered the St. Louis region.

Thankfully, no one here died as a result of the recent severe weather - other cities weren't so fortunate. Our community deserves applause for the actions that have saved lives and that are helping others rebuild. As we take a broad view, we should consider just how far we've come in emergency preparedness and how much more we can achieve. As we leave Disaster Preparedness month behind us, it is important to take a closer look at our "culture of preparedness." I offer this analogy.

Japan, sitting squarely on the Pacific's "Ring of Fire," is one of the most earthquake-prone countries in the world. It is also one of the best prepared to deal with them. Having survived a massive quake in 1923, the Japanese understand the importance of preparation. Many perished in the earthquake and resulting tsunami in March, but the damage likely would have been far worse anywhere else, including here in St. Louis. Japan adopted strict building codes, drilled its population and developed warning systems. Despite the death and destruction, it would have been much worse if not for Japan's hard-earned "culture of preparedness." And that is what we in St. Louis should strive for -- a culture of preparedness.

As we know, earthquakes aren't unheard of in the St. Louis region: 200 years ago, we were rocked by the New Madrid earthquakes. At that time, the area was scarcely developed. A quake of that magnitude today would be a vastly different story. Just as with rapidly materializing tornados, we can't predict if, or when, another serious quake or natural disaster will happen. Instead of being possessed with worry, what we must do is prepare.

Many cities have an emergency plan, and groups such as the American Red Cross, United Way and local emergency management agencies work diligently to respond to the needs of the community in the wake of disasters. Without the individual preparedness efforts of individuals, however, the positive outcomes of any emergency response effort are seriously diminished. Many more people could be helped if they simply knew ahead of time what to do, where to go and how to get information.

Motivating people to prepare for emergencies before they happen goes beyond raising awareness. It involves behavior change. We must all move beyond simply being aware of the risks, to understanding the relevance in our lives and then taking action to maintain a consistent state of preparedness. I can assure you, maintaining a consistent state of preparedness is not hard to do. That is the message we are sharing through the recently launched All Ready campaign, a unified effort among emergency preparedness experts in the St. Louis region to encourage individual preparedness.

We're reaching the residents in our region in a number of ways. A new website is available at www.AllReadySTL.com, providing one central resource for residents to implement the three simple steps of preparedness:

1) Make a plan.

2) Get a kit.

3) Be informed.

Information is available to help prepare for specific types of emergencies - including tornados and earthquakes -- to keep our residents safe. We also are conducting an intense community outreach effort beyond the website, forming partnerships, and engaging residents where they live, work and socialize.

Emergency preparedness isn't just the concern of emergency management officials and first responders. It is a responsibility that we all share. It is important that St. Louis area residents do their part to develop a culture of preparedness. Make sure you have the supplies you need to survive - whether it's for a few hours or a few days. As we have been reminded time and time again, an emergency can happen at any time. Make time to prepare today.

John Wagner is community policy director of FOCUS St. Louis and adviser of the "All Ready" emergency preparedness program.