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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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FEMA’s disaster kit list useful for only some of us

Jamie Tobias Neely The Spokesman-Review

FEMA’s disaster checklist starts to lose me right around the point I reach the tongue depressors and the nonlatex gloves.

Gone apparently are the days when candles and flashlights could keep most calamities at bay. Now the Federal Emergency Management Agency urges us to prepare to survive any conceivable disaster. It posts on its Web site ( a checklist of no fewer than 112 items that every household should store for the moment when the floodwaters rise or the terrorists strike. It’s labeled, ominously, “Are You Ready?”

No wonder the agency was so slow to respond to Hurricane Katrina. It apparently was relying on the victims themselves to take over.

Whistle, fire extinguisher, tube tent.

Every so often, when I write of the need for compassion or community concern, an Inland Northwest reader will call me with a question that sounds like an accusation: “Don’t you believe in personal responsibility?” It’s sometimes delivered with a Rush Limbaugh-like whine.

The words themselves, personal responsibility, sound simple and sure, as bedrock an American value as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It’s an adult version of the Boy Scout motto – Be Prepared – and who can argue with that?

But Hurricane Katrina pointed out the hollowness that can underlie those two words. Personal responsibility floated all sorts of affluent boats out ahead of the floodwaters, but it sank the poor and the sick and the dying left behind.

Signal flares, duct tape, plastic sheeting.

These FEMA disaster guides sound written by and for well-educated, high-energy yuppies, brimming with resourcefulness, good health and available credit. Their disaster kit checklist will certainly help the hardiest among us prepare for whatever may strike, but it can’t be counted on to pull toddlers or 80-year-olds out of the path of destruction.

For that, we still need – dare I say it with talk radio fans listening in? – a well-funded government with integrity, experience and competence.

Government’s not been popular in this era; proponents of tax cuts and ballot measures repeatedly malign it. But when the worst happens, a democratic government remains an inspired idea designed to keep law and order, to rescue the stranded and to gather the dead.

Heavy-duty garbage bags and ties, toilet paper and a medium-size plastic bucket with a tight lid.

FEMA’s disaster checklist surely fits the politics of this decade.

Those flood victims barely surviving in the New Orleans convention center with its overflowing toilets and sweltering air surely could have used homemade disaster kits stocked with do-it-yourself porta-potties. How they might have transported these bulky kits to high ground, however, eludes my imagination.

It’s no wonder, though, that the ultimate status car these days is the Hummer. When Armageddon comes, those of us who own one will feel especially fortified.

Ready-to-eat meals, peanut butter, powered milk.

FEMA’s list might cost hundreds of dollars to compile and require replenishing every six months. It could be enough to keep people alive for several days – provided that poverty or some more imminent peril doesn’t do them in first.

And what will happen when disaster strikes closer to home?

Fire and ice and ash float into my mind, the basic elements of more recent Northwest calamities. We’re most likely to suffer severe ice storms or forest fires, if sexual abuse, meth addiction and despair don’t get us first.

Nearly a decade ago we survived a debilitating ice storm that left tens of thousands without heat or power for days.

Back then, according to the local Homeland Security office, officials worked to deliver food and power to the poorest areas of Spokane first. They believed people living in the downtown core and the East and West Central neighborhoods were less likely to have the cash and the cars to get them to grocery stores or motel rooms on those dark, cold nights.

The most resourceful among us kept their homes heated, fed their neighbors and survived one icy day after the next. But our disaster plan then didn’t rely on the fiction that everyone was equally likely to weather the storm.

No matter how many boxes of flashlights and maps and compasses FEMA tells us to pack, there’s one philosophy that surely will leave us lost, and that’s the mantra, “Every man for himself.”

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