Plan Ahead for Disasters: Tips from CalifMom

by cv harquail on March 14, 2011

We know what we ‘should’ do, but we often just don’t get to it. Who wants to think about how she or he can respond to horrific tragedies, like terrorism, earthquakes, and floods? That’s the kind of thing for action movie heros, not ah pair host parents, right?

We’ve brought this issue up before and it bears repeating: We each need disaster plans for our families, and we need to include our au pairs in these plans. We need to take care of them as if they were our babies, in any kind of tragic situation.

I just replublished an old post: Have a 9-11 Plan for your family and your au pair, in response to the conversation unfolding on our post about the Japanese Au Pair and her concerns about returning home to Japan after the earthquake.  CalifMom has offered some additional, wonderful advice, which I add below:

From CalifMom:

The tragedies unfolding in Japan lead us into the uncomfortable space of what it means to be “prepared” and how to think about getting ready for the worst imaginable things that can happen to our beloved families.

As parents–and I know CV agrees with me, here!–I think we have an obligation to have a clue about what to do when bad stuff happens. Even the really bad stuff. Our kids and au pairs expect us to be in charge. Imagine their eyes looking up to you with “What do we do now, Mommy?” You need to have good answers so you can all spring into action.

Preparing for the worst and hoping for the best is not a bad or depressing way to live. Instead of making you feel silly for being so paranoid, getting ready is actually very empowering (I’m tired of that word, so I use it quite intentionally here.)

As “Sandwichers” we have to think about not only ourselves, kids and pets but often our parents, and I totally get that it can feel completely overwhelming.

Getting ready, even if it’s just refreshing your stuff and updating your plan, will ultimately reduce your stress, even though thinking about all the vague, potentially horrible things that can go wrong can be really uncomfortable, give you nightmares, and even paralyze you from doing anything at all. But here’s the gold: once you achieve the level of “ready” you are comfortable with, you can stop thinking about it.

We laugh about survivalists who are ready for the apocalypse, but the level of preparedness we’re talking about here does not qualify as paranoid. It’s just smart. To NOT do these simple things is stupid. If you could prevent some big problems later, even though it’s inconvenient to make time to do them now, you would do it, right? If you’re a Covey fan, it’s one of those “Important But Not Urgent” tasks. So label it an A item and prioritize it.

Not to be shameless about it, but ARC has some good tools to help you think through what your family needs.

  • Jamie Lee Curtis is also passionate about this, so here’s a little video encouragement to Do More Than Cross Your Fingers:
  • If you just need checklists, these are good:

To combat feelings of overwhelm at all the tasks that going into “being prepared” I try to think of what I want to achieve as getting ready for a little “urban camping”. That makes it feel less daunting and easier to put my head into the mindset of thinking through what I will want to be able to put my hands on, fast.

First Aid/CPR is good, but you can’t pack it into a box so you need to make a bigger effort on that one. Sometimes you can get your employer to pay for this. (A man I know who had a full-on heart attack at his desk was recently saved by a coworker using an AED. He’s sure glad they took action because they had had training!)

You already have most of the stuff you need, you just need to pull it together.

Kind of like hosting, having a ‘disaster guidebook’ with your non-stuff-needs outlined isn’t a bad idea at all. Know where your kids would be evacuated to by their schools.

Appoint one relative outside your metro area as your communication hub so each of you can ALL relay messages through them (such is the nature of phone networks that a call outside your area is still going to be easier than calls within a damaged area). Get flashlights at this week’s trip to Costco; give emergency radios as a graduation gift in a month for those going to college in the fall. (I tease my husband about the 500 flashlights we have, and every time I see him online shopping for the latest versions, I tweak him. But you know what, we had the right mix of lights and plenty of them during our last power outage! And the mini light on my keychain kept me from falling when I was walking outside on a slippery, unfamiliar walkway and there was no moon. The thing is smaller than my car key.

Being ready helps you with smaller “disasters” too, like power outages and slippery walkways.

Sorry to be a downer! I just feel strongly that knowing you have done what you can to take care of yourself and your family puts you in an emotionally healthier place than just feeling guilty and worried because you haven’t done anything. Maybe that insight will be enough to move someone from a state of worried paralysis to doing a little bit, and then it will snowball. No, I’m not going to use an avalanche metaphor to describe the path from not prepared to ready for the apocalypse, but it’s tempting!)

My thoughts, too, are with all who are suffering.


HM Pippa March 15, 2011 at 12:51 pm

Thanks for the tips, CalifMom. I have a section in our handbook about what to do in case of earthquake, fire or medical emergency, but in light of current events, I can see that it is really inadequate.

I went over the family emergency plans with AP this week which resulted in big, scared eyes. I’m pretty sure she’s terrified that we might have an earthquake (the most likely natural disaster for our area), but I doubt she is really any more prepared to deal with it if she is home alone with the kids. In each case (fire, earthquake and medical emergency) I give guidance about getting to immediate safety and then calling a host parent (who will, presumably, be able to come to the rescue or tell AP what to do). I recognize some serious flaws in this system. First, communication with a host parent might not be possible. Second, there is a good chance that the host parent will be in no position to return home quickly, if at all.

This makes an out of state contact and robust, self-contained, easy to access emergency kits critical. As CalifMom points out, most of the contents of the kit I already have scattered about the house. Under duress, an AP on her own would be hard pressed to know what she needs no less be able to find it. Nor can I expect her to grab the family handbook with all the emergency numbers on her way out the door.

So it looks like I have a project for the weekend: as part of our updated plan I will pull emergency kits together. I will also program the APs phone with our emergency contact information, the out of state contact number, and label the number with “Emergency” in her language.

But I am left pondering some questions: How do we discuss the details of a disaster plan with an AP without freaking her out and so we are confident that AP has thought through various scenarios and understands what to do? Can we expect our APs to deal with emergency and disaster as adults when we are away or when we can’t be reached? How do we increase the odds that they will cope adequately?

MommyMia March 15, 2011 at 3:16 pm

It seems to me that this is a topic that all the LARs/LCCs should cover annually in one of their group meetings with all APs, as well as ensuring that host families have also gone over any disaster plans with each AP (either in handbook, family meetings,etc)
Yes, it’s scary, but isn’t the children’s safety always of utmost importance, and at least if they’ve heard the information a couple of times, at least some of the basics should kick-in should they ever be confronted with earthquake, fire, hurricane or any other disaster. You’re absolutely right, HM Pippa, that instant communication may not be readily available for awhile, so make sure they have (programmed into their contact list on cell phone if nothing else) an out-of-area contact person that everyone will call to check in with ASAP so that parents can get updated on the home situation in case they cannot immediately return to their families. If you can do any practice “drills” with the kids and the AP, this is also a good way to reinforce the basics and ease some fears of the unknown.

Calif Mom March 15, 2011 at 8:55 pm

I know what you mean–will the AP really be able to DO these things if something big happens.

It can take a little while to get used to this idea that the world might be even scarier than you thought. Don’t force all this on her at once. Give her a few days to process and then come back to it again.

And if you have a less-than-mature au pair, think about how you can minimize the amount she will be responsible for on her own.

First, emphasize to her that the risks are still very small. Japan gets many more EQs than the west coast. It’s okay to leave out mention of The Big One that’s predicted, because you really aren’t trying to freak her out, immobilize her. You seem to have already got her attnetion! :-)

Two concrete resources you can tap, and a longer-term project might be helpful: first, make sure she knows your neighbors on sight. Especially any neighbors you know are level-headed, generous souls who are home during the day. Neighborhood becomes very important in crisis. Tell her to go there anytime she needs help. invite the neighbors for dinner one day so everyone is comfortable with each other before there is a problem.

A very important, more tactical approach is one we all know well: checklists are very powerful. Laminated checklists could cover things like: location of your disaster supplies, and the phone contact for out of state, and the names/addresses/phone of your favorite neighbors and the schools. Checklists do the thinking for you.

Drills are really good for maximizing the chances that your body will do the right thing during an emergency–a checklist can let you turn off your thinking brain and just do what you need to do, too.

In our ‘hood, we have a wide range of ages of residents. Some SAHMs, some retirees, some aging-in-place elderly, some work at home middle aged folks. We have a listserv as well as a formal network of folks who keep an eye on the older residents. The reason we have this is because a couple young retirees saw the need and have worked to make it happen. They have high school seniors doing projects with the elderly (kids need those volunteer hours!) and we even have block captains so the whole ‘hood is covered…all this is really cool in and of itself, but it also makes our whole neighborhood more disaster-ready, though that is just one of the unintended consequences, not the primary intention of those who started it at all.

I know my girls and au pair can go seek shelter or comfort or good thinking at the homes of several other neighbors nearby, many who are home during the day. I send my girls to go help our elderly neighbor now, in between disasters, to do things like prune back her chrysanthemums or pick up branches from her lawn after a big storm, so they feel comfortable going there if they need help, and so they will think to check on her if something really weird happens.

Here’s an article from AARP about this Aging In Place trend (It’s not my neighborhood, and we don’t have a nonprofit org set up, but this should get you linked up with the concept). I can’t take ANY credit for this happening in our ‘hood, by the way!

Joyce March 15, 2011 at 4:15 pm

I have been talking with my aupair about the trajedy in Japan and how scary it is. After reading this, I realize I need to discuss with her what to do in the case of an catastrophic emergency. I don’t think she will be scared about the discussion given that we have talked about Japan. I think going forward I will just have the info in the manual and be very clear to a new aupair where the kits are and who to call and where to go. I guess my feeling is if the aupair is intimated by this possibility it’s better to show her we’re prepared. I think explaining to her that after 9-11 (I live in DC) we made sure we had plans….

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