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Transit strike teaches lessons

The 3-day transit strike is over - but New York City taught the nation a lasting lesson in disaster planning, says one expert.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | December 23, 2005

"Consider whether or not you have to move."

—Tom Kennedy

The 3-day transit strike is over - but New York City taught the nation a lasting lesson in disaster planning, says one expert.

The city's ability to keep running - when its subways and buses ground to a halt - shows the positive results of family disaster planning, pointed out Tom Kennedy, senior vice president for Virginia-based Vance, an international investigation and security consulting firm.

"The transit strike is a pretty good example of people thinking things through," he said. "People had to think the night before how they would get to work. They might not have been happy. But you noticed that large numbers of people moved in and out of the city without the kind of disruption that might have happened in an emergency."

If the city had not been able to move massive numbers of people in an organized fashion, the strike could have easily become a technological disaster. As it is, the strike was costly for the city: estimates show the strike cost the city $1 billion, as employees didn't show up to the office or worked shortened days, and tourists didn't shop or spend as much, according to the city comptroller's office. There was $10 million in police overtime and $12 million less in tax revenues.

And city advocates have pointed out that the transit strike was disproportionately difficult for homeless people and poor families.

Local churches and interfaith groups - such as New York Disaster Interfaith Services - publicized the city's contingency plans and offered information resources for residents who had to cope. Seven million people in New York City take the bus and subway daily.

Because people could pre-plan, the disruption was painful but not debilitating. If the transit system had stopped during an emergency - when people had not had time to pre-plan - Kennedy said there would have been gridlock in the city. "I think the lesson there is you have to think it out before it happens. In this case, they knew it would happen and they had to think it out," he said.

The lesson learned here, he said, is that a little pre-planning can go a long way toward helping families cope.

Family disaster planning

Simply having a plan in the first place can reduce anxiety when a disaster happens, said Kennedy, who has more than 35 years experience in disaster planning. Kennedy and his colleagues have created highly technical plans that protect executives - but they stress the importance of practical family planning as well.

A family disaster plan should include - particularly if you have children - a map of where to go in the event of a disaster, said Kennedy. "You actually hand them a map. Highlight on the map where to go, where location one is, where location two is. I also recommend they think about a relative outside of the area, outside of the state. Then you know your family will go to Aunt Sally's house, Uncle John's house. That will relieve the anxiety, knowing you're all going to be going somewhere. That will work. It's simple. It works. It is time tested."

Your family disaster plan should take into account that not everybody will be planning along with you. "You have to immediately consider that not every one is going to have a plan," said Kennedy. "That's when the anxiety level goes up and that's when chaos sets in. How will you move about in a gridlocked city? Consider whether or not you have to move. In some cases, you do not have to run. You can stay put."

In case you do have to evacuate, a good rule of thumb is to never let your car have below a quarter of a tank of gas. "Keep your car filled up," said Kennedy. "If you have a half a tank of gas, you could possibly get out of harm's way. During the evacuation from Katrina, a lot of people started running out of gas. Then they had to close roads to try to bring tankers to fill them up."

Family-friendly technology

How can families communicate in the midst of a disaster? You can't always rely on cell phone transmittal since it's one of the first forms of communication to go down.

But hand-held radios can offer a way for families to communicate up to a mile radius, said Kennedy. "They're very cheap and they're available in reputable technology stores. You can check in with each other if all other communications are down."

Sometimes even if cell phones are down, text messaging will work, he added. "You can let each other know: Hey I'm walking. Here's where I am. Knowing that loves ones are safe and doing what they're supposed to be doing makes you feel a lot better. Think about text messaging when the cell phone itself isn't working."

Program the acronym ICE - for "in case of emergency" - into your cell phones and any cell phones your children might carry, recommended Kennedy. Program in your emergency contact information - and don't forget to include doctors' names and numbers, particularly for people with special needs. "This makes a lot of sense but people just don't do it."

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