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When Preparedness Hits Home: A Narrative

Cyndi Rilling, a public health program specialist in the CDC Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response, has always taken emergency preparedness seriously—and not just on the job. Here she tells how her family learned first-hand the importance of disaster readiness when tornadoes passed through their Georgia community in the spring of 2011.

Getting people to think about an emergency before it happens is not always easy. Unfortunately, it usually takes a disaster for people to realize the importance of being prepared. I work at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the National Center for Environmental Health where I focus on emergency preparedness. I know all too well the value of making an emergency kit and having a plan, much to the chagrin of my two sons who swear nothing ever happens where we live. But this spring, something did happen and my family was able to see firsthand why I was always trying to get them to think about preparedness.

Storm Trackers

Our family enjoys watching storms as they approach our home on Lake Horton in rural Fayette County, Georgia, but the storm that blew through our county and many other Georgia counties this April would not be as entertaining. On April 27, 2011 the National Weather Service forecasted that a series of tornadoes would cut a path of destruction from Louisiana to North Carolina.

That morning, members of our extended family in North Georgia reported tornadoes had done serious damage near their homes. After hearing this, my husband and I kept close track of the weather reports throughout the day, periodically checking online and watching the radar on local news outlets and the Weather Channel.

When I got home from work that evening, we saw news reports of tornadoes in Alabama that had caused extensive destruction in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. As we watched the storms approach the Georgia line, we noted that they were headed straight for Fayette County. When our weather radio alert went off at about 9:00 PM, we told our sons that we may have to go to our shelter location.

Safety First

Our family has always had a family preparedness plan in case of fire, storms, and power outages. We have two shelter spots, as well as a family rally point outside the house in case we need to evacuate due to a fire or gas leak. We don’t have a basement, so one of our shelter locations is in the pantry under our stairs. The other is under our slate-decked front porch, a concrete enclosure between the foundation walls.

Our weather alert radio is always turned up to wake us in the night in case there’s a storm and our emergency kit is pre-stocked with contact lists, lanterns, batteries, bottled water, snacks, dog food, scissors, tape, plastic sheeting, and a hand-crank/solar AM/FM weather radio. We store the kit in a plastic bin in our garage next to our sleeping bags so that we can grab our gear quickly and take it with us to the shelter.

Before this tornado outbreak, we had mixed success discussing our family’s emergency preparedness plan with our kids. They’d laugh and comment that “nothing ever really happens around here.” They agreed to follow the plan if things ever got bad, but they were somewhat resistant to what they called the “crazy drills,” like practicing where the rally point was. And they asked why we had to shelter under the porch, preferring to stay in their beds. The night of April 27 wasn’t a “crazy drill” though, it was the real thing and I was happy we had a plan in place.




This is Not a Drill

Around midnight, we heard the local warning sirens going off in three neighboring towns while our weather radio buzzed with alerts about the approaching storms. The winds picked up, the rain started, and shortly after the power went out. Pea-sized hail began pelting the house; we knew things were getting serious. We called our sons and Daisy our Labrador, grabbed our emergency kit, sleeping bags, and weather radio, and headed to the sturdy shelter under the porch where we laid the sleeping bags on the gravel and waited.

Of course, the guys complained about sitting on gravel and missing the game on TV, but they could still text their friends and we tried to keep things entertaining. This didn’t completely distract them though, they still had plenty of time to complain about how stuffy, hot, and boring the shelter was and ask how long we would have to stay there. It seemed Daisy was the only member of the family who remained undisturbed as she munched contentedly on her rawhide bone.

Soon lightning began to fill the sky with an angry light show and the wind and rain became stronger. About 1:00 AM, we heard a roar and rumble coming from the southwest—the sound of a tornado. We huddled close and listened as the tornado passed just west of our house and although the rain didn’t let up, the wind seemed to slacken. We thought that maybe the worst was over.

The thought of returning to our cozy beds was short lived, because the weather radio warned us that another line of storms was heading our way. We decided to stay under the porch, much to the dismay of our sons. The rain grew heavier, the wind picked up, and the roar returned. We knew that meant another tornado was approaching. This one passed just south of us, shaking the ground and making us glad we were in a secure spot. Even though our shelter under the porch was cramped and stuffy, we remained safe. And by 3:00 AM, the radio reported that the line of storms had passed through our county, and we were finally able to go to bed.

After the Storm

The next morning, we learned several tornadoes had passed nearby, the closest one just a mile from our house. We were fortunate and didn’t suffer much damage other than fallen tree limbs. Sadly one of my husband’s former employees and his wife were killed in a neighboring county, just a few miles away, and another family lost their home and cars, although no one was hurt.

The next day, we drove through the area surveying the damage, which included several homes flattened to the foundation. My husband and I reminded our sons about the importance of following our family emergency plan and we talked with them about our decision to shelter under the porch. Amazed at the storm damage, they admitted that they now understood the value of our plan, even though it didn‘t mean they enjoyed sitting on gravel.

We are thankful we got through the storms unscathed, but realize the value of using this experience as a teachable moment to show our family the importance of preparedness. Please take the time to talk to your loved ones about a family preparedness plan. If you haven’t already, make a plan together and assemble an emergency kit. Practice what you will do and where you will go in all kinds of emergency situations. Your family members may scoff at your planning, as ours did at first, but it is truly one of the best ways to show them how much you love them.

Responding to Disasters

The Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response (OPHPR) in the National Center for Environmental Health leads CDC’s response to the environmental health effects of natural and man-made disasters. OPHPR uses science-based principles to address every issue of emergency management from preparedness through relief and response to recovery.

Preparing for Disasters: Information

For more information on tornado preparedness, go online.

For more information about other environmental emergencies, go here for links to natural, chemical, radiation, and bioterrorism disaster pages.

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