As Hurricane Sandy moves up the East Coast, and transit systems, schools, and places of business shut down, people worry: What can happen to me, what is the worst case scenario I might face? Whatever the actual risks, media-driven fears are greater. Not only that, but a person who fears his house falling down or his windows breaking may be too pre-occupied with this unlikely scenario to prepare for the much greater likelihood of flood or his power going off.
Calling Sandy a “monster” or “Frankenstorm” doesn’t help. We anticipate the literal attack of a monster force. Public officials may feel they are only doing their jobs if they prepare us for worst case scenarios and the news media only doing ours if we cover the point of greatest storm power. However, the public is then too easily paralyzed by panic and too worried to calmly plan for the real dangers.
So what do we really need to know, and what should we do as the storm rolls in? We’ve all heard by now that we should have emergency kits at the ready – which include first aid (bandages, aspirin, antibiotic creams), three days of potable water (one gallon per person per day) and non-perishable food. The kit should also include flashlight and batteries, rain gear, emergency contact info, battery-powered radio, and perhaps most importantly, seven days of a person’s medications. This is a good kit to have for any emergency.
The chronically ill as well as the very young and the very old are most at risk in a disaster. Though we fear the force of the storm, the most likely consequence for most people in the regions affected will be loss of power. People with chronic illness are often much more reliant on the power grid and will find coping without electricity even for a short time to be a challenge. Since this isn’t the winter or the summer, heat or cold exposure are unlikely. But I am concerned about whether people will have enough clean water, whether they will know to fill their bathtubs and their toilet tanks (even toilets with electric pumps will work if you fill the tanks manually). Refrigerators and freezers should be turned to the coldest settings to help keep food from spoiling. Since refrigerators will only keep food fresh for up to four hours after the power goes off, it is a safer bet to store food in the freezer, which can continue to keep food cold for up to three days.
When people are calm, they are more likely to keep a proper eye on their infants and pets. Baby supplies are crucial and should be part of the emergency kit. An evacuation plan is also key, if you are in an area where evacuation is recommended. Are you prepared to meet your relatives at a place agreed upon in advance?
As a physician with many years of experience in emergency medicine, I am perhaps most concerned about flooding. People wade through dirty water without realizing they are being exposed to bacteria that can cause dysentery. Beware fallen power lines and hidden objects below the water line. It is easy to fall and cause a wound or fracture, and there may not be the medications or treatment centers or even hospital emergency rooms available to expedite treatment of your wound. Winds of up to 75 miles-per-hour also make it very difficult to walk the streets without being blown around, and injuries can easily result.
Most of all, even amidst the onslaught of media mega-phoned warnings, we must try to remain calm. Fear causes us to over-personalize the risk to us. When we worry, we don’t take the necessary precautions we should take.
Marc Siegel, M.D. is a professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Medical Center. He has been a medical analyst and reporter for Fox News since 2008.