Disaster Preparedness

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As the Gulf Coast braced itself on Labor Day in preparation for Hurricane Gustav to hit Louisiana, Fox News anchors were filing compelling reports from New Orleans. Trace Gallagher made the point that after what happened with Hurricane Katrina, people were well advised to follow evacuation orders and get in their cars and go.

But as more than 2 million people left New Orleans and vicinity, it was speculation that this new hurricane was going to cause significant damage - before the fact. It was also not surprising that despite all the buildup, the storm itself was weakening as it reached land. And as I've written about in my 2005 book, False Alarm; the Truth About the Epidemic of Fear, excess worry about potential dangers can cause harm even if the disasters never occur. For one thing, people rushing to safety can get injured on the way. For another, too much attention and concern about worst case scenarios can create a boy-who-cried-wolf mindset that creates a slower response the next time around. (In fact, the inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina was due, at least in part, to previously overhyped hurricane warnings that caused people not to take the Katrina warnings seriously enough).

So how should we prepare for potential disasters if our system of risk assessment and the media reports that inform them are often premature or inaccurate? Though it is often better to overreact rather then underreact, it is at least as important to stay calm, and to have a generic plan for disaster response that is useful for all disasters.

Here are some useful tips_

* Don't overreact. If you make calm rational decisions you are far less likely to be hurt and your response is far more likely to be effective. * It is always wise to keep a 3-month supply of your medications on hand. The majority of our medications come from other countries and these supplies might be interrupted during a national emergency. * Keeping a several weeks-worth emergency supply of food and water is also wise, but it is not necessary to prepare your stash with an exact kind of disaster in mind. An electrical blackout is far more likely than a hurricane or earthquake, but you can prepare similarly for both. * Hospitals have limited surge capacities for disasters. Medical care should be planned without assuming quick access to emergency services. * Have a personal evacuation and communication plan in place for you and your close relatives. How will you reach people if cell phones aren't working? Where will you go if there is an advisory to leave your home?

Dr. Marc Siegel is an internist and associate professor of medicine at the NYU School of Medicine. He is a FOX News Medical Contributor and writes a health column for LA Times, where he examines TV and movies for medical accuracy. Dr. Siegel is the author of "False Alarm: the Truth About the Epidemic of Fear" and "Bird Flu: Everything You Need to Know About the Next Pandemic". Read more at www.doctorsiegel.com