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What Would You Do Today If You Knew a Hurricane Was Going to Hit Your Home or Practice Tomorrow?

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What Would You Do Today If You Knew a Hurricane Was Going to Hit Your Home or Practice Tomorrow?

Lawyers spend a lot of time preparing for their careers. Most have spent 12 years of primary and secondary education, four years of college, and three years of law school for a total of 19 years in preparation. And, for most of us, becoming lawyers has worked out well; we can support our families and ourselves, contribute to our communities, and lead comfortable lives.

When it comes to preserving and protecting our families, our practices, and ourselves, however, studies by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, and other organizations indicate that most people, including lawyers, do not prepare adequately for disasters and emergencies. The next time we fall into the modern “cone of uncertainty” of an approaching hurricane’s path, we undoubtedly will worry, is this the one that will hit us?

Of course, hurricanes are far from the only disaster or emergency that we may experience. Frequently occurring, low-impact and duration events abound, such as minor motor vehicle accidents, petty theft, short-term power or water outages, minor medical or first aid incidents, tropical storms, and isolated food supply disruptions. High-impact and duration events, although less frequent, may alter our lives or even end them, including hurricanes, school shootings, terrorist attacks, pandemics, wildfires, major crimes, and nuclear attacks or accidents. We and our families are exposed to those risks, both here in Florida and while traveling outside the state.

Consider the immediate and longstanding suffering of those in the Panhandle after Hurricane Michael, which recently was upgraded to a Category 5 tropical cyclone and devastated that area last fall. Many of our colleagues, their families, and their law practices will be adversely affected by that hurricane for many, many years.

Despite the well-known risks, the excuses for lack of preparation are legion, among them:

• A disaster or emergency probably won’t affect me;

• I don’t have time to prepare;

• Preparation is too costly;

• I don’t know how to prepare;

• I plan to evacuate before it gets here;

• We’re too far inland to be affected;

• The government and charities will take care of us if anything happens, and on and on.

It is an axiom of disaster and emergency preparedness that if we wait until the disaster or emergency is imminent, it is too late to prepare. As each hurricane approaches our shores, consider the masses of humanity always seen waiting in long lines at their local grocery store, gas station, and hardware store as a storm threatens their homes and businesses. The procrastination of waiting until the last minute to prepare frequently correlates with its ineffectiveness.

Despite the dedication of most first responders, attorneys may be among the last to be helped after a major disaster or emergency occurs. We tend to live in nice homes in nice neighborhoods and we typically have sufficient means to provide for ourselves — if we have chosen to do so. After a disaster or emergency, first responders are tasked first to help those assessed to be in the greatest need: patients at hospitals, assisted living facility and nursing home residents, the poor, and the elderly. In medical triage, being last in line for treatment tends to be a good thing (other than for those who are terminal), because it means that others have more urgent care needs. Nonetheless, being last in line for necessary relief supplies after a disaster or emergency can have life-altering consequences for our families, ourselves, and our practices.

In addition, the greater the severity and the broader the scope of an event, the greater the likelihood that the resources of public and charitable agencies will be overwhelmed and the greater the potential that some first responders may elect to take care of the needs of their families and friends at the expense of their sworn duties to the general public.

New RPPTL Disaster and Emergency Preparedness and Response Committee

After considering the foregoing, The Florida Bar Real Property, Probate and Trust Law Section (RPPTL) recently created a new Disaster and Emergency Preparedness and Response Committee. This author has been appointed as the initial chair of that committee with co-vice chairs Jerry Aron, Benjamin Diamond, and Colleen Sachs, who took the initiative after Hurricane Michael to marshal the section’s relief contributions to the Panhandle.

The committee’s mission is to develop resources for members to use to prepare for disasters and emergencies and to create the section’s plan to respond to those events. The committee then will organize and coordinate that response as appropriate.

Introduction to Disaster and Emergency Preparedness

The rest of this article is an introductory primer on preparedness planning considerations and resources, both for personal needs and law practices. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, the State of Florida, and the American Bar Association, among many others, have produced excellent resources that provide clear guidance on how to prepare for the myriad disasters and emergencies to which our modern lives are exposed. They have provided straight-forward, clear, and comprehensive steps all of us can and should take to prepare for a wide variety of disasters and emergencies. (See next page, “Resources for Disaster Preparedness.”) Readers otherwise should be wary of commercial publications, as sometimes the authors have minimal credentials, expertise, and experience in the disaster and emergency preparedness field.

Personal Preparedness Considerations and Resources

The most important personal disaster and emergency preparedness step is to improve health and physical fitness. Disasters and emergencies can be extraordinarily demanding and stressful. The concept of the “survival of the fittest” is valid in disasters and emergencies: Those who are the fittest have the best chance of enduring and surviving. Almost everyone, at every stage of life, can improve his or her health and physical fitness.

One important caveat on preparedness recommendations from government agencies and charities: They typically seek to achieve the broadest minimal preparation among the largest group. That is, they try to get the most people to do the most to enable them to survive (but not necessarily to thrive) until outside help can reach them, which amounts to trying to persuade people to do at least the bare minimum. The policy thinking behind that appears to be that the more people who achieve those minimums, the more people who will be self-sustaining, and the less strain there will be on disaster and emergency relief resources.

Nonetheless, most of us are wholly inexperienced with merely surviving. We are not prepared to undergo the stresses and strains of survival rations (which are not of the quality, quantity, and palatability we are used to eating), no or bare essential medical treatment, crowded and frequently unhygienic disaster shelter housing, and so forth. We all have a choice: Prepare to provide our families and ourselves with the bare minimums those agencies and charities recommend to the masses or to provide for our families and ourselves what will be needed to remain reasonably comfortable in a disaster or emergency situation until the harshest aspects abate.

But, aren’t the typically recommended three days of food and water supplies enough? Consider how hard it will be to get basic goods to people in the affected heavily urbanized areas of Florida if there are transportation corridor impediments (e.g., roads are flooded or debris covered and tractor trailers cannot get through).

Consider how many people are here in Florida on any given day. Our permanent population exceeds 20 million, plus there are thousands of tourists and other visitors in the state at any one time. Consider how the major road transportation routes for relief supplies run north to south and there are just a few of them: I-95; 1-75; and some state highways. Florida is not in the Midwest with roads crisscrossing north and south and east and west all over the place. Do not even think essential equipment and supplies can be flown in timely and in quantity by airplane or helicopter; it just cannot happen. The 1948-49 Berlin Airlift struggled mightily to sustain that single city’s then mere 2 million residents with round-the-clock deliveries.

Consider water: It is essential to life. If we go three or more days without water, we die. Nonetheless, the common disaster and emergency preparedness water recommendation is to store “one gallon, per person, per day for each person in a household for three days,” which is the presumed time for outside relief to reach the household with additional fresh water.

The daily average U.S. personal-use water consumption (to drink, to bathe in, to flush toilets with, etc.) is around 100 gallons per person. The recommended minimum fluid (e.g., drinking water) consumption (aside from liquids in food), is approximately 8/10 of a gallon for the average-sized man and approximately 6/10 of a gallon for an average-sized woman.

Maybe a person could survive on just one gallon of water a day for a short period, at least confined to drinking only, but will that person be reasonably comfortable with only 1% of the daily average of 100 gallons of water to drink, cook, bathe, flush the toilet, etc.? Would a mere gallon a day to drink suffice in Florida’s hot and humid summers? Consider that you may be physically exerting far more than your norm because the roads may be obstructed to drive or you have to clear debris and make necessary repairs to your home.

Other challenges include the sheer weight of water to store. A gallon weighs more than eight pounds, plus the weight of its container. Consider that the often-recommended one gallon for four people in a household for three days (12 gallons) weighs 100 pounds.

But our state is full of swimming pools — should we consider them to be a water source? While pool water is adequate for flushing toilets, it is not appropriate for drinking, cooking, or bathing. Consider all the bacteria in pools from swimmers and just from being exposed to the outdoors. Consider all the chemicals added to pools to “sanitize” them. Consider the chemicals in the pool surfaces that erode off into the water.

While it is true that Florida has a lot of water, much of it is not potable: it is impure; it is loaded with chemicals (e.g., pool water); or it is salty (consuming sea water will cause nausea, weakness, delirium, dehydration, organ failure, and ultimately death).

The best water solutions are:

1) Store more water in the home (such as three gallons per person, per day);

2) Keep water everywhere: in your personal office, vehicles, and in the home;

3) Consider buying and filling numerous stackable water containers, such as WaterBrick, which come in 3.5 and 1.6 gallon sizes, are very durable and portable, and are used by relief agencies worldwide; and

4) Carry portable water filters in briefcases and in motor vehicles, such as a LifeStraw Personal Water Filter, which recently saved the lives of two California hikers lost for five days.[1]

How much water to store: The Florida ideal is more on the order of three gallons, per person, per day than merely one gallon.

Be careful to avoid falling into a false sense of security that you are prepared after buying all sorts of disaster and emergency preparedness equipment and supplies. In the preparedness world, what you know (generally) is more important that what you have. Expressing it mathematically: knowledge > stuff.

Admittedly, some “stuff” is hard and even impossible to live without, such as prescription medicines, eyeglasses or contact lenses, and motor vehicle keys. Another preparedness axiom is “two is one, and one is none” if the one is lost, destroyed, or unusable. Accordingly, essential and indispensable items should be kept available in quantity.

A great example of the principle that knowledge trumps stuff is first-aid knowledge versus supplies. For example, a medical tourniquet (which requires regular training to employ properly in an emergency) compared to a waist belt (which requires little training and is part of regular attire) can provide the same function.

In 2007, similar knowledge saved a Virginia Tech senior’s life during the shooting on that campus.[2] Kevin Tyler Sterne was shot three times, once in a femoral artery. He had the training and composure to save himself by detaching an electrical cord from a lamp to use as an improvised tourniquet before he passed out. He had learned the importance and use of a tourniquet for severe bleeding as a teenager many years before while earning his Eagle Scout rank.

In this author’s opinion, the best disaster and emergency preparedness first-aid course is the National Outdoor Leadership School’s Wilderness First Aid course.[3] It is a two-day, 16-hour course regularly offered in Florida at college campuses and by outdoor recreation agencies. The course teaches participants how to render lifesaving first aid when definitive medical care (i.e., ambulances and hospitals) is not readily available, such as after a disaster, and, very importantly, without the equipment and supplies available in ambulances and hospitals.

A less in-depth, but easily accessible self-study course is the Boy Scouts of America First Aid merit badge book.[4]

Special Note About Supplies

Readers are encouraged to utilize the checklists in the materials referenced above and to select and collect their own “stuff” suitable for their needs and budget. In general, avoid prepackaged, commercial, disaster and emergency preparedness kits. The merchandise they contain commonly is of poor quality and, as a result, poorly suited to the rigors of disasters and emergencies. They are often overpriced compared to better quality items purchased separately elsewhere.

Disaster and Emergency Preparedness Mindset

To be properly prepared, individuals should always be asking themselves questions and should study preparedness materials for the questions they do not know to ask (and get the answers). For example: How will I find my cellphone in a dark room? Simple solution: Put a strip of luminescent tape on the back of the phone case.

Lawyers often travel, both for professional and personal reasons. What should we be prepared to do if our hotel room catches fire during the night? One of our section colleagues faced that life-threatening challenge one night in 2016 while attending a section meeting. He was awakened around 4 a.m. and smelled smoke in his hotel room. He called the hotel’s front desk. The front desk dispatched a clerk with a fire extinguisher, which he did not know how to operate. Initially, light smoke was discovered coming from the room’s air conditioning vent, but when the blower kicked on, heavy smoke poured into the room. (Fire, and its byproduct smoke, require flammable material, heat, and oxygen. The blower provided ample oxygen.)

Our colleague then had to evacuate wearing only a pair of blue jeans. What if he was never able to go back to his room and belongings? What if the valet key storage box burned up with his vehicle keys in it?

Here are some hotel preparedness recommendations: Every night, fill a small bag kept on a nightstand with the following:

• Wallet;

• Cash;

• Extra set of vehicle keys;

• House keys (never on the same keyring as vehicle keys);

• Cellphone connected to portable charger;

• Extra eyeglasses or contact lenses;

• Medicine;

• Flashlight and extra batteries;

• Earplugs; and

• Collapsible N-95 mask.

Every night before going to sleep, prepare your clothing in case you have to leave in a hurry. Either lay out used clothing from the day before or fresh clothing for the next day ready to grab if quick evacuation becomes necessary — especially shoes. In the event of a disaster or emergency, put on your shoes before leaving the hotel room, and put on clothing only if it is otherwise safe to do so. It is much better to be embarrassed because you are barely clothed or naked outside the hotel than found clothed, but dead, inside a smoke-filled room.

Conclusion

Nineteen years of education has prepared us to practice in the demanding profession of law. Failure to prepare adequately for disasters and emergencies quickly can destroy the hard work, dedication, and sacrifice demanded to become a lawyer. Please seriously consider starting or updating your disaster and emergency preparedness plan today, because you never know when today will be the day before. And keep an eye on the RPPTL Section’s new Disaster and Emergency Preparedness and Response Committee webpage for additional information and updates.


Resources

DISASTER PREPAREDNESS

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Further Reading

LAW FIRM PREPAREDNESS RESOURCES

FEMA
American Institute of Certified Public Accountants
American Bar Association
  • Committee on Disaster Response and Preparedness
    Useful resources on this site include: “Surviving a Disaster: A Lawyer’s Guide to Disaster Planning,” “From the Ordinary to the Extraordinary: Is Your Law Firm Prepared?,” “People and Records, Protecting Your Most Vital Assets,” and “Putting It All Together: Writing and Testing a Business Continuity Plan.”

FIRST AID TRAINING

National Outdoor Leadership School
Boy Scouts of America

[1] Mark Osborne, Footprints Lead to Two Missing Hikers’ Rescue in California After Being Lost for Five Days, ABC News, April 11, 2019, https://abcnews.go.com/US/footprints-lead-missing-hikers-rescue-california-lost-days/story?id=62323131.

[2] S.L. Wykes, Eagle Scout Saves Own Life During Virginia Tech Shootings, The Mercury News, April 18, 2007, available at https://www.mercurynews.com/2007/04/18/eagle-scout-saves-own-life-during-virginia-tech-shootings/.

[3] National Outdoor Leadership School Wilderness Medicine Institute, Wilderness First Aid Course, https://nols.edu/en/courses/courses/wilderness-first-aid-WFA/.

[4] Boy Scouts of America, Merit Badge Series: First Aid, available at https://www.elsinga.net/downloads/merit/First%20Aid%20Merit%20Badge%20Pamphlet%2035897.pdf.

 

BRIAN C. SPARKS practices in the Tampa office of the private wealth services group of the Gunster law firm. He is board certified in tax law and in wills, trusts, and estates. He concentrates his community service on disaster and emergency preparedness education and response. He is a wilderness EMT, wilderness first responder, and search and rescue technician. He has participated in response efforts in many disasters and emergencies, including hurricanes, fires, floods, lightning, motor vehicle accidents, tornadoes, and medical emergencies.

This column is submitted on behalf of the Real Property, Probate and Trust Law Section, Robert S. Freedman, chair, and Douglas G. Christy and Jeff Goethe, editors.

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