Storm shows how poorly prepared many are

Published 10:03 am Friday, December 17, 2010

Last weekend’s blizzard and this week’s little follow-up snowstorm provided an opportunity for people to test out their winter preparedness. From what I could see, many people failed.

It makes me wonder what would happen if our region ever had a major natural disaster of the sort that required people to make some smart decisions about their welfare and survival, the kind of disaster where problems couldn’t be solved with a text message.

I fear that we’d have a lot of sick, injured and maybe dead people due to their own lack of preparedness.

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We helped one woman get her stuck car moving again on Saturday after she’d made the decision to drive down a dead-end hill, on an icy road, then try to turn around and go back up the hill. With nearly treadless tires. No coat. But she was equipped with a cell phone and the ability to text — a wonderful solution if you feel it’s your friends and family’s duty to help you out of avoidable jams, and if there’s no problem with the phone or network.

Bored with the storm, I went for a walk around town on Saturday afternoon. It was a couple of hours’ good exercise and a chance to contemplate some drivers’ really awful decision-making.

For instance, if the visibility is a half-mile in heavy snow and you’re driving a white or silver car, would it be wise to turn on your headlights so others can see you coming? Sure, we’re accustomed to automation — but there are times when headlights are needed and it isn’t dark, and when we actually have to think instead of letting the car do it for us.

How many of those drivers, and there were a lot of them, had a shovel in their car? A bag of grit or kitty litter? Or was their plan to simply get someone else to help should they join the legions of drivers who were having trouble getting traction?

It’s the same kind of lack of preparedness that led drivers, during last fall’s floods, to move police barriers and attempt to drive through high water.

Sure, it was possible in some cases to make it through. And, sure, the consequences of failure seemed minor: Just call someone for help. But where’s the personal responsibility in that?

Or are we learning, as a society, that personal responsibility is simply not necessary, that there’s always someone out there who’ll pick up the pieces for us, tell us what to do?

On a day-to-day basis, that is our experience. Between the ever-multiplying rules and laws that tell us what we must do and must not do, the gray area is filling in with easy ways to get help, which usually means prevailing upon someone else.

To return to a theme: If one’s car is stuck on a little hill or in a little bit of snow out in the country, shouldn’t the first reaction be to pull a shovel out of the trunk and clear a path? Or spread some sand or kitty litter under the tires? Or, at the last, try “rocking” the car out with a quick switch between reverse and drive? I’m often amazed at how many people get the tiniest bit stuck but just spin their wheels and then reach for the phone rather than taking a couple of obvious and basic steps.

Of course, it’s not just communications technology that contributes to this helplessness. Our furnaces, cars, computers and other gear is so good these days that it is a real shock when something doesn’t work. Some of us have never had to deal with a major power outage or a furnace that breaks down — and so don’t have any experience dealing with such problems.

Meanwhile, those who prepare for the worst — not a one-day blizzard, but the possibility of a real disaster — by keeping some food on hand, having emergency gear in their trunk — are often considered unusual.

This is a problem without a solution. Or, rather, the solution is to encounter the reality that disasters and emergencies do happen and, someday, will happen in a really bad way. Those who survive the lesson will undoubtedly know better.