June is Pet Preparedness Month

Every time a major disaster strikes our pets are at risk.  We’ve seen it with wildfires, flooding, tornadoes and earthquakes.  Many of us have seen the heartache of pets separated from their families during times of crisis. Often because of a lack of identification either through a collar tag, microchip or even a family photograph, pets end up in shelters or are euthanized. With just a little bit of planning you can protect your family including your pets.

Graphic: What's in Your Pet Prep Kit?

What’s in your Pet Preparedness Kit? For more information, please visit Ready.gov/pets

The month of June is set aside each year to remind us to include our pets in our preparedness planning.  FEMA has a number of suggestions.  One of the most important is making sure your pet can be easily identified.  Microchipping is certainly an option, but a collar and tag can work just as well.  Don’t forget to include a picture of you and your pet in your documents ziplock bag.  You might need it after the crisis to verify that you and your pet belong together.

At a minimum your “go kit” should include:

  • Water – One gallon per day for a minimum of 3 days
  • Food – Enough for 3 days stored in a waterproof container
  • Medicines – Pack your pet’s medicines in a ziplock bag
  • Vaccination records – Include copies of any vaccination records in a waterproof container
  • Photos of your pet
  • Pet first aid kit
  • Collar or harness and leash.
  • Pet carrier
  • Cleaning supplies such as newspapers, paper towels, litter, trash bags and bleach solution

As part of your personal disaster plan you should have an evacuation route mapped out.  Try to find out ahead of time if the hotel/motel or shelter will allow pets.

You know how stressful a disaster can be.  Imagine what it must be like for your pets.  Help them by having a plan and practicing that plan.

More detailed information is available at Ready.gov.

Be petpared!





US Hospitals Unprepared for Ebola

Ebola virus

A survey of nurses in the US reveals a stunning lack of preparedness in our hospitals to handle a major infectious disease outbreak. The survey conducted by National Nurses United (NNU) indicates our front-line health care safety net is not ready.   As reported in Infection Control Today, 85% of RN respondents stated that they had been given no information on Ebola by their hospitals. Could this have been the communication breakdown in Dallas that sent an infectious Ebola patient back into the public? They also report a lack of the basic personal protective gear required to handle Ebola patients.

The recommendations by NNU make sense. Treat this as an emergency.  Communicate and train.  Distribute supplies to those who need them.

One of the concerns in an outbreak like this is who will report for duty.  As has happened in other natural disasters and disease outbreaks, some health care workers choose self preservation over doing their noble work. Despite protective gear and other precautions, fear of something that cannot be seen like Ebola becomes overwhelming. Descriptions of the disease such as “a fire straight from the pit of Hell” do little to reassure.  Health care workers fail to report for work and walk away.  That leaves a reduced number of  true heroes to provide care for patients. The situation turns ugly.

But the impact of an outbreak such as Ebola reaches out in ever expanding circles.  Everyone involved in patient contact must be trained and provided protective gear.  That would include people who do housekeeping in the hospital.  They may be asked to do clean up in the Emergency Room.  Normal universal precautions for blood borne illnesses don’t seem adequate in the face of Ebola.

The City of Houston Emergency Medical Service has eghty-eight patient care vehicles. Less than half of those are staffed and equipped to provide Advanced Life Support (ALS).  As seen in Dallas, an ambulance unit transporting an Ebola patient was taken out of service for extensive decontamination.  It would not take many Ebola infected patients to remove a high percentage of Houston EMS vehicles from service for an indefinite period of time. Those Paramedics and EMT’s who staff those units might also be removed from the streets for monitoring.   All of the expected fires, car wrecks and health emergencies will still happen.  Will there be enough services available to respond?

Our health care system could be quickly overrun despite our advanced infectious disease control procedures. This version of Ebola moves fast. Can those in charge of our health care systems move faster?

Infection Today: First Line of Defense – Nurses Express Concerns Over State of Preparedness for Ebola.


On the Bougainvillea and Mitigation

Bougainvillea bract

Mit-i-gate verb: make less severe, serious or painful.

Removing a dead bougainvillea is a slow deliberate process. It must be done carefully to prevent bloodshed. Vicious thorns found on every twig and branch attack with little provocation. My removal method is to work from the outside in, cutting small pieces of twigs that will fit easily into the large trash can. Then I cut short lengths of the larger branches. I learned that trick the last time I had to remove a bougainvillea. You see, this is not my first rodeo with the bougainvillea plant. This job is so distasteful to me that I even did my taxes first.

The bougainvillea is a beautiful thorny plant native to South America often used in landscaping along the Texas Gulf coast. It doesn’t need a lot of water and blooms without much attention at all. The flowers are really quite small, but the surrounding specialized leaves called “bracts” give the bougainvillea the vibrant shows of color. Thick hedges of bougainvillea are sometimes used as security fences around homes deterring unwanted intruders. The vine versions can easily grow four stories high. And that growth can occur in a short period of time. My bougainvilleas grew over seven feet tall and seven feet around in one year. They normally flourish in this area, but we have had two cold winters in a row. After the freezing weather of 2012 killed one vine, I foolishly replaced it with another. This winter was even colder than last winter. That replacement bougainvillea is the one I am removing now, very carefully one branch at a time.

Bougainvillea thorns

Bougainvillea thorns

If I was out in the country and were the plant not so close to my fence and garage, I would be tempted to take a flame thrower to it. There is no way to grab the plant without getting stuck by a thorn. I’m sure it would be satisfying to burn the thorny thing down. But I have this nagging fear that the thorns will become flame hardened and get me anyway. So here I am clipping one twig and branch at a time and then using the clippers as a claw to manipulate the cutting into the trash can much like Homer Simpson manipulates the radioactive capsules at the reactor. Care must also be taken to remove any cuttings that fall on the ground to prevent thorns from penetrating shoes and feet.

Yes, this is a hazardous assignment. Even after some close calls I am unscathed, although there is still half to go. I’ll keep the band-aids close at hand.

So what does this have to do with mitigation?

I am mitigating this situation by planting something different this spring. Exactly what will be planted hasn’t been decided. I do know that it will be something without thorns. And that new plant will have to form a screen. The bougainvillea was doing a great job of hiding a worn section of fence next to the garage. So in addition to planting something new in that spot, I’ll need to replace a section of fence. That will mitigate a painful letter from the homeowners’ association.

So, mitigation can take many forms. It might be something as complicated and expensive as making sure emergency generators are located in safe locations. Or it might be additional training so employees know what to do in an emergency. Or it might be as simple as planting a non-thorny shrub.

A Lesson for All of Us

Flooded New Orleans

Flooded New OrleansHurricane Katrina proved to be an epic lesson in preparedness. From the individual level all the way to the highest levels of the federal government, failures to plan and mitigate ended in disaster. We are still learning lessons from that terrible storm in August of 2005. A recent book, Five Days at Memorial by Sherri Fink, is one of the more gut wrenching efforts to document what can happen when disaster strikes. Health care professionals at New Orleans’ Memorial Medical Center faced the ultimate nightmare scenario. They were left to decide those they could help and those they could not help. The last remaining back-up electrical generator had failed. Emergency batteries providing the last hope for life support equipment had nothing left to give. There is no question that everyone involved in those terrible hours were heroes in their attempts to provide for the patients. Building maintenance personnel performed extremely dangerous procedures attempting to keep power going in the building. Doctors and nurses did everything possible to save their sickest patients. But it was not enough.

The word “mitigation” is thrown around a lot. But it is an important word and concept. So many of the problems seen at Memorial Medical Center could have been mitigated either by building design or by more effective management practices. With the number of flooding disasters in recent years, those involved with building design and operation should understand the folly of placing critical infrastructure below grade. Back-up electrical generators will not run underwater. Oh, but it has never flooded at that location. All that can be said is that it has not flooded there yet. Mitigation moves that critical infrastructure above flood levels. It is important to remember that floods are not always related to a storm event.

A different maintenance routine and generators designed for long term use could have delayed some of the problems. Running a generator for a short time once a month is not enough as they found out. Weekly start-ups and then, longer 24 hour runs under load once a month might have revealed problems with the system before it was needed. That is what mitigation is all about. Finding problems and solving them before a procedure or piece of equipment is needed.

Five Days at Memorial is not a light read. In fact it can be painful. But it is full of lessons for all of us who plan for disasters. I am mentioning the book only from the standpoint of emergency preparedness. A lot of the book delves into the ethics of euthanasia and the medical personnel involved in a controversial way.

1,000,000 Gallons of Water Flood Building!

flooded floor

The headline is stark. But this was not from a rising river. This was from a broken fire sprinkler system within the building. One of the problems with this event is that the break was not discovered until an employee came in early to do some work. By that time the water was eight feet deep in the basement. As is very common in building design, the electrical and elevator systems were located in the basement and were inundated.

Water in a building can be devastating. Water in a basement with critical infrastructure can result in long lasting interruption to business activities in that building. It is also very expensive. Water removal, building dry out, mold removal, damage to equipment, replacement of supplies and loss of business cost money. These costs may or may not be covered with insurance or FEMA assistance. In the case of FEMA, only a portion of losses can be recovered.

Prevention is often impossible. Things happen. Pipes break, sprinkler heads pop off or a valve may malfunction. Maintenance can help some of that, but “IT” happens somewhere everyday.iStock_000010866677Small

Early warning is key. The first question I have in a situation like this is why there was no flow alarm on the sprinkler system? A sensor within the fire sprinkler system should have sounded audible and visual alarms as well as send a signal to a monitoring station. Water flowing in a sprinkler system should trigger the fire alarm automatically. Either those things didn’t happen or there was no one to see and hear the alarms.

Any facility with important infrastructure located below ground should also have water alarms. These simple devices tied into the building alarm system detect water on the floor sounding an alarm to mitigate potential damage. This can provide warning when water from outside the building floods a basement whether from flooding rains or from a water main break next door.

The ultimate mitigation to this sort of damage is careful consideration of locating critical electrical controls, emergency generators and other important infrastructure in basements.


May 8, National Animal Disaster Preparedness Day

SophieZoe If you had 3 minutes to evacuate your house, would you be able to take care of your pets?   National Animal Disaster Preparedness Day helps us focus on the things we need to do to take care of our pets in an emergency.  According to the American Veterinary Medical Association at least 63% of all households have pets.  Since any area of the country could face some sort of disaster, it is important to think about what to do with our pets when emergencies occur.

Do not leave pets behind.  Take your pets with you when you leave.  You have seen what happens in hurricanes, floods and wildfires when pets are left to fend for themselves.   Chances of survival for house pets in disaster areas are very slim. Finding pets after an event is also very difficult and makes recovery that much harder.

In many cases preparing for disasters for pets is very similar to what you plan for yourself. You need at least 7 days food and water for all the pets in the household. That is in addition to the food and water you maintain for your family.  Many pets are on insulin or other medications.  Do you have a supply of medications available? Have you made advance arrangements for locations, perhaps a friend or relative, where your animals could be boarded until the danger is past.  Most shelters now allow animals during emergencies, but check in advance on policies in your area.Teaser

It is recommended that you have a “go kit” for your pets.  This go kit should have everything necessary to keep your animal in good health during a crisis.  Among the items to include would be collars,leashes and identification tags, photos of your pets, food water, medications and medical records, sanitation supplies, blankets or towels and familiar toys or favorite items. For more ideas check out FEMA’s list.Smarty - DSC00111

And don’t forget to get all those vaccinations up to date.  Animals may be in close quarters in shelters adding to the spread of common diseases.

Help yourself and your pets by making your pet survival plans today.  Assembling go kits for your family and pets today will save precious time and perhaps heartache later.

Winter is still around..

A rare white Christmas in 2004.

A rare white Christmas in Houston, 2004

Many areas of the country have already had a pretty good dose of winter.  Blizzard conditions certainly spell winter to me down here on the third coast.  For those of us in warmer climes the worst of winter is still to come.

I know for my friends and relatives in the north, our excitement at any temperature approaching freezing must seem a bit silly.   Extreme cold in the southern US creates all sorts of problems. Our houses are not built to withstand long periods of below freezing weather.   Our plumbing is exposed in the attic, usually without insulation unless we have gone back after the house was built to add wrap to the pipes.  The last really deep freeze in Houston was Christmas week of 1989.  The temperature got down to 9°F.  There were several days where the temperature never got above freezing.  That is cold anywhere, but in Houston that is a disaster.  Pipes broke in attics all over town swamping plumbing companies with emergency calls.  Many people who left town for the holidays returned to water flowing out their front doors as  broken pipes thawed.

We happened to be visiting family in Oklahoma City that week.   It was colder there, but they are more equipped to deal with winter weather.  We were invited to drive down to Dallas to see the Cowboys play Green Bay at Texas Stadium on Christmas Eve.   It was a mess.  Almost all of the plumbing for the restrooms at the stadium had frozen.  A lot of pipes had burst so the carpets were wet everywhere.  The only restrooms working were in the club area at one end of the stadium.   Luckily a lot of people stayed home.   It was cold and miserable even though we were in a club box.  I don’t remember anything about the game itself except that Dallas lost.   That was loss number 15.  The Cowpokes only notched one win  for Jerry Jones’s first year of ownership of the Cowboys.

With the potential for some really cold weather on the horizon for us, we can take steps to mitigate potential damage and keep everything functioning.  Think hurricane preparation.   Actually a lot of our normal hurricane preparation can be brought into play with cold weather emergencies.

Pipe insulation with single degree temperatures in Houston homes will probably not give adequate protection.  The best step to take is to cut off the water to the house and drain the pipes by opening faucets on the lower levels.  That does require some preplanning for drinking and cooking water and for flushing toilets.  Some recommend leaving a faucet running at a trickle.  That could work, but if everyone in town does that, water pressure might be too low for emergencies like firefighting.

Plan for power outages, especially if frozen precipitation accompanies the cold weather.  What will you do for lights?  What will you do if you have no heat? Using candles for lights and stove tops for heat have had fatal results too many times.  Space heaters while helpful in an emergency can be very hazardous.   Use with care.   If you plan to use a generator, have you tested it recently?  Generators should be exercised regularly under load.  Can you run the generator safely?  Remember issues of electrical shock and carbon monoxide poisoning.      In some ways, freezing weather may be more dangerous than dealing with the heat after a hurricane.  Power outages will also shut down fuel services and grocery stores.  Keep your pantry and gas tanks full.

Does your house receive power from a line dropped from a power pole as opposed to underground?  If above ground are there any branches that could ice up then fall and knock the connection loose?  Take care of those now.

In Houston, our cars are our lifelines.   In addition to keeping fuel tanks topped off be sure to check other maintenance items.   The battery condition, tire inflation, belts and windshield washer fluid (with anti-freeze) are great places to start.  The worst possible time to break down is when the weather is freezing.  With so many of the newer cars filled with long interval cooling fluids, the radiator coolant level is often overlooked. Go ahead and make sure your coolant is at the correct level and that your anti-freeze is actually working properly.  If you still use a key to lock and unlock your car doors make sure the locks are well lubricated.  Those locks get wet and freeze up.  Better take care of it today instead of waiting out in the cold for the lock to thaw.   Another cold weather trick is to cover your windshield with a thick cloth, cardboard or other material to keep the ice off when you are not driving.  Make sure your windshield wiper arms are not frozen to the window before you try to use them.  Windshield wiper motors are expensive to replace.

After you have taken care of yourself, do you have an elderly neighbor or know a family with low resources?  This might be a good time to see what their plans look like in the event of a cold weather situation.

I have not mentioned cold weather precautions for pets, but they must be part of your preparedness equation.  Pets are always part of the three “P’s” of winter preparedness, pipes, pets and plants.

As is always the case, a few minutes of preparation today and tomorrow could save a lot of inconvenience or danger later.

Recommended reading:

Cold Weather Preparedness,  http://www.disastersrus.org/emtools/cold/cold.htm

Cold Weather Preparedness, http://mother-earth-journal.com/reader-resources/cold-


Cold Weather and Frozen Pipes, http://www.rmiia.org/Homeowners/Cold_Weather_Frozen_Pipes.asp

AAA Offers Cold Weather Car Care Advice, http://www.scnow.com/news/local


Extreme Cold, A Prevention Guide to Promote Your Personal Health and Safety, http://emergency.cdc.gov/disasters/winter/pdf/cold_guide.pdf