Are You Really Prepared for an East Lansing Emergency?

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International news of the novel coronavirus plus winter-weather reminders of that very disruptive 2013 ice storm have us wondering whether East Lansing residents are prepared for emergencies that might keep them stuck inside for an extended period, perhaps ill or without power or running water?

Benjamin Franklin provided us with the truism, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Public safety and health officials spread that message today, but many people with comfortable day-to-day lives in East Lansing may not be taking emergency preparedness seriously.

Preparing for emergencies can feel difficult and counterintuitive. By their very nature, emergencies are unforeseen events, at least partly beyond our control. So what should you be thinking about doing in terms of emergency preparation — maybe even this weekend?

We spoke to an MSU epidemiologist and East Lansing’s deputy police chief to get their thoughts on the matter.

Avoiding the spread of deadly (and just plain miserable) diseases:

Chinese officials are taking extreme measures in the face of the novel coronavirus, while U.S. officials have temporarily stopped the entry of non-citizens who have been in China and are involuntarily quarantining people returning from the center of the epidemic.

The threat of the novel coronavirus hitting East Lansing anytime soon is small. No cases have been confirmed in Michigan. But if the situation changes, MSU Professor of Epidemiology Nigel Paneth recommends precautions that we are all familiar with: Sneeze and cough into the crook of your arm. Frequently wash your hands.

Also: If you think you may be sick with a contagious disease, stay home! Paneth, a physician who has also studied the history of epidemics, notes that self-quarantine is the smart thing to do for those who believe they have come in contact with a contagion.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say likewise. Relatively little is known about the novel coronavirus, but other recent and deadly coronavirus outbreaks like SARS and MERS suggest that responsible actions could be crucial in minimizing the disease’s impact.

It’s worth noting that a different virus, influenza – known to most of us as “the flu” — kills between 12,000 and 60,000 people each year. The flu is challenging, explains Paneth, because that virus constantly reconfigures. That makes it difficult to create an effective vaccine.

Some flu mutations result in high numbers of deaths. The Spanish Flu in 1918 killed more than 500,000 people in the U.S. and nearly 50 million globally, and public health officials often think back to it when facing novel, fast-moving, dangerous new diseases.

Being prepared for the flu or another contagious disease means being prepared to stay home as soon as you know you may have it until at least 24 hours after you are symptom-free. That means being ready before you feel sick.

Flu symptoms usually last for one to two weeks, which means you should stock up now to make sure you have all the food and medicines you might want if you catch it. That includes making sure you have things like a working thermometer to check your temperature, a humidifier, and over-the-counter medications to alleviate symptoms like fever, aches, and cough.

With regard to flu, the novel coronavirus, and other contagious diseases, Paneth believes communication between the CDC and the population is key, and he urges ELi readers to turn to the CDC as the best source of information in an epidemic or pandemic.

What other challenging circumstances can occur at home? Plenty.

Ice storms, severe thunderstorms, and localized flooding have all affected East Lansing in the recent past, leaving some residents in difficult circumstance, including sometimes facing prolonged power outages.

ELPD Deputy Chief Steve Gonzalez cautions that smaller-scale emergencies, such has hazardous material releases like a natural gas leak, single structure fires, and other localized emergencies can also affect individual residences or neighborhoods.

He acknowledges that preparation for all possible emergencies is daunting: “Many times we hear from people that they don’t know where to go to get started or are overwhelmed with the options of what they should do to get prepared.”

Gonzalez recommends the Department of Homeland Security’s website ready.gov, “an excellent resource to help with this effort. The site has resources for specific threats, kids and families, businesses, and even financial preparedness tips.”

Here a thought to make preparedness feel less overwhelming: East Lansing residents can prepare for winter weather and contagious diseases in similar ways, because both require having enough resources to remain indoors for significant periods of time.

Think about what you might need to go a week without being able to go to a store and stock up on that with special emergency storage bins (to keep mice out). Good options include dry and canned food: rice, pasta, beans, tuna fish, quick-prepare foods like oatmeal and camping meals.

But don’t forget to include the kinds of things that would make you try to go out to a store even when you shouldn’t: toilet paper, diapers, coffee, cat litter.

Gonzalez advises that everyone be prepared to remain indoors for at least 72 hours without power or clean running water. What do you need to stay safe during those 72 hours?

Sufficient stored water and non-perishable foods to sustain each family member is a start, but remembering to have adequate supplies of medication and provisions for four-legged friends is also important.

Gonzalez points out that keeping warm when losing power in the winter requires preparation.

“Several options exist from whole home hard-wired generators to small portable plug-in generators,” he explained. “The best option comes down to individual needs in regards to generator purchases. However, residents should be sure to familiarize themselves with safety precautions when utilizing a generator. Ventilation, allowable electrical loads, and fuel sources/storage are all items to be mindful of.”

Gonzalez echoes the importance of staying informed. East Lansing residents can find information from city officials during an emergency through TV, radio, print media, and social media.

He also draws attention to the Nixle system that sends emergency notifications when necessary. East Lansing residents can text their zip code to 888777 and then customize how to receive information from the Nixle alert system.

Update: ELi now has a special section dedicated to our reporting on COVID-19 for East Lansing. See it here and sign up for ELi’s mailer to stay informed.

Alice Dreger contributed reporting.

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