When a crisis strikes, the poor are most vulnerable

Emergency preparedness means planning to be on your own for at least 72 hours


By Charles Hallman

Staff Writer


Conclusion of a  two-part story


Emergencies of any kind, natural or manmade, are unpredictable and can occur at any time. A previous story in the MSR (“People of color most vulnerable to toxic chemical disasters,” May 15) highlighted a report, “Who’s In Danger? Race, Poverty, and Chemical Disasters.” The report documented that Blacks and Latinos are more likely to live in “‘vulnerability zones” — areas up to 20 miles in all directions of the facility — where they are less likely to escape from a toxic or flammable chemical emergency.

Green For All Executive Director Nikki Silvestri, who was in town in May for a local climate change forum, said that poor people might be the most affected if an emergency takes place. There is a Twin Cities “socially vulnerability index” that

 Judson Freed

Judson Freed

is taken into account, admits Judson Freed, the Ramsey County emergency management director.

Hennepin County has 104 miles of gas pipelines and 31 miles of liquid transmission pipelines, along with hundreds of miles of gas distribution main lines and service lines that bring gas to homes and businesses,” according to emergency preparedness experts. There also are three airports in the area: Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, Flying Cloud, and Crystal Airport, as well as two nuclear power plants in Monticello and Prairie Island.

Ramsey County, on the other hand, is considered the state’s most densely populated county, approximately 170 square miles in size. The two counties combined have 29 “environmentally sensitive” areas that could be affected by discharges of oil or the release of hazardous substances, pollutants or contaminants.

Officials define an emergency as a natural disaster, a deliberate act of terrorism, or an industrial or transportation-related accident. Are residents fully prepared in the event of such an emergency?

EPstorygraphicFreed agrees with Silvestri that most residents are not fully aware of what to do when a major emergency occurs. “People who have less to start with are going to have more immediate need. [They] are more vulnerable.”

It’s not just a local issue: “There are people all over the world, and all over the United States, who are not fully prepared when catastrophically bad things happen. I don’t believe people know enough of what to do, and I don’t believe people have realistic expectations of what government is going to do,” noted Freed.

“We try to get the general word [out] on preparedness as [best] we possibly can. We are trying to educate as many as we can to do as much as they can for themselves while they are waiting for governmental assistance to arrive,” he pointed out. “Most people know what to do when there’s a fire, or what to do when they hear a gunshot. Or if they see an accident or a crime committed. When they don’t know what to do is when the infrastructure fails.

“We want every person in Minnesota to be prepared to be on their own for 72 hours” after an emergency occurs, stated Freed. “To have enough food and water, and take care of yourself if there was no help for 72 hours. That’s great for a large part of our population, but another large part of our population is worrying about what they are going to do in the next 72 minutes and [are] not able to buy two extra jars of peanut butter because they can barely feed themselves today.”

The Ramsey County disaster emergency plan is mandated by law: “Every county in the United States has one [and] every major city has one and every state has one,” explained Freed, who adds he’s confident that if a major storm or flood hits, Ramsey County officials are prepared to handle it.

His office looks at the “most conservative” worst-case scenario if a chemical is released: “We don’t know what direction the wind is blowing, [but] you’ll find close to 90 percent of our population in Ramsey County” that could be affected. “A derailment of a train carrying hazardous chemicals through the city is one of our highest concerns.”

Another example Freed used was if a blizzard hits the area, because “the worst thing we expect to happen in Ramsey County is severe weather. How many snowplows would it take? We would want to open up a certain amount of roads in a certain amount of time.”

Freed suggests the following four things to be prepared for an emergency:

1. “If you can, get a weather-alert radio. Take shelter — take the action the Weather Service tells us to take.” Don’t rely on outdoor warning sirens that aren’t designed to be heard inside, he adds.

2. “If you are financially able to put away enough food, water, and some spare clothing for a day, and preferably three, that means you are one less vulnerable person.

3.“And when you hear bad things happening, tell your neighbors, and if you see somebody needs help, help them.”

4. He advises everyone to report any unusual activity: “It’s not just terrorists. If you see something that looks wrong, call the police and tell them.

“If you do those four things, you will make a huge difference in your community because something bad will happen,” says Freed.

Finally, “There will be that big fire [or] a chemical spill or tornado, or power failure. We will be responding and doing what we can, but I guarantee you we will not be fast enough to make everybody happy, and unfortunately we won’t be fast enough to keep everybody from suffering. We need [everyone] to look out for themselves.”


For more emergency preparedness information, go to the federal government’s website, www.ready.gov or the City of Minneapolis www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/emergency

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.



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