Annette John-Hall: In praise of being ready

Posted: August 30, 2011

Mayor Nutter held a news conference Monday he described as sort of a post-Hurricane Irene wrap-up.

He talked about river crests and road openings and the 182,000 Peco subscribers - 2,500 in Philly - still without power (90 percent of service should be restored by Wednesday, Nutter said).

But it soon became clear that what the mayor really wanted to do was give his sleep-deprived preparedness team a proud, public, post-Irene pat on the back.

From the Office of Emergency Management, police, fire, and the Red Cross all the way to Congress, FEMA, and President Obama, Nutter pointed out that the city's emergency plan was "a textbook example of what interagency coordination is all about."

It's also an example of how government is supposed to take care of its citizens.

Clouds vs. silver lining

It didn't take long for FEMA to learn its lesson, especially after Katrina.

"As storms were tracking, we were talking to our state partners," FEMA administrator Craig Fugate said Monday. Describing his agency as "more robust," he added it no longer "waits for things to get bad before we do something."

Still, no plan could be executed without cooperation, which is why Nutter reserved his highest praise for "the 11/2 million citizens of Philadelphia who took the information, utilized it, and made sure they were safe."

Way to go, everybody.

Never mind that the Category 1 hurricane forecasters direly predicted would roar into our region as a "very damaging, life-threatening event" kind of limped in instead, with winds at 32 m.p.h. and gusts of 40 in Philadelphia.

No death. Little damage. And that's a great thing.

Still, barring the storm drama, some folks were obviously looking for something to complain about. They actually had the gall to criticize the mayor for being overprepared, if there is such a thing. The media took their share of hits, too, accused of hysterical Chicken Little coverage as a ratings ploy.

Blame the media? What else is new?

Short of an asteroid

It's easy to play Monday morning quarterback and pooh-pooh a "punk" storm, as one pal called it, when you're basking under a high-pressure system with your basement dry and your loved ones safe.

I'm guessing we wouldn't have been so critical last Tuesday - the day a 5.8-magnitude earthquake shook the East Coast.

Talk about an unlikely act of God. And to think, I left California for this!

On the day high-rises swayed in Center City, I stayed in my building. Years of earthquake drills taught me never to leave, that taking cover under a desk or in a doorway is the best defense.

What's troubling is that most East Coast natives don't know what to do. That lack of knowledge caused many folks to go into 9/11 survival mode and bolt. Heck, even FEMA employees evacuated their D.C. offices Tuesday. That's how little is known about earthquake safety here.

Let's face it: If last week taught us anything, it's that we need to take this disaster-preparedness stuff seriously.

The administration is. In the wake of the quake, Nutter and his staff are putting together an action report. I'm guessing they'll address the possibility of another earthquake. No East Coast city ever had an earthquake-specific plan before last week, Managing Director Richard Negrin said.

"It's a reminder," Nutter said, "that we need to prepare for nothing short of an asteroid."

Well, my plan is to go preemptive. Punk storm or no, everybody should follow the lead of 20,000 who did and sign up at www.readynotifypa.org to get information in real time. The mayor said 7,000 residents signed up for the service on Friday alone.

Smart move. After all, hurricane season isn't over yet.


Contact columnist Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986, Ajohnhall@phillynews.com, or @Annettejh on Twitter.

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