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Is your child’s school prepared for an emergency? 9 questions to ask

A mom and homeland security expert makes the case for DIY preparedness at home and school.

Illustration by Anne Lambelet

IN EARLY 2005, I learned I was pregnant again. Let me state the obvious: By the third child, there is really nothing special about being pregnant. There, I said it. We were lucky. We had no problems on the whole fertility front, no medical issues. I simply braced for the inconveniences I had come to expect: weeks and months of mood swings, weight gain, the less-than-flattering wardrobe, the scheduled C-section.

As I entered my third trimester, in late August 2005, a hurricane that at its strongest was Category 5 slammed into the Gulf Coast. More than 1,000 people died as a result of its devastation. The hurricane was horrible, of course, but the week that followed was worse. The levees in New Orleans broke in several places, flooding parts of the city. Response efforts were chaotic: City, state, and federal resources were delayed, evacuation efforts were disorganized, and people who did not need to die did.

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Hurricane Katrina, and the government’s response, proved what was wrong with a security strategy solely built around the post-9/11 ideology of “Never Again,” so often invoked to defend policies as far-ranging as the war in Iraq and the Patriot Act. Never again what? As the levees broke, we realized that we had focused on preventing terrorism at the expense of our response and emergency management apparatus. We were unable to save a city from drowning. The challenges that New Orleans faced existed well before Hurricane Katrina — systemic poverty, public-sector incompetence, corrupt police, a neglected infrastructure, including levees that were known to be inadequate. But the failures, at all levels of government, served as an important reminder that our focus on war had led us to abandon other responsibilities.

And those were the responsibilities of the Department of Homeland Security, the newest member of the federal family. Hurricane Katrina was, in many respects, DHS’s first major moment in prime time. Could this agency deliver services and help when citizens needed it most? No — but not for all the obvious reasons. DHS was crippled from the start.

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Opening its doors in 2003 under an administration that didn’t actually want it, DHS combined 22 different agencies into the third-largest department in Washington, D.C., behind Defense and Veterans Affairs. There was no rhyme or reason as to which agencies were chosen. The United States Secret Service, which protects the president and other VIPs, was now part of the department, but the Federal Aviation Administration, which protects the skies, was not. The Coast Guard was reassigned from the Treasury Department, but the National Guard remained in the Defense Department. The CIA and FBI, whose failures were well documented in post-9/11 reviews, remained as they were. Homeland Security created its own surveillance entity, yet just weeks before DHS was to hold its opening ceremony, the president announced that another entity — the National Counterterrorism Center — would lead all efforts in the war on terror. It was not placed at DHS.

The major Homeland Security component in charge during Katrina was FEMA, once an independent authority with Cabinet-level status. There is often a misconception about FEMA: Disaster strikes and many envision FEMA, when it works, descending in vans, trucks, and helicopters, its forces fanning out to dispense aid. In fact, it is more of a coordination agency than an army. It only employs a couple thousand staffers. It works with various states throughout the homeland, which is divided into 10 different FEMA regions, to ensure that each understands what is required when disaster strikes.

What happened to FEMA in those early years was not preordained by its merger into DHS; agencies like the Coast Guard, for example, continued to flourish. I believe the real problem was that emergency management just didn’t reflect the mood of the times. We focused on terrorism, and while hurricanes are bad, they aren’t bad guys. To put it bluntly, FEMA wasn’t about “Never Again.”

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For the counterterrorism, border, and intelligence specialists who staffed DHS in its early days, FEMA was an afterthought. The department diverted billions of dollars from FEMA that had once been allocated to states and localities for disaster prevention to DHS agencies focused on terrorism prevention. And without the ability to administer funds, FEMA lost a tremendous amount of influence at the local and state level. DHS was looking for a terrorist in every airplane; it had forgotten how powerful Mother Nature can be.

AS I SAT AT HOME, PREGNANT, WATCHING water flood the streets of New Orleans, its citizens abandoned by its leaders, I was appalled. Government that was supposed to work clearly hadn’t — the evidence was broadcast 24/7 on CNN. Like every mother watching that day, I felt that when a parent steals from an abandoned convenience store to get diapers and baby formula, it is not exactly looting. Technically it is, yes, but I prefer to call it parenting.

There had to be a lesson here, I thought. Surely someone like me could make a plan to protect my family, unlike many of the people I saw on television, who were the victims of systemic poverty and likely had no resources. If I didn’t try to prepare my family for something like this, or even something less than this, then I had failed as a security mom.

My self-help attitude, I am told, can at times seem slightly militant. I think that unfair. Rather, it grows from a notion that citizens should take some responsibility for their safety, especially those who have the resources to act responsibly. I often begin public speeches with a quiz: How many in the audience, I ask, have a plan for protecting themselves in the case of an emergency? What about protecting their families? Invariably, only a few people raise their hands, and so I then spend a couple minutes berating everybody else: If they have the time to attend keynote addresses and board meetings, surely they have the time to prepare themselves for disaster. “What are you waiting for?” I ask. “You got this.”

Nearly eight months pregnant, I was not addressing audiences as a keynote speaker. I did, however, have a few words for parents at our day-care facility.

The Botanic Gardens Children’s Center sits on a faculty housing-lined street near the Radcliffe Quadrangle right next to Harvard University Press. Its clientele is varied; over the years, I’ve met researchers from Russia, an Italian couple with a journalism fellowship, a Chinese lab technician who arrived with a wife and three non-English-speaking kids in tow (all of whom managed to start reading their second language before any of mine mastered their first), and young faculty parents like David and me who had come to rely on day care. When Cecilia and Leo turned 1, off to day care they went. Our yet-to-be-born youngest son, Jeremiah, would soon follow.

Hurricane Katrina gave me a mission. It was summer, so I was already on leave from teaching. A few days after the levees collapsed, I set about rummaging through our basement to see whether I could pass my own test. Over the years, I’ve had the habit of buying extras of everything: ketchup, bottled water, paper towels, Diet Coke, plastic trash bags, toilet paper, and Ziploc bags. But my purchasing behavior wasn’t exactly organized around a “be ready” mantra.

It turns out I had a lot more than I thought: There was plenty of water, baby food and formula, dried fruit and Gatorade, fruit snacks and Pepto-Bismol. (Diarrhea, after all, is one of the most prevalent forms of easily curable illness; left unchecked, it can lead to dehydration.) There were flashlights and batteries, candles and matches, and items any frequent Costco shopper buys, because we all think we absolutely need a 5-gallon jar of trail mix and 64 granola bars. There were diapers, lots of diapers, but then again, I had two children under 5 and was expecting another.

Once I mastered the basement, I attacked the paperwork. I wanted an accounting of all our important documents, to know what I had and what I needed to protect, lest something happen to the house. That, too, wasn’t as bad as I remembered. I made big files marked “Cecilia,” “Leo,” and “TBD” (we’d later choose the name Jeremiah) and stacked paperwork accordingly. As I sorted, I organized their birth certificates and Social Security cards, mailed copies to my parents and in-laws (since storing the copies next to the originals doesn’t help much), and put the cleaned-up files in a safe and isolated area.

I also hid cash. An envelope of tens and twenties is always stashed in my house, its whereabouts unknown to my husband. I realize this is somewhat unfair to him — what, after all, should happen if disaster finds him holding down the fort alone? But David’s sister told me at our wedding that our marriage would last if I never responded when David began a question with: “Have you seen my . . .?” He has a tendency to leave his wallet or car keys in places that don’t make much sense. I didn’t want to add accessible cash to that list.

Now that I was confident my family would be safe at home, I turned my attention to the places where we spent many hours of our days. David and I both worked nearby while our kids were at day care. If our phones didn’t work, we could walk to fetch them. But if we couldn’t make it there, what would happen? I analyzed the day care’s preparation plans in my head: They had a fire drill occasionally, but in a real crisis it wasn’t clear where people would go, whether our kids could leave with someone else or if staying put would be a good idea.

I volunteered as the room parent for Leo’s class and served as the day care board’s representative for Cecilia’s class — to compensate, I guess, for putting the children in day care and for the occasional travel that kept me from home. I recommend such positions to anyone with strong opinions about milk (whole or skim? Organic?) and the weather (if properly dressed, what temperature is too cold for kids to play outside?). It’s also a huge responsibility to deal with teacher salaries, health benefits, and the physical management of a place that looks after your own children. It means asking tough questions. When the day care reopened that first week in September, I had the toughest one on my mind.

“What is the plan?” I said. The flooding continued in Louisiana, and the drowned city was on everyone’s minds. “We should not expect the government to take care of us at every moment. There’s so much we can do now.”

The director of the facility talked about fire drills and locking doors. It wasn’t the answer I was looking for, but I feared that if I discussed what I knew from my experience as a homeland security expert, I would sound a little paranoid. I asked anyway. I needed to make sure my kids would be safe.

“Given what is going on with Katrina,” I began, “and that our kids are here all day, do we have a sense of how things would unfold, or how they ought to unfold, in the event of a disaster?” I paused.

Although I had asked these questions before, without hesitation, in a professional capacity, this felt different. I pressed on: “Do the parents know what they should do? I mean, what is the plan if something really bad happened?” I remember asking that with all sorts of “ums” and awkward efforts at smiles. I looked around. The outer halls were decorated with our children’s art. Most rooms had chairs too small for an adult to sit in. Brightly colored books were arrayed front covers out — a very hungry caterpillar beside a pigeon eager to drive a bus. In that setting, just raising the question seemed unnatural. Judging by the faces of my fellow board members, they thought so, too.

Illustration by Anne Lambelet

I charged on, offering to write a memo detailing what I believed every parent should do to prepare for a major disaster, including how to ready their homes and the day care. How could anyone in that room say no?

This wasn’t pure altruism. Jeremiah was due in a few weeks, and he, too, would be heading to Botanic eventually.

The resulting document was sent home with finger paintings, a back-to-school meeting announcement, and a flu-shot information memo. It might best be described as the day care’s normal fire drill procedures, on steroids. In it I advised that parents should work together to determine the answers to a few questions. They’re worth repeating here because they remain relevant, whether your kids attend Botanic Gardens or another school:

> Assuming that cellphone service is out, how best will you communicate with your family and the day care?

> Assuming public transportation and roads are not usable, how best will you get to the school to pick up your child(ren)?

> Are alternative guardians known to the school and your child? Are they knowledgeable about your plan?

> If you travel, is the school aware of where you are at all times?

> Do you have copies of essential documents? Are those copies mailed to others out of state?

> Do backup family members know their role in your plan?

> If storage and resources allow, do you have extra provisions of water, food, batteries, and diapers in your home?

> When was the last time you looked at your first-aid kit provisions? Do you have a first-aid kit?

> If you have a backup place to stay, is it also ready with these provisions?

I knew that, should disaster strike, parents’ primary objectives would be holding our children in our arms as quickly as possible. There is no other goal. As parents, we know that at our core, but we spend too little time thinking about how to make that happen if things go, well, badly. It was time we talked about it.

EXACTLY WHAT I EXPECTED THE PARENTS’ collective response would be, I cannot recall. I figured most would throw the document in the trash. I expected my friends to laugh. I wondered if a few of those friends would ask how much longer I had to wait until Jeremiah was born, as then I’d be less prone to take on side projects. But I didn’t expect hostility. It threw me.

“Don’t you think this is overkill?” one parent asked me via e-mail.

“This is pretty inappropriate,” remarked another, as if the kids were actually reading the list.

One father had the nerve to say: “At this stage in the pregnancy, I think you can start drinking wine. Or at least take a chill pill.”

I could understand how these parents might want to delegate responsibility for their security. With the memory of 9/11 looming, with Katrina flooding the Gulf Coast, with wars being waged and threat levels escalating on the nightly news, perhaps these parents felt — like many others — unprepared to tackle a problem of such magnitude, a challenge of such scope. It wasn’t their problem.

They were parents who worried about skinned knees and solo bike rides, not necessarily parents who worried about mayhem and flooding. They had divided the home from the homeland. I had unwittingly put the reality of their own responsibility in a memo and shoved it down their throats. Yet I was glad I had. Moms and dads who have a plan make for more resilient citizens, the building blocks of a resilient country. They actively practice what I call the habits of grip.

That it had come to this — my shoving and their hostility — reflected how the government had failed on many fronts. I understood that, to many, any talk of homeland security in a liberal town like Cambridge, Massachusetts, meant, somehow, buying into George W. Bush’s agenda. It was as if the act of reading my memo signified their acquiescence to his administration’s use of waterboarding. Homeland security and the department that oversaw it were Republican creations.

They were the products of a post-9/11 attitude, one in which we seemed to have lost our way. Perhaps these parents believed the submerged city of New Orleans was just another data point, showing us how far we had strayed. I get that.

But I also knew that it was a completely self-defeating attitude. If anything, Hurricane Katrina should have alerted us to the necessity of taking our own security — in the home, and in the homeland — seriously. Government can fail, miserably. We all saw it.

Our families’ needs should not be sacrificed to make a political or spiritual point. We don’t need to live in fear of catastrophe striking at any time. Preparedness means taking responsibility in the event that it might. When more people are prepared, fewer people will need help. That will minimize the possibility of greater catastrophe.

If you’ve ever flown on an airplane, you’ve been introduced to the concept: In case of a loss of cabin pressure, you first secure your own oxygen mask before assisting those around you. It can be jarring to hear that admonition. It rests on the fundamental premise that those who can help themselves and do so actually help those who cannot.

Scale up that idea to a full-blown disaster. We need to reserve precious government resources for those who can’t help themselves: children, the old, the infirm, the poor, and those who find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. If everyone is calling 911 in a panic, then government has limited capacity to concentrate on who really needs help. If the response is focused, made so because the vast majority of the public have taken some responsibility for their own security, society can begin to recover sooner. It can bounce back faster.

Here’s the funny thing: Almost all of us already understand the need for basic planning, even if we haven’t quite prepared for a disaster. As parents, we plan all the time. We don’t buy laundry detergent every time we need to do the laundry; we keep more than one Band-Aid in the medicine cabinet; we shop for school clothes when they’re on sale, weeks before the kids will need them; we choreograph dozens of drop-offs and pickups at soccer fields, judo classes, piano lessons — you name it; we manage to oversee most homework getting done on time, even those long-lead projects like the family tree and the dry-ice volcano. We get preparedness. Home security is easy. Applying those skills to homeland security would be, too, if we were simply shown how.

I hope some of the day-care families, after reading my instructions, took heed. We live in a world where tornadoes strike and terrorists plot. Planning for that need not be scary. If anything, it can be empowering, as it is in many other areas of our lives. Make a list. Talk to your kids. Check the first-aid kit. Hoard some groceries, if you can. Think through the contingencies. Copy those essential documents. Share your plans with family members. These are the habits of grip.

Former Boston Globe columnist Juliette Kayyem served as a Homeland Security official for Governor Deval Patrick and as assistant secretary of Homeland Security in the Obama administration. She is the host of WGBH’s Security Mom podcast. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

Adapted from “Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Our Homeland and Your Home” by Juliette Kayyem, to be published on April 5. Copyright © 2016 by Juliette Kayyem. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster Inc..
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