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Are you prepared for the worst?
Heightened terror alerts underscore the importance of devising a disaster plan for your family.
February 12, 2003: 2:15 PM EST
By Sarah Max, CNN/Money Staff Writer

New York (CNN/Money) - Americans are on high alert for terrorist attacks.

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security raised its color-coded terrorist alert to orange for only the second time since the system was established a year ago, indicating there is a high risk of an attack. And Tuesday, CIA Director George Tenet told the Senate Intelligence Committee that reports of planned attacks are "the most specific we have seen."

Although where, when and how such attacks could unfold is unknown, the government is advising Americans to use extra caution and review their personal plans for dealing with a disaster.

"High profile incidents underscore the importance of being prepared for any kind of disaster, whether it's natural or related to terrorism," said Larry Rockwell, with disaster public affairs for the American Red Cross. "It behooves people to think about these things no matter where they live."

Being prepared for the worst doesn't necessarily mean outfitting your family with gas masks and HAZMAT gear. It starts with basic planning.

"The easiest and most important thing a family can do is simply have a conversation about what they would do in the event of a disaster and put together a disaster kit," said Darren Irby, a spokesperson for the American Red Cross.

Establish an out-of-town family contact

Following a disaster, phone lines and cellular towers may be damaged or simply overwhelmed with volume, making it difficult to get calls through to an area. "I may not be able to call my wife across town but I can call another state," said Irby. "You need to have a plan "a" and plan "b" for getting in touch with each other and assuring your safety."

For this reason, your family should establish an out-of-town contact to act as command central in the event of a disaster. Make sure this person knows he or she is the emergency contact person and has essential phone numbers and e-mail addresses on hand. Family members should carry the family contact's phone number and e-mail with them at all times and plan on calling or e-mailing that person if they have problems getting in touch with each other directly.

Make evacuation and meeting plans

When establishing a family plan, of course, you also want to keep your perspective.

"You're more likely to be struck by lightening than you are to be harmed by a terrorist event," said Bruce McIndoe, CEO of the travel intelligence company iJET and architect of various programs used by national intelligence agencies.

McIndoe says the likelihood of being involved in a terrorist event is 1 in 9 million. But, he says, families still need to plan for the worst.

"Each one of my family members knows where they need to go in the event of a disaster," said McIndoe, who lives outside of Washington D.C. "The plan is get to safety and then rally the family together."

If you have school-age children, you want to start by finding out what their schools' emergency plans are, including where your children would go if the schools needed to be evacuated. Make sure the school has your updated contact information, including your out-of-town family contact.

You'll also want to find out what your employers' emergency plans are and share that information with your family members and out-of-town family contact.

Once you have an idea of how your schools and employers will respond, you can talk about where each of you is likely to go if there is a disaster and come up with the best strategy for reuniting, whether at your home or a predetermined meeting place away from the house.

Assemble a disaster supply kit

There are two scenarios you need to plan for in the event of a disaster quickly evacuating or staying where you are with a "shelter in place." Put together a disaster supply kit that will allow you to deal with either situation, keeping in mind that electricity, fuel, food, water and other things we take for granted may be hard to come by.

The basic kit recommended by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for a chemical or biological attack includes: battery powered radio with extra batteries; non-perishable food and drinking water; a roll of duct tape and scissors; plastic for doors, windows and vents; a first aid kit; soap, water, bleach and other sanitation supplies.

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These items are useful for dealing with all types of disasters, not just those related to terrorism. "There are 101 uses for duct tape and multiple uses for plastic sheeting," said Rockwell, adding that duct tape and plastic may be of use if, say, a tornado blows off part of your roof.

You'll also want to think about including in your kit a small amount of cash, a flashlight with fresh batteries, and any items that are essential to your health, such as prescription drugs.

"We don't recommend buying gas masks since you need to be trained to use them properly, but if you sleep better at night because you have them, go ahead and include those in your disaster kit," said Irby.

If you haven't already, make copies of important documents, such as birth certificates, passports or insurance information, and put those in a safety deposit box or other safe place. While you're at it, make an extra set of copies to include in your disaster kit.

Take extra precautions abroad

According to McIndoe, domestic travelers are likely to encounter extra security measures at airports because of the current high-alert status, but his firm is not advising clients to change their travel plans.

Americans don't necessarily need to cancel their trips abroad either, he says, though now more than ever it's important to understand the risks of traveling to a country before you go. The State Department issues travel advisories and, for a fee, you can access iJET's risk ratings and country-specific advice.

In general, McIndoe recommends travelers overseas avoid lingering around "soft targets" such as hotels or tourist hot spots. "Instead of eating at McDonald's, eat at a local restaurant," he said.

McIndoe also recommends Americans be on guard for a new kind of security risk anti-war protests. "We just put out an alert that there are going to be significant anti-war demonstrations in a lot of European capitals on February 15," he said, adding Americans should avoid them for their own safety.  Top of page

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