Elaine Howard found out firsthand how important it is to be prepared for an emergency after a riot destroyed the city where she was living in 2006. Now, as a community preparedness manager for the American Red Cross Bay Area Chapter, she works to ensure people and businesses have a disaster preparedness game plan.
"I watched my bank burn to the ground. I saw my favorite restaurant explode," said Elaine of the scene in in Nov. 2006 in Nuku’aflofa, the capital city in Tonga, an archipelago in the South Pacific. Elaine was working as the head of the non-profit organization National Youth Congress. "People were looting everywhere. You see what happens in these situations, it becomes a free for all."
The riot broke out after the Tongan government did not grant reforms it had previously promised. It was a frightening situation, Elaine said, made worse by the fact that she was not prepared for that type of disaster. Fortunately, Elaine's program manager had worked for several years in the U.S. Peace Corps and had a plan in place for how to respond.
"They are very prepared as an organization, they drill all the time," Elaine explained of her manager who found a way to get her staff and their equipment out of harm’s way as the riots claimed six lives and destroyed 80 percent of the downtown.
From the experience Elaine, who earned a master’s degree in International Development and a bachelor’s degree in cultural anthropology, learned two important lessons – that an emergency happens suddenly, and that preparation saves lives. She teaches people these two tenets during her training for the Red Cross.
After returning to the United States in 2007, Elaine joined the Red Cross in part as a way to better prepare for an emergency like what she had experienced in Tonga.
Now, as a community preparedness manager, she teaches community groups, schools, businesses and non-profit organizations how to prepare for and recover from a catastrophe. In this role Elaine oversees a group of about 60 volunteers who also share trainings with the community.
Elaine has also developed a course in continuity planning for large corporations and governments, teaching them to develop a plan to continue working and keep employees safe after a disaster.
At the community level, she teaches people that they need to create a plan for their family, too. It is a process Elaine calls getting a “Game Plan.”
"When you talk about a Game Plan, you are talking about yourself and others," she explained. A Game Plan details how to make sure you know where your loved ones are in an emergency and have the tools and supplies to take care of yourself for a minimum of 72 hours after it hits. "It's about a team, and the team is the people you love, the people you care about. And it doesn't have to be your family – maybe you don't live in the same area as your family, maybe you don't get along with them. It can be your urban family, your friends who live nearby.”
Since joining the Red Cross, Elaine has put her emergency training into practice and said she believes if the same situation she experienced in Tonga were to happen today, she would know what to do.
Here are Elaine’s tips for making your own “Game Plan:”
Make a communication plan
Make an evacuation plan
Elaine returned to Tonga with her husband five years after the riot. She was happy to see that the country had recovered and that her favorite restaurant – the one she had seen burn to the ground – had reopened in another part of town.
"It was nice seeing people heal and bounce back, the resilience in people is amazing,” Elaine said.
Learn how you can become better prepared for emergencies and disasters: http://www.redcross.org/support/emergency-preparedness