Preparing Our Communities Must Start Long Before Disaster Strikes

Kay WilkinsKay Wilkins is being honored as a Champion of Change for her service to the American Red Cross. 


I am very honored to be selected by the White House as a Champion of Change. As part of the Southeast Louisiana Red Cross Chapter headquartered in New Orleans, I have learned first hand how critical it is for everyone to be ready for emergencies, and know from my experiences that preparation must start long before the disaster begins.

For more than 25 years, through various posts including Director of Emergency Services and my present position as Chief Executive Officer for the South Louisiana Region, I have helped our chapter respond to many disasters, including the worst natural disaster to strike this country in decades, Hurricane Katrina. And even now, we are responding to Hurricane Isaac, offering those families affected by this storm, shelter, food and a shoulder to lean on.

Large disasters leave massive devastation in their wake and trigger a fear of the unknown in those affected, a fear of what is to come. We see that fear on the faces of those coming to us for help and comfort.

In the initial days of our response to Katrina, while some people came to our shelters with supplies, hundreds more did not. They were brought to us with nothing more than what they could carry as they were hoisted into a boat or rescued from a rooftop by helicopter. They were truly the walking wounded. Fear and anxiety had become their norm. Many were thankful just to be alive. Seeing the distress these emergencies cause has prompted me to work in our communities, to educate each individual about what they must do to be ready for that next emergency.

Katrina taught us many lessons; the biggest being that some disasters are so big that the government and relief organizations like the Red Cross can’t do it alone. Recovery takes a team effort. Picking up the pieces after a catastrophic disaster means all of us in the affected communities working together to get prepared. People in this country want to help, and showing them how to be part of the team – how to take the steps they need help their household, their neighbors, their community to be prepared-- can reduce the anxiety and distress that occurs when crises happen.

Even before Katrina, I worked with our chapter and community to devise a plan to pair churches in New Orleans with churches outside of town to help evacuate people who had no transportation. People of all ages need to know the importance of preparedness, young and old alike. Since Katrina, I have worked with volunteers in our chapter to implement “The Pillowcase Project”, a program that helps kids prepare for evacuation, and “Senior Preparedness Packs”, an education program that helps our older population be prepared. Both have become models for nationwide programs.

The Senior Preparedness Program is designed to reach out to as many as 2,500 senior citizens in parishes in Louisiana that have had to be evacuated during hurricanes. The information is geared to the specific needs and requirements of seniors, their concerns about disasters, evacuations, financial and health issues. The “Senior Preparedness Packs” are backpacks filled with vital items such as an evacuation checklist, specific parish information on government-assisted evacuation, a personal money management booklet and Red Cross emergency contact and medication record cards.

The Pillowcase Project is a program aimed to ease children’s fears about storm season and the evacuations that often accompany it. Children learn to pack their favorite items from home into a pillow case for easy transport, and parents learn ways to dispel their children’s concerns about storm evacuations.

Hurricane Katrina was a life-altering event. It forever changed the landscape of our area in New Orleans and beyond—and showed us all how vulnerable our communities can be in the face of Mother Nature. Having lived through the devastation of Katrina, I am determined that our chapter will lead our citizens as they learn and undertake the fundamental steps to being Red Cross ready – build a kit, make a plan and be informed about the situation in their neighborhood.

Our organization works tirelessly all year long to be ready to respond to disaster. We keep equipment and relief supplies in parts of the country prone to large disasters such as hurricanes and tornadoes; we work with our government agencies at the local, state and national level to ensure plans are ready to implement; we participate in exercises to test our chapter’s response readiness; and we plan with community partners the steps each of us will take together during a disaster to help ensure people’s needs are met.

Being ready is not something we take lightly.

As life taught us seven years ago after Hurricane Katrina, and as it has taught us just this past August with Hurricane Isaac, being ready for the next disaster is not the sole responsibility of any one government agency or organization.

Being ready is the responsibility of an entire community, and of each and every one of its citizens.

Kay W. Wilkins is the Chief Executive Officer for the Southeast Louisiana Chapter of the American Red Cross

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