Quake offers a somber reminder

By Courtney Sherwood, Columbian freelance writer

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It’s heart-wrenching to watch the loss of life and the upending of communities that a massive disaster can bring. Japan’s recent 9.0 earthquake, and its subsequent tsunami and nuclear crisis, have all hit especially close to home in the Pacific Northwest.

We share business and cultural ties with Japan. More ominously, we are also bound by the seismically active Ring of Fire. Japan’s earthquake is a reminder that giant temblors have happened here, and they likely will again — possibly tomorrow, possibly not for centuries.

When the big one does arrive, however, it could take days for government responders to arrive on the scene and begin to help. That reminder has spurred many of us to reexamine or create personal emergency plans. The experts suggest putting together “72-hour kids” with sleeping bags or blankets, water, food and other supplies — http://ready.gov offers more detailed tips if you’re developing a plan.

Preparedness does not stop with individuals making plans for their homes. Japan’s massive quake struck in the middle of the work day. That should be a wake-up call to business owners around Clark County. What would happen to your business if a trembler struck during the work day? How would you meet employees’ needs?

Would you find yourself unprepared, like Bill Monro, owner of a Texas dry cleaner that closed for a week after Hurricane Rita? After that eye-opening experience, he realized that had the disaster been even worse, employees might have been stranded at the shop. Monro now keeps bedding on site, along with enough food to feed his employees for at least three days.

If you’ve got workers on one side of the Columbia River and an office on the other, you may want to consider such preparations, too.

“I can’t imagine any business moving forward without a plan,” Monro told the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “If businesses are up and running, individuals can receive a paycheck and the community can stabilize. If businesses are able to recover, the local economy is able to come back. It’s so critical.”

The stakes are even higher for companies that handle hazardous materials. They’re generally already required to have emergency plans in place. But Japan’s unfolding nuclear crisis is a reminder that even the best-laid plans can go awry. Tokyo Electric Power does not appear to have anticipated the cascade of failures it has faced. That should act as a chilling reminder to local businesses to review just how robust their own emergency plans might be.

When a disaster at your business could put people’s health and lives at risk, it’s important to bring in technical experts to assess any plans.

For the rest of us, the government has provided a rudimentary guide to business preparedness at http://www.ready.gov/business. It’s worth a review, at least as a first step.

Advance planning and preparation could save money, and even lives, when disaster does eventually strike.

Courtney Sherwood is The Columbian’s business and features editor. Reach her at 360-735-4561 or courtney.sherwood@columbian.com.