This is the fourth installment in a series of ten articles about the Discovery Channel Series, THE COLONY [airing Tuesdays at 10PM ET/PT], that follows the lives of ten volunteers living in a simulated post-catastrophic environment.
Last night’s episode found the Colonists dealing with a recurring concern about their safety and security. After an attack shattered the volunteers’ sense of security, they focused on building weapons and fortifying the warehouse they are living in. But before they could finish those tasks, a truckload of gun-toting traders arrived to test the volunteers’ unity.
The first concern of most people after a disaster is almost always about his or her personal safety and security and the safety and security of his/her family, friends, and neighbors. Finding a safe place of refuge after a disaster is also a high priority. Without it, one is vulnerable to both the criminal element and the elements. However, there are many more safety concerns during and after a disaster that could lead to injury, illness, and even death. Victims and responders often find themselves working under stress, fatigue, and hunger – which, coupled with the hazards that exist during and after a disaster, makes a dangerous combination.
The Village of Schiller Park (Illinois) has compiled a comprehensive list of post-disaster hazards and tips for avoiding them. In addition, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has published an excellent document on preventing violence after a natural disaster. Among the most common post-disaster dangers are the following:
- Exposure to the elements;
- Exposed or submerged electrical wires and appliances;
- Explosions from natural gas leaks;
- Building collapse;
- Exposure to hazardous material (e.g., chemicals, radiation, asbestos);
- Diseases and infections; and
- Violence (battery, child abuse, rape, murder).
Lions and Tigers, Monkeys and Bugs
One hazard, which may not be as commonly anticipated as those on the preceding list, is attacks from wild or even domesticated animals. Insects also pose a serious threat to the safety and security of victims and responders alike. Following are a few informational summaries of the dangers posed by several species of the animals and insects living in close proximity to humans.
Exotic Animals – When Hurricane Andrew devastated south Florida in 1992, thousands of animals escaped (or, in some instances, were turned loose) from research centers and exotic-animal breeding facilities. Many of them, ranging from monkeys to lizards, are still at large almost 17 years later; their full impact on the environment and on public safety is yet to be determined.
Not incidentally, accredited zoos and responsible sanctuaries house only a small percentage of these types of animals. The remainder are in private hands, often living in sub-standard cages in roadside exhibits, traveling shows, basements, and backyards. There are no precise figures available on how many wild animals are kept in private hands in the United States, but estimates include 15,000 primates and about as many big cats.
Snakes – There are many species of poisonous snakes – including the water moccasin and the coral snake – that live in hurricane- and flood-prone areas of the United States. After a natural disaster, snakes (including those kept as pets) sometimes have been forced from their natural habitats and move into areas where they would not normally be seen or expected, such as private homes or automobiles.
Insects – Among the most common reasons for emergency-room visits during and after hurricane cleanup operations is to receive treatment for stings and bites from insects – including but not limited to mosquitoes, stinging caterpillars, fire ants, wasps, and hornets. Following are some additional specifics:
- Bees, wasps, and hornets may have had their nests disturbed, or even destroyed, by high winds and/or torrential rain, causing these insects to become very aggressive.
- Although stinging caterpillars normally live in the canopies of trees and seldom come into contact with humans, high winds may topple some of the trees – putting tree limbs on the ground and stinging insects into areas frequented by human beings.
- Heavy rains and flood waters can create breeding areas for mosquitoes, increasing their numbers – and multiplying the possibility of spreading the diseases carried by the insects.
- Flood waters send fire ants looking for higher ground. Unfortunately, flood waters will not drown significant numbers of the ants. Instead, the fire-ant colonies will form a floating ball, or even ribbons of floating ants, that flow with and on top of the water until they can find a dry area to rebuild their homes. Piles of debris as well as furniture and other common household items from flooded or destroyed homes can become the new habitat for the fire-ant colonies until a new mound (their usual home) can be formed.
Dogs – The Hurricane Katrina Relief Project estimates that roughly 600,000 pets were either killed or were left homeless as a result of Hurricane Katrina. The violent weather killed many of those pets. Hundreds of thousands of others that could not be taken into pet shelters, though, were left stranded. Any dog that is loose may be frightened, hungry, or hurt – and thus more likely to bite. Even dogs that are usually friendly may bite someone if they are scared or hurt. (A wealth of information for finding a pet shelter or a pet-friendly hotel, as well as links to general pet disaster-preparedness sites, can be found at petfriendlytravel.com.)
After the danger from an actual disaster has passed, responders and victims will be focused on cleaning up and returning to normal. It is critically important during this time to remember that safety, security, and survival may still be placed at risk from almost any living thing that crawls, prowls, slithers, or barks.
Adam Montella is vice president of homeland security and preparedness services for Previstar Inc. and a nationally known emergency-management and homeland-security professional with more than 23 years direct experience in both government and the private sector. He served as the first general manager of emergency management for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in the period following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks and has served in many other emergency-management positions at all levels of government. A former member of the House Operations Recovery Team of the U.S. House of Representatives and of numerous local, state, national, and international emergency management associations, he also is a well known public speaker in his chosen field and a former recipient of Harvard University’s prestigious Innovations in American Government Award.