Editor’s note: The following article was written by Dean Ross, an agrosecurity consultant based in Michigan. 

Emergency planning critical for rural resiliencySeptember 2011 is National Preparedness Month and it comes at a unique time for agriculture in the U.S.  The year 2011 has been a particularly tough one for agricultural natural disasters.  From the devastatingly cold and snowy winter that collapsed barns across the U.S., the springtime tornados in the Southern states and the yet to be calculated impacts of tropical storm Irene and the drought /wildfires in Texas, nature has given us more than our share of grief this year.  But the underlying story here is that while U.S. agriculture will survive these setbacks, some individual farm and rural businesses may not. 

While there is research underway to examinethe ability of farms and rural communities to recover following a disaster, it is still up to individual rural business owners and farmers to look out for themselves. Emergency planning experts suggest that it could be a minimum of 72 hours before outside help can reach those impacted by large scale disasters.

This required self-reliance fits well with the individualism that builtour rural communities.But with that individualism, comes a streak of stubbornness tickling the back of the mind with the thought, “Nothing like that has never happened here before” or “It can’t happen here”.  Ask the rural communities in Texas, Vermont or Missouri if it can happen there. Planning for emergencies at the farm level is important to the future of each farm.

 Rural communities should be resilient communities. And community resiliency is built on the resiliency ofindividuals and businesses in that community. Because the professional first responders will be overwhelmed by the impact of a large scale natural disaster, the community itself will need to self-mobilize in order to begin the recovery.

In other words, the recovery can only begin locally after most individuals and businesses in the community have met their own emergency needs. The quicker this occurs the quicker the community can stand itself back up.

Personal preparedness starts at home. 

The first step is to assemble an emergency kit for you and your family to use. The kit should contain supplies and food that would be needed if the family shelters at home or evacuates for several days.  In many cases, the food already on hand can serve as emergency rations. Potable water is also going to be high on the list of critical supplies, if you plan to shelter in place at home. Consideration also should be made for special-needs family members. Do you have a stash of infant formula, baby food or diapers, if it is required? Are there disabled or low mobility family members?  Are prescriptions up to date?  What about extra pet food and supplies? 

More information relating to personal preparedness can be found at the national Extension Disaster Education Network (EDEN) website.  Another great web link that can assist in family emergency planning is the Do1Thing website.  At this website, professional emergency planners provide personal monthly goals and ideas aimed at building a family or personal emergency plan.

The second step is having a plan. How long will it take to pull together your most important documents or basic clothing if you are asked to evacuate? How long will it take to move pets or low mobility family members? Have you assembled a list of emergency contacts of people or organizations you might need to reach out to during an emergency?  What family records (such as financial records, birth certificates and passports) should be duplicated or stored together in case the need to evacuate comes quickly? By pulling important documents together beforehand, time can be saved when time is critical.

Business preparedness is similar in many ways to other preparedness planning. Business emergency plans are based on two concepts: being ready to respond to emergency situations and facilitating businessrecovery following the disaster.  

Facilitating the business recovery is usually contained in the business continuity plan. The continuity plan is intended to bring the business back up to operating speed as quickly as possible after a disaster. The plan requires that the business look at how it functions and determine which crucial functions require immediate protection or replacement to ensure that the business gets back on track.  Next the business owners must engage the employees to practice and improve the plan so it can be deployed when needed.

The other part of farm business preparedness is the farm emergency plan. In most states, farm emergency planning has been connected to SARA Title III activities, Farm-A-Syst programs, pesticide use, fuel and fertilizer storage, or manure management planning. Specifics may vary by state, but the general underlying planning concepts remain the same. 

Information relating to this farm emergency planning can be accessed though state university extension services, state departments of agriculture, environment or natural resources. The emergency plan itself, should state what the business is planning to do to control, contain, cleanup the most likely types of emergency situations on the farm (livestock farms will probably have plans for manure spills, crop farms will be more likely to plan for chemical/pesticide spills.)  Above all, the plan should be clear and make specific plans for how each type of emergency will be handled.

Because our food supply and the rural communities that produce it are strategic assets for our nation and vulnerable to disruption through disaster on the local and national scale, it is important that rural and agricultural businesses build resiliency mechanism for benefit of the public and private sector in our country.

Ross can be contacted at: deanross@cablespeed.com