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The Cohilas' 'ready kit'
No one's immune to disaster, says Clayton emergency director

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Everyone should be personally prepared for emergencies and disasters. Even the emergency management director.

Alex Cohilas, Clayton County's fire chief and emergency management director, was a little chagrined when he realized he didn't have the same "ready kit" and preparedness plan he was professionally recommending.

"It was last year, when I was asked to give these seminars on inclement weather safety," Cohilas said. "At the end of every session, there was a recommendation that each home have a survival kit. What struck me was, hey, I don't have one ... It was like, 'Here you are, the fire chief and the emergency management director, how much effort have you put into making sure your own, personal family is protected?'"

Cohilas' "ready kit" stays in the car, these days, and in recognition of National Preparedness Month, he opened it up for the newspaper.

"These are just some of the basics," he said. "You can expand it. It's kind of like an accordion. But the whole strategy of the kit is, you want to be able to survive for three days on your own."

In a green backpack, the chief keeps a yellow flashlight and extra batteries. He keeps a hand-crank, emergency radio, several small, first aid kits, and enough canned food and water for three days.

Cohilas also keeps personal papers, including insurance information, medical documents, family phone numbers, identification, and anything he might need, if he couldn't get back into his home. While putting the "ready kit" together, Cohilas and his family also talked about their emergency plan, where family members would meet up, and who they would call and give updates.

Cohilas echoed Gov. Sonny Perdue, encouraging everybody to put together their own emergency preparations.

Recognizing September as National Preparedness Month, Perdue said the designation "creates an opportunity for every Georgian to learn more about ways to prepare for all types of emergencies ... Emergency preparedness is the responsibility of every Georgian. We can take a few simple steps -- creating a disaster supply kit, making a family disaster plan and staying informed -- to help make citizen preparedness a priority in every community."

Cohilas said the need to be prepared should be highlighted, in Clayton County, this year, because of the tornado that struck in May, leaving many Ellenwood homes torn open.

"We think we're safe from natural disaster because we don't live in a coastal town, and there's this myth a tornado can't hit an urban center, but look what happened here," Cohilas said.

Landry Merkison, a fire department chief, said there were a lot of people in the area struck by the tornado, who couldn't go back into their homes and didn't have what they needed to leave. They might have even known right where there "vital documents" were, in the house, but the houses were structurally unsafe, and the residents were stuck on the sidewalk.

"It's not like a tornado happens at lunch, when everybody's cognizant and has themselves collected," Merkison said. "Most of the time, they know it's a tornado because it flipped them out of their beds."

Having a "ready kit," according to Cohilas, means having options, besides waiting for the fire department or Red Cross. The fire department, with the Red Cross and the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, encourages everyone to have a "ready kit." The Red Cross sells prepackaged ones at www.redcross.org, and GEMA, with the Department of Homeland Security, is offering step-by-step instructions on developing a plan at: www.ready.ga.gov.

Cohilas said the "culture of preparedness," promoted by National Preparedness Month, has increased, in the years since a hurricane devastated the Gulf Coast.

"I've noticed and I've really watched the change in human behavior, from Katrina to now," he said. "There's a public realization that a natural disaster can occur and you need to be able to survive on your own, if the worst case happened, if all systems failed."

While putting together his own backpack, Cohilas included canned tuna and canned soup, along with bottles of water.

Cohilas said his wife's first reaction to his "ready kit" was to think it "apocalyptic" and "overkill," but the kit is actually, he said, just a recognition all of us could be forced to face disaster.

"We too often think we're immune," Cohilas said. "Everyone needs to be prepared."