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Disaster Preparedness Starts Here

Cora Nucci, for HealthLeaders Media, March 16, 2011

The images of destruction and devastation in Japan are horrific, the human toll incalculable. It's natural to look on from afar and wonder, "Could it happen here?"

The drama unfolding at the Fukushima nuclear energy plant is unprecedented. Rocked by earthquakes and flooded by tsunami just days ago, the reactors have since been jolted by a series explosions and fires. Radiation levels are fluctuating and there is great fear and uncertainty about whether and how the radiation can be contained.

Certainly there are regions of the U.S. that are vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunamis. And for even more of us, there is the real possibility of a nuclear crisis. There are, after all, 104 nuclear power reactors in the United States. Tornadoes and hurricanes are perhaps more familiar agents of devastation. They've damaged and destroyed innumerable lives in communities all around us.

A nuclear crisis could happen here, too, of course, but most states are "poorly prepared" to respond to a major radiation emergency like the nuclear disaster that Japan faces now, according to a survey of state health departments posted this week. How poorly? The accompanying report, published in Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness, concludes that 45% of the states surveyed have no comprehensive response plans for a nuclear disaster. One of the reports in the prescient March issue of DMPHP is on the role of preparedness in communities: "Within the all-hazards spectrum, radiological incidents presenta uniquely challenging array of scenarios for local governmentemergency planning and response."

Another is on the allocation of resources after a nuclear detonation. It doesn't mince words: "Although the chance ofa nuclear detonation is thought to be small, the consequencesare potentially catastrophic, so planning for an effective medicalresponse is necessary, albeit complex."

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