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Be prepared for emergencies, not scared

It's been called "the storm of the century," but the ice storm of 1998 started out as just another day of freezing rain and drizzle. Over five days, residents of eastern Ontario and southern Quebec, the areas hardest hit by the storm, were crippled by almost four inches of solid glassy ice -- double that of previous major storms.

The heavy ice crumpled 120,000 kilometers of hydro lines and telephone cables, 130 transmission towers and 30,000 wooden utility poles. More than 4.5 million people were plunged into darkness in freezing subzero temperatures. A state of emergency was declared and almost 16,000 troops were deployed to assist with recovery efforts.

In the end, the Insurance Bureau of Canada reported more than $1.2 billion in insurance claims.

Allison Savard, who lived in St. Eugene, Ont., at the time, was just 10 years old when her family heard that a bad storm was coming. They filled the bathtub and many buckets with water, gathered all their candles and flashlights and her father brought home batteries, milk and bread on his way home from work.

Then the ice came. The Savards lost power for weeks and their house was badly damaged. Their phone line came down so they lost contact with everyone. Then her little brother caught pneumonia.

"It was almost impossible to keep warm," says Savard. "We had blankets and we would huddle but with temperatures of minus 10 degrees for days straight, there was no way to keep warmth in the house. We had very few nonperishables, so we mostly ate peanut butter sandwiches. We had lots of stuff that was frozen, but it all went to waste."

"We were very unprepared," says Savard. "I don't think (my parents') pre-planning helped at all. They didn't really stock up on stuff -- we didn't really have time -- and even so, I don't think they really thought it would happen."

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While Canada just makes the top 10 list for countries most hit by natural disasters in the 2006 Disasters in Numbers report issued by the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, anyone who's lived through a forest fire in Kelowna, B.C., a hurricane in Halifax or flooding in Edmonton understands the trauma of surviving a disaster and the importance of being prepared.

"By taking a few simple steps today, families and individuals can become better prepared to face a range of emergencies anytime, anywhere," says Philip McLinton, spokesman for Public Safety Canada.

If an emergency occurs, first responders such as firefighters and paramedics need to focus on people who are in urgent need and whose lives are in immediate danger. That means it's important for everyone else to be able to take care of themselves for at least 72 hours.

So, read on to find out what steps you can take to ensure you're not left out in the cold.

Know the risks
For those of you who still think, "it won't happen to me," you're not alone. According to a recent study, while the majority of Canadians believe that an emergency plan and kit is important for ensuring their family's safety, only one-third actually have a plan and fewer than one-third have a kit.

But according to Environment Canada, Canadian natural disasters are on the rise both in size and frequency, and more than half are weather-related. What's worse, experts believe that bigger and more devastating ones are inevitable. And here's the kicker -- we're partly to blame. Climate change may create conditions for more severe weather such as tornadoes or hurricanes, while activities such as clearing trees and draining wetlands for development makes us more vulnerable to landslides and floods.

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-- Posted: Aug. 10, 2007
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