What would happen in the event of an emergency?

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When disaster occurs, the Red Cross suggests that residents go to designated emergency shelters near their homes. The group certifies local businesses, churches and schools as ideal places for community members to seek safety. And having such a haven should be a key part of every community’s disaster plan, according to the Red Cross.

That’s a problem for the West Side.

“There are no [emergency shelters] in the immediate Austin area,” Jessica Fester of the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago said earlier this month at a disaster preparedness seminar.

And that, Fester said, could cause major problems in the event an emergency or disaster strikes the West Side.

The Westside Ministers Coalition is working to solve this problem and help Austin prepare for a crisis. The group teamed up Jan. 15 with the Red Cross to host a Community Disaster Preparedness Workshop at Loretto Hospital, 645 S. Central Ave.

Fester’s observation that there’s a lack of shelters in Austin ground the workshop to a halt as attendees worried about the community’s preparedness.

One man in attendance recalled last summer’s flooding. His home is located between two distant schools, and no obvious place for shelter and information presented itself. He and his wife struggled to decide where they should go for help as the waters rose. We needed to have somewhere close by we could go to, he said.

Janice Henry, a community health nurse at Loretto Hospital and co-chair of the Westside Ministers Coalition’s health committee, organized and hosted the workshop. Austin’s emergency response is something she and others in the community have been “talking about for a long time,” and she’s concerned about the neighborhood’s ability to respond effectively to a disaster.

“If something really happened here, are we prepared? The truth is we’re not prepared. We’re going to be reactive rather than proactive,” Henry said. “We have 100,000 people in Austin, where are we going to go?”

The communications manager for the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, Patti Thompson, said the Westside Ministers Coalition had joined with the right partner.

“The Red Cross is expert on the shelter issue,” Thompson said. “They’re our partners in sheltering.”

For a location to be certified as a disaster shelter, the building must be able to accommodate at least 50 people, be handicapped-accessible, be at least 2,000 square feet and have restrooms, Fester said.

Henry said the Westside Ministers Coalition will want to add other criteria as they seek official shelters for Austin.

“We’re going to need places that can store . . . medical supplies and those kinds of things,” Henry said. “So we’re working hard to try and get some of those things in place.”

Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications is in charge of the city-wide response to disasters. Henry said she asked that office what the plan was for Austin, and she was told that they could not share that information with her.

“We need our own plan, communities need their own plan,” Henry said.

The Office of Emergency Management and Communications did not respond to requests for comment.

While Thompson agreed that finding shelters in Austin was an important issue, she said what is most important is raising awareness in the community.

“At the neighborhood level, one of the most important things is making sure that all the people in the neighborhood are aware of all of the things that they should be doing personally,” she said. “By being prepared in advance, you are better able to deal with [emergencies].”

Residents interested in learning about disaster preparedness or helping the community prepare for an emergency should contact the Westside Ministers Coalition at 773-261-0207 or westcoalition@aol.com.

To learn more about what to do before disaster strikes, click here. Here’s what should be in your emergency kit.

More information can be found at Ready Illinois.


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