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Los Angeles Officials Say Community Groups Can Help in Pandemics, Other Disasters

Officials in Los Angeles say they cannot tell when, but some type of a major disaster is bound to come to the area. Mike O'Sullivan reports, the officials urged leaders of religious and community groups in the city to be prepared for catastrophes, including pandemics, terrorist attacks, and earthquakes.

More than 50 community organizations took part in a recent forum that focused on a possible flu pandemic. But Dr. Jonathan Fielding, public health director for Los Angeles County, says preparations are much the same for natural disasters and terrorism.

"We're quite susceptible to earthquakes. We've just had wildfires. We just did a tsunami exercise, even though that's less likely. A pandemic will occur - we just don't know when. We are concerned about man-made disasters. Unfortunately, we have to worry about bioterrorism, chemical, radiological terrorism. So the good news is that being prepared for all of them requires the same basic ingredients, which is an emergency communication plan, emergency preparedness kit, and understanding in communities what you'll do in the event of a problem," he said.

He says each family needs a plan in place in case of a disaster, when phone services may be down and travel difficult. He says people need emergency supplies, including medicine and bandages, a flashlight and battery-powered radio, water, food and other essentials.

He adds that community organizations should have plans in place to supplement the work of public agencies.

A community responder from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, spoke about his church's work in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which displaced hundreds of thousands of residents in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005. Thomas Ray, a building contractor and ordained minister, is on the staff of a church called The Chapel on the campus of Louisiana State University. His church and others sprang into action to help victims of the hurricane by cooking food, collecting supplies, finding shelter and helping the injured get medical treatment.

The churches had no plan in place beforehand, but five days after the disaster, got together to coordinate their efforts. "We had one church that was really equipped because of their day care and their school to handle moms who were pregnant and who had small children. So from that point on, everybody who showed up that was pregnant with a small child went to that particular church as a shelter, and we sent resources that they would require to that church. So they were the storehouse for diapers and formula," he said.

Church members volunteered their labor to create a hospital in an abandoned shopping center. "We had to rewire the building, re-plumb it. Then we had to clean it, and then divide it up into the various functions that are required in a hospital, and equip it," he said.

They got help from federal officials, but mostly relied on their own ingenuity and personal contacts. In little more than 24 hours, the volunteers had a 500-bed hospital up and running.

Dr. Fielding says personal hygiene is important in any catastrophe, and simple measures such as hand washing can limit the spread of disease. He says hygiene is vital in a flu pandemic, which could infect from 25 to 50 percent of the U.S. population. Public health officials note that three pandemics occurred in the last century, including the serious outbreak of Spanish Influenza in 1918.

Fielding says pandemics and other disasters are unavoidable, and in a sprawling, multi-ethnic region like Los Angeles, community groups can play a vital role in helping people get through the disaster.