The Worst Kind of Surprise

Commissioner’s Commentary
May 29, 2011

By David L. Lakey, M.D.
Commissioner, Texas Department of State Health Services

I can tell you exactly where each of my three children’s birth certificates are, along with their Social Security cards, our prescriptions and immunization records and our insurance documents. My wife and I have a small stockpile of bottled water, extra food and a plan for how our family would evacuate if a disaster loomed near our home in Central Texas.

This wasn’t always the case. Over the last few years I have made it a point to get ready. You should, too.

Texas is no stranger to big disasters, from wildfires to tornadoes to hurricanes. The location and size of our state make us more vulnerable to disasters. In fact, Texas leads the nation in the number of presidentially declared disasters. June 1 is the official start to hurricane season, which means we are on high alert, watching for churning storms and trying to predict the health and medical needs of Texans before disaster strikes.

One of the most important things you can do right now is get ready. Solidify your disaster plans. Sit down and decide how you will get in touch with family members during a disaster. Decide where you will go and what you will do in various emergency situations. Build a kit with essentials – important documents, first aid supplies, flashlights, hand sanitizer, water, medications, clothing.

I don’t like surprises, but the very nature of disasters often means they are unannounced, unpredictable. Sometimes they are false alarms. Sometimes they strike close to home. Sometimes, they destroy people’s lives.

We recently wrapped up production of a short-documentary series – called “Surviving Disaster: How Texans Prepare” – about six deadly Texas disasters. They are available to view online at Film crews interviewed Texans who had lost everything, people who were caught off guard by tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires or flooding. They interviewed people who survived by the skin of their teeth. The series puts a human face on disasters, reinforces how to prepare and shows the impact a disaster can have on a community.

I had the chance to watch the final version in my office awhile back. The stories are compelling – you cannot take your eyes off these folks as they talk about their homes being leveled, debris flying through the air, their lives being turned upside down in an instant. One couple talks about taking a “last picture” of their house as they evacuated ahead of Hurricane Ike. One man recalls a wildfire that in a matter of minutes destroyed the dream home he’d worked on for more than 23 years. Another person recalls seeing a washing machine and a horse fly by during a tornado.

Many of the folks in the videos admit they weren’t ready for the disasters that hit them. But there are lessons to be learned through these stories. Folks talk about how they survived and what they would do differently next time. Businesses show how they have since developed rock-solid plans. Families show how they prepared grab-and-go kits. The stories show how communities learned from their experiences and how they came together to get ready for the next disaster – which could be right around the corner.

Research tells us that many people don’t think a disaster will happen to them. We cannot underestimate the impact a disaster can have on the people of our state. The costs can be staggering in terms of human lives and in dollars spent trying to recover.

As the state’s health commissioner, my job is to oversee the health and medical needs of Texans. This job gets more complicated during a disaster, which is why we have been building resources for people to help them make or improve their disaster plans through our website With checklists and sample plans, we try to make it easy for people to wrap their minds around how to prepare, but often the first challenge is convincing them that disasters can happen to them and that they do need to prepare.

The documentaries I mentioned earlier – with interviews with real people and footage of real Texas disasters – speak louder than brochures or PowerPoint presentations. The stories are moving, and our hope is that they inspire people to get ready. Emergency personnel and community groups already have been showing the documentaries, prompting important discussions about disaster plans.

Don’t be surprised when the news media starts reporting about a looming disaster. Don’t be caught off guard when you step outside and see smoke on the horizon or flood waters rising. This is Texas. Be ready.


(News Media: For more information contact Press Officer Carrie Williams, 512-458-7119. A photograph of Dr. Lakey is attached and available online at

Last updated September 22, 2011