Thursday morning, Tim Manning, FEMA Deputy Administrator for National Preparedness, told the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Communications, Preparedness, and Response,
Throughout the history of emergency management planning, considerations for individual and community preparedness have been inadequate. Since September 11, 2001 and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the United States has invested tens of billions of dollars in bolstering government’s preparedness, while paying comparatively little attention to personal and community preparedness. Yet we know – and have seen – that personal, family and community preparedness can have a tremendous impact in mitigating the effects of an emergency. Simple steps taken by individuals to provide for the needs of their families and their neighbors in an emergency can dramatically improve the readiness and resiliency of the American people in the face of a disaster.
According to a recently completed survey, many Americans are not taking these simple steps. The survey asked over sixty emergency preparedness questions. A question that caught my attention is, “In thinking about preparing yourself for a major disaster, which best represents your preparedness?”
In my experience with surveys the “right answer” is usually a bit inflated and “wrong answers” are under-represented. But let’s assume the response given is statistically, psychologically and in every other way accurate.
They were asked about a major disaster. They were given an easy out of “not yet,” but claiming good intentions. Despite these generous preconditions more than one-quarter of respondents said, “I am not planning to do anything about preparing.”
Yesterday Chris Bellavita wrote, “If something bad does happen, and if I’m not prepared, I’ll take my chances. Together with the other people affected, we’ll make something up.”
At least 27 percent of Americans apparently agree. While I value good intentions, I expect another 27 percent of Americans will end up with the same outcome as their purposefully and honestly non-preparing neighbors.
The survey results leave me feeling very ant-like and outnumbered by crickets.
I acknowledge crickets probably have the odds on their side. Disaster is unlikely. Catastrophe is even less likely. And when the unlikely happens, the ants — contrary to the fable — will help.
My most serious concern is not with crickets singing while I work. What worries me more is wicked step-mothers actively undermining our resilience.
In California and elsewhere, public policy allows an increasing proportion of residential areas to be at high risk of wildfire. In both hurricane country and inland river bottoms, the high rent district moves right up to the water’s edge. With fire and flood, local policies are lax partly because federal financial subsidies are expected in a worst case.
Federal transportation and anti-trust policies push concentration of food processing. Federal agricultural policies encourage production mono-cultures. Each increase the risk of cascading failure to our food system.
Two weeks ago I was consulting on risk for a major urban area. In the sprawling suburbs we found over 300,000 residents being served by one spanking new water-treatment plant. It is an amazing single point-of-failure in case of natural, accidental, or intentional threats (all of which abound).
The origin of this sterling example of inter-governmental cooperation? Federal grant preferences and requirements.
In another jurisdiction, residential growth has sprawled around pre-existing agro-chemical plants and warehouses. Huge quantities of toxic and explosive material are still stored as when the nearest school was ten miles away, rather than next door.
But when county fire and health authorities proposed a local ordinance to just inventory and lock-up the bad stuff, federal regulations were used to resist the modest mitigation efforts.
Have you noticed wicked step-mothers are usually beautiful? In each of these cases, public policy has a beautiful veneer. The attraction usually relates to near-term pay-offs. So did sending Cinderella to work in the kitchen.
Resilience is hard-wired into our individual and social selves. In the face of immediate danger most of us respond cooperatively, courageously, and in the best tradition of fairy tale heroes. I am not being ironic.
But in most cases the fairy tale hero is challenged by some disguised adversary.
The good and handsome father (the policy-maker) never marries the wicked step-mother (risk increasing policies) with the purpose of displacing his own children (all of us). But he is lonely and distracted by her superficial beauty.
In most of the stories, the good and handsome father is unwilling to recognize the unintentional harm he has caused. But in a few fables he is able to do just enough to allow the children to save themselves. I hope we can craft that happy ending.