Did you know that September was “National Preparedness Month?” Well, considering the readership of this blog I am sure you did. But more importantly, did the general public? I’ll go out on a limb and guess that the answer is no.
Building off of Mark’s earlier post, I would like to take the discussion of preparedness in a slightly different direction. As someone speaking from the perspective of a citizen rather than an emergency management official, I have to say that current efforts to engage the public are failing. I do not know personally anyone that realized it was “National Preparedness Month,” or took it upon themselves in the last month to get a kit, make a plan, or become informed about any threat.
This despite the fact that I live in Boston, Massachusetts and our summer was bookended by events that presented teachable moments that seemed perfect for promoting preparedness. Yet unfortunately these opportunities were wasted by officials.
The first was what became known as the “Aquapocalypse:” on an unseasonably warm May afternoon there was a sudden break in a water pipe supplying water to Boston and much of eastern Massachusetts. As Governor Deval Patrick described it, “a catastrophic disaster” leading to a “boil water” order that meant that two million affected residents would have to either boil their tap water for drinking and cooking, or use bottled water. The reaction was predictable, a mad dash across the region to buy water. Police were needed to restore order at several stores. What might have been different if more people had several days of water already stockpiled in their homes?
The second was Hurricane Earl, roaring up the waters off the East Coast threatening to be the first hurricane to make landfall in New England in almost two decades. Fortunately for the residents of the Cape and Islands, this unwanted Labor Day weekend guest weakened and drifted eastward. Unfortunately for the residents of Massachusetts, this is the second missed opportunity this year to promote a message of preparedness for future disasters.
Why wasn’t there a vigorous campaign by public officials to promote disaster preparedness in the wake of both the “Aquapocalypse” and Hurricane Earl?
Disaster preparedness can have a cascading effect. Using the Aquapocalypse for example, as the number of people scrambling for bottled water decreases, it provides opportunity for less fortunate members of the community. For every individual with a middle class and higher lifestyle that bought up water, there were those less privileged and unable to engage in consumer combat, such as the elderly and sick, that were at greater risk of going without clean water. Those that can prepare should, not only for their loved ones but the farther reaching affects on those in their communities who have a much harder time dealing with catastrophe.
As it gets further from both events, it is understandable yet still troubling that officials missed the opportunities to use these events as teachable moments. Obviously the first priority for officials during these types of events is immediate public safety. When the backup water supply’s safety was unknown, it was prudent to call for boiling tap water or using the bottled variety. In the case of Earl, the potential for landfall required the vigorous preparations made by local, state, and federal agencies. Officials at all levels reacted correctly to both events. At least in regards to the short term issues.
I cannot be certain, but I would guess that such reactions are more common than not across this country. If so, what kind of steps can be taken to move preparedness forward?
First, don’t let near-disasters pass without taking advantage of them. For example, immediately following Aquapocalypse officials should have stressed that the water bought by the public should be saved as part of a disaster kit instead of being consumed, and those who strictly boiled tap water should have been encouraged to go out and buy a three day supply of water for themselves.
Second, preparedness activities should leverage community resources, contacts, and interactions. Direct messages from the government at every level to citizens have met with mixed, at best, success. Instead, neighborhood meetings concerning crime or business matters can also include reminders about preparedness. Religious and secular groups should be engaged so that they reach out to their members with preparedness messages.
Third, government officials must include the private sector in this outreach. For example, Harvard University provides information regarding criminal activities near campus. Why not include regular preparedness messages? Another option would be for large educational institutions and businesses to offer discounts on disaster kits as they currently do for computers and other items.
Increasing preparedness is a long term goal and one that will not be visible until the next catastrophe. Yet teachable moments should not be wasted and preparedness messages not concentrated within one month a year.