I had an interesting conversation with a new colleague today. The new public information officer in our office asked me how emergency managers settled on 72-hours as the threshold value for disaster kits. Why, she wondered, was 72-hours the magic number for determining how much water, food, medicine, cash, and other supplies we should stockpile to prepare ourselves and our families for an emergency. Many emergency managers have asked a similar question in recent years, which has caused some to urge the public to prepare to fend for themselves for even longer periods without outside help.
As we discussed the basis for this guidance — in particular the lack of hard evidence or specific and explicit assumptions to support these recommendations — we concluded that the form and specificity of this suggestion probably had something to do with the fact that so many people still feel anxious even after they follow our advice. Does the emphasis on material preparedness and the connection to specific time periods reinforce public expectations about officialdom and its obligation to respond to our needs? Does it simultaneously discourage resilience while encouraging preparedness?
Today’s nationally-syndicated WBUR radio program, Here and Now, included a segment on disaster preparedness and resilience featuring Irwin Redlener, author of Americans at Risk and director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness in the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. In the interview, Redlener reiterated his assertion that America remains unprepared for a catastrophic disaster largely because of paralyzing bureaucracy and widespread incompetence. Redlener was particularly critical of the lack of a clearly articulated national preparedness goal that encourages simultaneous efforts to improve coordination between top-down and bottom-up approaches to preparedness.
When Redlener’s book was first published in 2006, memories of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were still fresh in the minds of nearly every American and his voice was one among many calling for comprehensive reform of the federal system of preparing for, responding to, and recovering from disasters. Today, images of Haiti and news of the recent outbreak of cholera in refugee camps housing survivors who relocated from the quake devastated capitol of Port-au-Prince haunt us.
As we approach the midterm election next week, this argument resonates among many segments of an electorate that find the current economic and social situation unacceptable and desperately want someone to accept responsibility for the “slow motion disaster” many are calling the Great Recession. As I listened to the broadcast, which included discussion of the effects of the fiscal crisis on local and state emergency managers’ and public health officers’ budgets, I had to wonder whether we can responsibly draw any meaningful connections between the situation unsettling most Americans as they head to the ballot box and our nation’s state of disaster readiness.
I am not alone in questioning whether Redlener’s got it all right. This week, the FEMA Local, State, Tribal, and Federal Preparedness Task Force issued its final report, Perspective on Preparedness: Taking Stock Since 9/11. Although I doubt they had Redlener’s book specifically in mind, the task force concluded that notwithstanding a lack of clarity or consistency over time about how we define preparedness in the United States, the nation is better prepared now than we were a decade ago but still lacks a coherent and shared strategic direction.
The task force highlighted the important contributions of the federal government to preparedness in the form of policy guidance, capability assessment tools, and grant funds, but saw important opportunities to strengthen the gains made in all three areas by adding a fourth emphasis on strategic investments. In particular, the task force recommended steps to foster a culture of preparedness by creating incentives for preparedness and strengthening connections among existing networks to help the nation identify and prepare for emerging threats.
These recommendations seem sound enough on the surface. But taking up Redlener’s point of view, the goal is not the only problem. It’s also about how we develop and execute our plans to achieve it.
Reading the other task force recommendations, I can see why Redlener is so critical of the federal approach and have to wonder what he thinks about the task force’s recommendations. It is not too hard to imagine myriad new federal strings being attached to the dollars flowing from federal coffers to state, local, and tribal authorities. Previous investments that sought to promote material improvements in preparedness will likely be replaced by new process-oriented requirements without achieving the desired alignment or shared sense of purpose.
With so many fingers in the proverbial pie and so much dependence on federal support for state, local, and tribal preparedness programs, it is easy to see why Redlener is so skeptical (or perhaps cynical). Technical, political, and legal interventions offer little promise of ensuring social and cultural change if the funding priorities remain driven from the top-down.
The United Nations — an institution renowned by many in the United States as the epitome of bureaucratic incompetence — has taken a somewhat broader and in many ways more pragmatic approach than the FEMA task force. In the Hyogo Framework for Action, the International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction emphasizes efforts to address the underlying problems associated with disaster vulnerability: poverty, climate change , and social justice. These priorities drive a different sort of strategic investment than that proposed by the FEMA task force, one that encourages human development through education, gender equity, shared decision-making among diverse communities, and sustainable urban development.
The difference in strategic approach, although probably too subtle for some, yields, I would imagine, very different tactics in some important instances. The FEMA task force approach is more likely to produce interventions in primary schools aimed at practicing “drop, cover, and hold on drills” and teaching kids to prepare disaster kits for their homes. The UNISDR approach, on the other hand, would seem to favor improved offerings in ecology, geography, geology, and sociology that improve understanding of natural hazards and the connections between human and natural systems.
The big difference between the UNISDR and FEMA approaches lies not in the specifics of their recommendations though, but rather in their assumptions about how programs will be put into action. The UNISDR approach emphasizes efforts to reinforce economic, social, and cultural progress by fostering collaboration, education, and engagement. The FEMA approach relies on the assumption that it’s all about protecting the gains we have already made by ensuring people have access to the financial, technical, and administrative resources they need to achieve their goals.
Going beyond 72-hours requires us to think differently about how we define preparedness as well as how we help our communities prepare for disasters. Any new emphasis on process should recognize the importance of fostering diverse participation, promoting social equity, encouraging reflection, and stimulating growth rather than preserving the status quo ante.