Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 25, 2011

Is Preparedness Pointless?

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment — by Mark Chubb on May 25, 2011

Watching coverage of the devastation wrought by the EF5 tornado that struck Joplin, Missouri over the weekend, I have been pondering the theme of the Washington State Emergency Management Association’s conference scheduled for later this year: “Preparedness: It’s Not a Mystery.” As catchy as that may sound, I find it hard to accept.

Gregory Treverton’s famous distinction — first made in the context of national security but certainly applicable here — warns us that things we do not know are very different from things that are contradictory, confusing or complex.

For most of us, weather remains one of the most enduring if not profound mysteries affecting the course of our daily lives. The uncertainty surrounding the occurrence of severe weather — will it rain today or not? — pales in comparison to the mysteries surrounding the capricious nature of the forces unleashed upon us when it strikes in with the suddenness and severity of a tornado.

The heartbreaking images and stories of personal loss strike a particular chord with me as a survivor of the F5 tornado that struck Xenia, Ohio on April 3, 1974, as part of a super-outbreak that spanwed 148 twisters across the country’s mid-section. Like a similar outbreak last month in Alabama, the Xenia tornado was huge and stayed on the ground for a very long time. Thirty-two people died as a direct result of the storm, and two National Guard soldiers were killed a couple of days later when fire swept through a downtown furniture store in which they were billeted.

As painful as the loss of life was for those who knew someone killed by the twister, the scope and scale of the devastation left many of us bewildered. So many landmarks were swept away that many had difficulty even figuring out where they were despite having grown up in the town. The loss of schools, homes, businesses and so many historic structures simply obliterated by the storm had a profound and lasting impact on the town. Xenia, like Joplin, has a long and proud history that changed forever in just a few minutes.

Nothing we say or do can really prepare us for the devastation that such disasters bring. Despite efforts to develop better building standards, we still cannot build economical structures for routine human habitation that will resist the effects of catastrophic storms like those that struck Xenia and Joplin. Even if we could, that would not make it any easier for those left to pick up the pieces of these shattered communities to make their way back to a sense of normalcy.

At best, preparedness helps people provide themselves, their loved ones and neighbors with the necessities of life for a short time following such an extreme event. Those who make a big deal about preparing for events like the Xenia and Joplin tornadoes often have little or no first-hand experience of such devastation themselves. As such, their exhortations strike even my sympathetic and trained ears as preachy and moralistic.

Any objective assessment of the situation in Joplin today, like that of Xenia almost 40 years ago, makes it clear that the survivors do a pretty admirable job of looking after one another despite their so-called lack of preparedness. What people lack in preparedness, they often more than make up for in empathy and resourcefulness.

If we want the public to take us seriously, we would be much better off telling it like it really is: “We can neither prepare for nor adequately protect against events like the Xenia and Joplin tornadoes or the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor meltdown that struck Japan or other similar events. What we can do is help you understand the sorts of challenges that will face us as a community when these events strike.”

With any luck, such honesty will motivate people to do something that will make a difference: Worry less about the uncertainties and do more to resolve the ambiguities associated with disaster risk, such as figuring out what systems will fail and why. A clear-eyed assessment of these risks just might encourage people to invest in the institutions, develop the dispositions and reinforce the relationships that will allow them to respond with resilience when disaster strikes rather than relying on the planners and preachers who spend so much of their time extolling the virtues of preparedness that they have neither the time nor the inclination to come to the rescue.

When it comes to the capriciousness of catastrophic disasters like the Joplin tornado, rescue doesn’t really start until the recovery phase. The skills and sensibilities emergency managers need for this work emphasize asking the right questions not supplying prepackaged answers. Inevitably, the communities that come back better have taken the time to get the questions right before they start implementing the answers. And it’s never too early to start asking these questions since every community that has been through a disaster before is already in line for another one. [Last paragraph added by author at 0710 hours PDT, May 25, 2011.]

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11 Comments »

Comment by Philip J. Palin

May 25, 2011 @ 4:47 am

Mark: I mostly agree but want to engage further on your next-to-last paragraph. Protection of a whole population is, I agree, essentially beyond our shared capabilities.

As a result I absolutely agree with what you advocate in your last paragraph: “Worry less about the uncertainties and do more to resolve the ambiguities associated with disaster risk, such as figuring out what systems will fail and why. A clear-eyed assessment of these risks just might encourage people to invest in the institutions, develop the dispositions and reinforce the relationships that will allow them to respond with resilience when disaster strikes.”

Isn’t this also preparedness? Perhaps this is precisely the preparedness that matters most.

Maybe I am being pedantic. But yesterday I was in a session with preparedness professionals from two different regions. About thirty minutes into the discussion it became clear that one region was focused mostly on planning-to-respond while the other was much more focused on preparing-to-anticipate.

I think the preparing-to-anticipate group was doing what you are advocating, and considered it the best form of preparedness.

Are you saying our operating definition of “preparedness” is so broken that we need to find another term… or am I obscuring your main point?

Comment by Claire B. Rubin

May 25, 2011 @ 4:53 am

I am somewhat baffled by the last phrase: “the planners and preachers who spend so much of their time extolling the virtues of preparedness that they have neither the time nor the inclination to come to the rescue.”

In my experience, most of the people doing the urging usually are ready to help when the need arises.

Comment by Ben McCandless

May 25, 2011 @ 8:01 am

Prepardness isn’t pointless. We’re just doing it wrong.

I want to start by saying that
A) I’m no expert,
B) this is just all my opinion
C) the following mostly applies to preparedness among average people – not preparedness for public safety agencies
D) this is something of a rant. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

In response to some of the other comments – I don’t expect people who teach preparedness to come to the rescue – I expect that I will do my best to rescue myself and those around me, and that others in the area will do the same.

But enough of that – to my general point:

My experience is that people (especially people who are not directly involved in public safety) tend to think that ‘being prepared’ primarily requires ‘Having the right “stuff.”‘ If you have 6 months of emergency food in the basement, and an emergency first aid kit, and you keep a stocked emergency backpack by the door, then you are prepared. A lot of the public education about preparedness that they receive reinforces this perception; we hand out checklists of things that you should have in your house, your car, your wallet, etc, and a packet of instructions: “Fire – go to page 6, Earthquakes – page 27 . . . ”

Well, great. This is better than nothing, but what we really have now are people who’s “resilience” depends on the availability of their previously mentioned “stuff.”

Instead, we need to teach that preparedness is a state of mind that has to be part of everyday life. I grew up in Alaska, and there it was clear that your foresight could mean the difference between your coming home safely, and you never being seen again. Every kid in town new how to behave around bears, every student who went through the local school system took survival classes. Everyone knew how to hunt, fish, or do both. The safety net provided by civilization is less pervasive, and because it is easier to leave, it is more apparent.

Now, I live in a city in Pennsylvania, and it’s entirely different – Civilization is everywhere; I almost always have cell coverage – even in rural areas. The people who live here are practically blind to it and forget that parts of it are fragile. When that infrastructure that they rely on is overwhelmed (i.e. roads don’t get plowed for a day or two due to heavy snow) they are helpless. They’ve lived in this cocoon so long that they don’t remember how to live outside of it. The government (local, state, and federal, in decreasing order of importance) have taught everyone to be passively dependent of their services.

I agree with the article in this: for the average person, the version of preparedness that teaches you to prepare for specific, rare disasters (tornado, earthquake, tsunami, nuclear meltdown) is almost pointless. We need to stop giving people lists of instructions for specific disasters, and we need to give them lists of questions and decisions applicable to all disasters that they should think about: How much time do I have to make plans? Is my house safe? Should I shelter in place or evacuate? How long is this event likely to last? What will I need in order to keep my family safe and healthy for that time? What is plan B?

And then we need to teach them to use these questions every day! This is just like the old “give a man a fish” saying. Giving someone a list of checklists and instructions is like giving them a fish – it’s good for a specific subset of all possible problems. Instead we want people to be able to ask themselves the right questions and make good decisions in an emergency.

Preparedness isn’t having the right stuff. It’s putting what you’ve got right now to the best possible use, starting with that brain of yours.

Comment by Mark Chubb

May 25, 2011 @ 9:00 am

Ben’s observations about the post and his reframing of its thesis are right on point. Phil and I probably agree that the sorts of questions Ben poses and the efforts of individuals and communities to answer them are in fact preparedness. And what’s more, they probably make a much bigger difference than the answers emergency management professionals have been giving them.

Too many practitioners and not a few theorists start with the arrogant assumption that most people are apathetic or ignorant but most probably both. As such, they both overstate and oversimplify their points about preparedness.

To Claire’s point: My efforts at speaking metaphorically in the last sentence were pretty weak. Emergency management and public safety practitioners are all too eager to come to the rescue when their answers fit a certain set of questions. What they often fail to realize is that they make the biggest difference simply by showing up and displaying empathy. Sadly, by the time their enthusiasm for these tasks is exhausted, they depart the scene leaving people behind when they most need help working through the complex decisions and emotions that confront people after a disaster.

The skills and sensibilities our profession most needs focus not so much on the two middle Rs — readiness and response — as the two end Rs — risk reduction and recovery. (Of course, this formulation assumes people tend to think of and often apply the process in a linear rather than cyclical and self-reinforcing fashion.)

Perhaps we need a term other than preparedness to communicate succinctly what we’re thinking. Oh, wait, we do: resilience.

Comment by Claire B. Rubin

May 25, 2011 @ 9:13 am

I suggest we dump both of the “new” terms: preparedness and resilience. They have too many meanings, uses, and misuses.

Comment by Mark Chubb

May 25, 2011 @ 9:23 am

I’m open to ideas, Claire. Any suggestions for what we should call this work?

Comment by Mark Chubb

May 25, 2011 @ 10:10 am

Leslie Crutchfield writing in the Harvard Business Review seems to be making a somewhat congruent point today about the strategic opportunities presented by catastrophes for businesses that leverage their expertise as well as their dollars in devastated communities: http://s.hbr.org/kvtW4a.

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 25, 2011 @ 7:20 pm

IN THE LONG TERM! Climatology and Meterology merge. Physics and Seismology! Reason is simple! Better data and computer power.

At some point this century I believe that we will model the climate/meterology of the entire earth successfully. Modeling and utilizing deep earth readings on Magma flows the same. We are not there yet but we will be. This should be one aspect of the preparedness effort. We are already in the 2012 Presidential campaign yet science planks in the platform, support for resilience or whatever still to be discovered.

Time for NAS and NRC to push these areas for more R&D dollars. Also NOAA weather radio in every home. Just like the USFA sprinkler campaign no federal travel and stays in HOTELS/MOTELS without NOAA weather radio hard wired. We did it with smoke alarms and we can do it with other marvels.

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Zombie Preparedness…No, Really….

May 26, 2011 @ 12:46 am

[...] Mark provocatively asked if preparedness even mattered in the face of catastrophic [...]

Pingback by Is Preparedness Pointless? | Security Debrief

May 26, 2011 @ 11:47 am

[...] Is Preparedness Pointless? – Homeland Security Watch Watching coverage of the devastation wrought by the EF5 tornado that struck Joplin, Missouri over the weekend, I have been pondering the theme of the Washington State Emergency Management Association’s conference scheduled for later this year: “Preparedness: It’s Not a Mystery.” As catchy as that may sound, I find it hard to accept. [...]

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