Preparing for Emergencies

Preparing for Emergencies
▪ 2006

by Susan L. Cutter    When Hurricane Katrina devastated the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005, it became not only a natural disaster but a social catastrophe as well. While there are many lessons to be learned from this tragic event, among the most significant involve the failures in the emergency management system of the United States. An emergency management system consists of four primary elements: preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation. The system is often depicted as a cycle showing how one phase morphs into the next one and then the process starts again with the next event. Emergency management is an essential concern of government at all levels. Local agencies (police, fire, and emergency services) bear first-response accountability for public health and safety. Larger-scale disasters may require state intervention. Only when the magnitude of an event has overwhelmed local resources and a state's capacity to respond must the federal government assist.

Emergency Management History.
      The U.S. federal government did not become actively involved in disaster response until the 1930s and then did so only on an ad hoc basis, providing funding to repair highways and bridges damaged by natural disasters or building flood-control projects. During the 1950s the preeminent perceived risks were nuclear war and nuclear fallout, and most emergency management efforts were funneled into civil defense programs at all levels of government. During the 1960s and '70s, a number of large natural disasters beset the country, notably the Ash Wednesday storm (1962), the Alaskan earthquake (1964), Hurricane Camille (1969), and the San Fernando Valley earthquake (1971). Each of these events required federal response and recovery assistance, yet public policies governing emergency management continued on an ad hoc basis, with a multiplicity of government agencies and departments each having partial responsibility for or governing authority over disaster response.

      In 1979 the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was created in order to centralize emergency management functions at the federal level. The priority at the time still was preparing for a nuclear attack. Two large natural disasters in 1989, however, were turning points for the agency. Under fire for its slow response and lack of attention to Hurricane Hugo and the Loma Prieta earthquake, FEMA was an agency in trouble. Again in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew hit south Florida, FEMA's relevance again was questioned. Many politicians and officials called for its abolishment.

      FEMA's stock began to rise in 1993, when James Lee Witt became agency director. Witt, a former head of Arkansas's emergency management agency, was the first and so far only director of FEMA with experience in emergency management (although former U.S. fire administrator R. David Paulison was named acting FEMA director late in 2005). During his tenure the agency was professionalized, became more technologically sophisticated, focused more on natural-hazards mitigation, and proved more willing to engage local and state partners. The value and centrality of emergency management to the country was recognized when Pres. Bill Clinton elevated FEMA to a cabinet-level position. After the 2000 presidential election, however, FEMA reverted to its pre-1993 status; though still an independent agency, it was again led by a director with no emergency management experience, focused on civil defense threats, and exhibited little or no interest in natural-disaster mitigation. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, catalyzed national attention on preparedness for terrorist threats and homeland security issues. In 2003 FEMA was combined with 22 other federal agencies and programs into the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The emphasis of FEMA (which became a department within DHS) was now counterterrorism training and providing equipment for first responders.

All Disasters Are Local.
      Preparedness is the foundation of emergency management and helps to reduce vulnerability to threats. Local, state, and federal preparedness is vital to securing the safety of the country, yet as was clear from the Hurricane Katrina disaster, not all places enjoy the same levels of preparedness. When a disaster strikes, lack of preparedness often translates into loss of life and property and longer recovery periods at the local level, but often there are regional, national, or even international repercussions for such losses.

      Preparedness includes the establishment of warning systems (such as tornado sirens, weather bulletins, and reverse-911 telephone notification) to alert residents of impending danger. Evacuation plans designed especially for high-risk communities, such as those along the nation's hurricane coast or around nuclear or chemical facilities, are another aspect of preimpact preparedness. Evacuation planning takes time and resources, however, and often lies beyond the technical and financial reach of local communities and is not readily financed by state and federal bodies. In particular, evacuation planning must identify special-needs populations—people who are homeless, elderly, infirm, or poor—that is, individuals who may require extra assistance to get out of harm's way. All too often evacuation planning in the U.S. has comprised little more than an elegant traffic analysis that shows poor understanding of human behaviour and overlooks the needs of vulnerable populations (such as residents who do not have a personal automobile).

      Preparedness also entails the establishment of longer-term mitigation strategies aimed at reducing the vulnerability of the built environment. There are many obvious mitigation opportunities—elevating homes in flood-prone areas, requiring wind-resistant construction in hurricane-prone areas, retrofitting buildings to withstand seismic events—but these all require partnerships between residents and various levels of government. Citizens must be aware of the risks and demand better safety measures; local jurisdictions must show the will to pass and enforce building codes and zoning ordinances; and resources from state and federal agencies must be available.

Disaster Relief: Entitlement or Responsibility?
      At present there is no policy in the U.S. that discourages people from moving into high-risk hazard-prone areas. Quite the contrary. Through FEMA the federal government underwrites the National Flood Insurance Program, which allows residents to obtain insurance for properties in flood-prone areas. Private underwriters gave up providing flood insurance directly to consumers because the premiums did not cover the losses. Instead of encouraging disaster-resilient communities, the federal government rewards communities by providing resources to rebuild “bigger and better” after disasters. Rather than preparing for emergencies, individuals and communities wait for a disaster to occur and then seek federal payments to cover the losses. The mechanism of “presidential disaster declarations” rewards rather than penalizes bad siting and land-use decisions. Accordingly, residences are rebuilt time and time again in flood-prone areas.

      How much more prepared might all people be if this federal safety net was not there and communities and individuals had to pay for disaster losses themselves? If citizens and local authorities were required by the government to build disaster-resistant structures and to be more responsible in their choices of construction sites, then rather than being an entitlement for everyone, federal disaster relief could be delivered in larger measure to the truly needy victims. Individual and community responsibility for the development (how, where, and for whom) would create a more resilient future for these high-hazard areas.

Learning from Katrina.
      Hurricane Katrina brought home the lesson that the emergency management system in the U.S. is broken and needs to be fixed—but this has been known since at least 2001. The country needs a highly visible coordinating agency (FEMA) to attend to all phases of the emergency management cycle—preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation. Preparedness and mitigation must have equal status in such an agency and must be funded to the same levels as response and recovery. FEMA needs to be independent and report directly to the president. All appointees within the agency, political or not, should have professional experience in emergency management. Finally, federal disaster policies cannot be nonfunded mandates to state and local governments; such federally mandated programs must be resourced appropriately and flexibly. Only in this way can communities optimize their federal dollars and mitigate the threats that pose the greatest real risk—not just the politically determined hazard du jour.

Susan L. Cutter is Carolina Distinguished Professor of Geography at the University of South Carolina and Director of its Hazards Research Lab; she is an internationally respected scholar in the fields of risk and hazards and is the author/editor of 12 books.

* * *

Universalium. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Preparing for Emergencies — is a public information scheme, produced by the Home Office, a department of the United Kingdom Government, advising British citizens on what to do in the event of a natural disaster, accident or terrorism. The scheme was started on 26 July 2004… …   Wikipedia

  • Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response — Agency overview Formed December, 2006 Preceding agency Office of Public Health Emergency Preparedness Agency executive Nicole Lurie, MD, MSPH, Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Parent agency United States Department of Health and… …   Wikipedia

  • Centre for the Study of Democracy — The Centre for the Study of Democracy (CSD) is a multidisciplinary policy studies research organization which enhances the study of democracy both within Canada and abroad. Founded in the mid 1990s, CSD is a non profit, non partisan organization… …   Wikipedia

  • National Center for Medical Readiness — symbol Formation 2010 Type Emergency management Purpos …   Wikipedia

  • Emergency management — Accident preparedness redirects here. For Safety related articles, see Safety. Disaster preparedness redirects here. For other articles related to disaster preparedness, see Category:Disaster preparedness. Emergency management is the generic name …   Wikipedia

  • Fire service in the United Kingdom — The fire service in the United Kingdom operates under separate legislative and administrative arrangements in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Fire services have undergone significant changes since the beginning of the 21st century …   Wikipedia

  • United States — a republic in the N Western Hemisphere comprising 48 conterminous states, the District of Columbia, and Alaska in North America, and Hawaii in the N Pacific. 267,954,767; conterminous United States, 3,022,387 sq. mi. (7,827,982 sq. km); with… …   Universalium

  • Military Affairs — ▪ 2009 Introduction        Russia and Georgia fought a short, intense war in 2008, fueling global fears of a new Cold War. On August 7 Georgia launched an aerial bombardment and ground attacks against its breakaway province of South Ossetia.… …   Universalium

  • Servicio de bomberos en el Reino Unido — Un camión de bomberos perteneciente a la London Fire Brigade. El servicio de bomberos en el Reino Unido opera bajo acuerdos legislativos y administrativos independientes en Inglaterra, Irlanda del Norte, Escocia y Gales. Los servicios de bomberos …   Wikipedia Español

  • Architecture and Civil Engineering — ▪ 2009 Introduction Architecture       For Notable Civil Engineering Projects in work or completed in 2008, see Table (Notable Civil Engineering Projects (in work or completed, 2008)).        Beijing was the centre of the world of architecture… …   Universalium

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”