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What recent crisis could the United States have been better prepared for? What proactive steps can we take to prepare for similar events in the future?

Discussion Leader: 
HDIAC Staff

Because September is National Preparedness Month, we are taking this opportunity to reflect on ways the United States can be more prepared in the face of disasters and emergencies. Preparedness is critical for everyone in the United States and a shared responsibility across citizens and government alike. 

Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Shawn Beaty looks for survivors in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, La., on Aug. 30, 2005. Beaty, 29, of Long Island, N.Y., is a member of a Coast Guard HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter rescue crew sent from Clearwater, Fla., to assist in search and rescue efforts. DoD photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class NyxoLyno Cangemi, U.S. Coast Guard. (Released)

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Comments

Our country experiences the vast majority of natural disasters, including hurricanes, tornados, wildfires, floods, mudslides, blizzards, and others.  The western United States, and California in particular, are currently facing widespread wildfires.  These are not preventable events but our local and national first responders aim to prevent widespread devastation and resulting humanitarian crises.  The event that sticks out in my mind, and probably others, is the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  The state and local first responders were overwhelmed by the damage and number families that remained in place.  The national response was tardy and haphazard which exacerbated an already tenuous disaster and humanitarian situation.  Better coordinating our responses at every level, providing and proactively helping evacuations, and already having teams on the ground in the aftermath could help alleviate another Katrina-like situation in the future.

With natural disasters sometimes being the hardest to predict or prevent, these instances have the ability to cause the most damage or loss of life. National Preparedness Month highlights many different focused themes, one in particular has the ability to not occur naturally: power outages. The biggest power outage in U.S. history was a man-made disaster that occurred in 2003, the Northeast Blackout, caused by the lack of awareness of operators to re-distribute the power of overloaded transmission lines. As a result, this left a total of 55 million individuals without power for up to a week. Power outages have direct effects on numerous amounts of infrastructure, such as the water supply, transportation and communication. Electrical companies can monitor reports of their power systems and can take other proactive measures such as removing debris from around infrastructure, but most of the time these disasters are out of our control.

The continuing spread of the bird flu and subsequent decimation of flocks is certainly a concerning phenomenon. While it might not be a traditional emergency or disaster senario, the lack of coordination among the various government agencies involved is disturbing and affecting the lives/livelihoods of thousands. It makes me wonder how efficient the collaboration and response would be for a human pandemic. 

National preparedness is a complex goal because there are many unique disasters and emergencies that might result from intentional acts (e.g. terrorism) or unintentional acts (e.g. natural disasters). According to a Department of Defense (DoD) Memorandum, National Preparedness Month 2015 emphasis is focused on emergency communication planning and showing how vital emergency planning is in local man-made and natural hazards. [1]

10 years ago this August marked the anniversary of when Hurricane Katrina hit the American Gulf Coast. The hurricane caused major destruction over a wide area from Texas to Florida. Hurricane Katrina caused approximately 1,200 deaths, making it the third deadliest hurricane in American history, and caused 108 billion dollars in property damage. [2] In terms of intentional disasters, acts of terrorism is a particular concern since the catastrophic attack in September 11, 2001. Terrorism can affect large or small numbers of people and can take different forms of attack, including nuclear, chemical, biological, radiological, cyber, etc.

Looking back on these events allows us to move forward in thinking about how we could better prepare for them. One lesson that the government has learned from these events is the importance of preparing the public for disasters. Some examples include America’s PrepareAthon that showcases hazard-specific resources and the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign to pinpoint suspicious behaviors related to terrorism and crime.  

Another lesson is working cooperatively with federal, state, local, territorial, tribal, and possibly international law enforcement officials. These emergencies and disasters can have enormous efforts and require effective multi-service planning and communication to respond in the shortest amount of time possible.

Lastly, another important lesson is the need to create tools that would help in preparing for, detecting, and responding to disasters. Investing in the development and enhancement of technologies such as surveillance drones, search/rescue robots, sensor technology to detect structural foundation failures, biometric identification, etc. is helping us to prepare and respond to disasters more efficiently, and to protect more lives. 

  1. DoD Participation in the September 2015 National Preparedness Month
  2. Remembering Hurricane Katrina a Decade Later

As it's been previously said, we cannot prevent natural disasters from occurring. But, they are becoming easier to predict, and with more accuracy. It seems as though we should be able to better prepare for these disasters, both in the long term (strengthening the affected infrastructures) and short term (preparing for displaced persons and rescue response).

Sufficient preparation should help limit the damage and loss of life, and make recovery from these events quicker and more efficient. Natural disasters aren't going away, and their frequency and severity seem to be increasing. Preparedness needs to be a nation-wide goal and not just a local effort.