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CB2: Will We Ever Prepare for Disasters?

Where to begin? How does someone who has dedicated the better part of the past 5 years to family disaster preparedness come to terms with the conclusion that people who prepare will always represent such a tiny minority? In this week's CB2, I'll break from the oil spill temporarily to present an issue that's been weighing heavily on my mind.

It started in 2005 when I moved from the northeast down to Florida to find myself in the middle of one of the worst hurricane seasons on record, watching the devastation that Katrina, Rita and others unleashed upon the Gulf. Having no idea what to do or how to prepare, I naturally went to the Internet to find answers. five years ago was weak at best, and there wasn't anything better to go by. For me and co-worker Peter Loui, that was the inspiration to make something better. With that, was born.

Today, after years of continued money and effort, I believe we're the best preparedness resource online, not to mention the #1 result on Google for "hurricane plan" (maybe #3 depending where you live) and guess what? It doesn't mean much. I don't know if it's more embarrassing or scary how low traffic is for the top result on such an important topic. And we're not alone.

The Great Hurricane Blowout, Sponsored by Kohler, State Farm, Home Depot, ourselves and others - with spokesperson Morgan Freeman! - has only amassed under 1,400 members this year. The official Texas preparedness campaign READY OR NOT ceased its interactive planning tools and promotion after statewide TV, radio, and online advertising yielded only some 6,000 members statewide over a three year period. Year after year I've seen sponsorships pulled, interest dwindle, and fewer new projects starting. I've focused on hurricanes here, but the experience is similar for flooding, earthquake, wildfires, terrorism and other crises.

So I wonder, what is the future of online preparedness and what should government's role be? Could we be doing better, or is too big of an uphill battle? Do you have any success stories to share?

This reflection is only valuable if I can voice some takeaways from the situation. So here we go:

  • Accept that most people in your community (for government, people you represent) are not prepared for a crisis and expect them to look to you for their basic needs.

  • Make preparedness resources accessible to them anyway, because those who seek it out will utilize it. Even if 1% of the population prepares, crisis response just got 1% easier.

  • If we inherently don't prepare ("It will never happen to me"), we need to incentivize preparedness. Insurance discounts, tax-free shopping days, coupons for completing hazard plans, and other carrots.

  • Focus on the kids. Teach preparedness in elementary schools (especially in disaster-prone areas) and assign homework to go over the family's emergency plan at home.

Read Last Week's CB2: Understanding the BP Relief Wells.

About Chris Bennett

Chris Bennett is a self-proclaimed emergency management innovator who is trying to make government better by improving citizen preparedness and crisis communications. He’s a graduate of Wharton with a master’s from Harvard with in “Technology, Innovation, Education.” His portfolio of companies and former projects include OneStorm Hurricane Preparedness, ReadyTown, GovLive, TexasPrepares and America’s Emergency Network. Chris was the recipient of FL Governor Crist’s 2008 Public Information Award. He lives in St. Petersburg, FL, loves to fish, and has been spotted sharing a pint with GovLoop Founder Steve Ressler in Tampa.

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Comment by Chris Bennett on July 20, 2010 at 11:07am
That's great, Ryan. CERT programs are key, and has come a long way.
Comment by Andrew Krzmarzick on July 20, 2010 at 11:05am
No pictures of the ladder, but is it any encouragement that these two Twitter handles have 1 million+ followers?

@AsteroidWatch - not sure if this is watching or preparing

That's how I am preparing...just watching their tweets...or so citizens think?
Comment by Ryan D on July 20, 2010 at 10:50am
Great topic, Chris. I checked out the site because our agency hung posters in the building. After reading a lot on this topic, I set a goal to be one of the people in the neighborhood/community/country who would be prepared. (Instead of being one of the millions saying "now what?") From I got hooked in with my city's Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), and finished my training in the fall.

Our city has a goal of 1% of the population being CERT trained, and the local fire and police are trained to coordinate with us. That's a pretty good start for our community.
Comment by Chris Bennett on July 20, 2010 at 10:25am
Andy, you had me hooked! I do think first person testimony is powerful, especially when it comes from someone you know. And please, I hope you have pictures of the ladder practice :)
Comment by Andrew Krzmarzick on July 20, 2010 at 9:42am
One of my earliest childhood memories was a traveling salesman coming to our tiny Nebraska town, inviting my parents to buy a ladder that would hang from the window and allow us to escape in the event of a fire. My parents purchased two. The next Saturday, we conducted a family fire drill, testing the ladder to make sure we all knew how to use it.

Three weeks later, a huge fire engulfed our home and we barely escaped...and probably wouldn't have survived if not for that ladder.

Okay, so that's not really how the story ends. We never had a fire. And I pray that no one in my family ever has to encounter that kind of emergency (unrealistic to pray for everyone here, otherwise I would!).

Moral 1: The ladder was a smart purchase - it's more effective than tying sheets together and asking my wife or me to hold on to our baby while attempting to use them as a makeshift rappelling device.

Moral 2: It was even smarter to practice using it. Our neighbors may have got a chuckle out of it. But we were ready.

Moral 3: What if our story would have ended in fire? Does that kind of account, told in a compelling way, convince people to prepare? I'm not sure...but first-person testimony is hard to ignore.
Comment by Peter Sperry on July 20, 2010 at 9:26am
@Caryn -- It's a judgement call. I once owned a house with a backyard that dropped over 100 feet and the last 5 were in a flood plain. I successfully appealed the mortgage requirment for flood insurance by pointing out that with a 100 foot drop the house itself would never be in danger. Nevertheless, preparation is often inexpensive and easy.

BTW, how difficult would it be for our local governments to establish emergency lease agreements with sister cities further north to have them drive their equipment south when major snow storms are forecast? Much cheaper than owning and maintaining but would guarantee we have access to the big rigs when we need them.
Comment by Chris Bennett on July 16, 2010 at 10:44am
Possibly from a municipality's perspective, Caryn. I do think the ROI personally is very high for a $50-$100 investment on some extra bottled water, smoke/gas detectors, canned food, extra cell phone battery, first aid kit, weather radio, and a couple bucks on hand. I see where you're coming from though and thanks for the comment! :)
Comment by Caryn Wesner-Early on July 15, 2010 at 5:38pm
Part of the problem is ROI - if it's statistically unlikely that a disaster will happen, is it really worth it being prepared? Case in point is this past winter's "Snowpocalypse" - here in the DC area, that was a once-a-decade storm. People from farther north ridiculed us for not having the equipment to clear it out in good time, but how much would it cost to own that equipment, garage it, maintain it, and make sure it's ready when we have another such storm in 2020? Compare that to how much it cost *not* to be prepared (I have no idea of the numbers involved) - is it actually worth it to be prepared for an unlikely disaster?
Comment by Chris Bennett on July 15, 2010 at 11:04am
Thanks Peter. You're absolutely right. And cash is a big one. If power and communication lines are down, we're quickly a cash system. If you didn't purchase your basic needs before the event, you could be stuck with no way to purchase them during/after.

Another point that comes to mind - one that I heard from an emergency manager years ago - is the unspoken goal of local/state governments when they put out these preparedness programs is: "Just survive on your own without needing our help for 3 days, because we're going to be too busy with those in dire need to do anything for you." That's one reason why there's such a focus on water, canned food and first aid on the supply side, and "how will you contact & meet your family" on the planning side, because sorry, they'll be too busy at first to help you find little Johnny.

Oh, and I almost used this sign instead :)

Comment by Peter Sperry on July 15, 2010 at 9:27am
@Chris - Forgot to mention I love the sign.

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