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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. Ready.gov 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, OneStorm.org 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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Chris Higginbotham

I can’t play guitar, which may seem irrelevant until I explain why: learning to play guitar takes time. I don’t want to take time. I want to spend my days playing and having fun until a guitar magically appears in my arms and I play it and everyone’s happy.

Not the way it works.

Preparing for disasters takes time. It takes time away from barbecues and soccer games and cooking dinner and sleeping in. The problem is that you want people to prepare for a disaster, and disasters are by nature unpredictable. They aren’t inevitable, so why waste my time if I don’t really know something bad is going to happen. How many people check their tire pressure every day? Not many, but if tire blowouts were more common, they absolutely would.

I’m not justifying the argument or anything, I just think that’s how people rationalize it. Why waste my time now preparing for something that may or may not happen?

Sara Estes Cohen

People who have been through disasters need to push – I know why it’s important to prepare. I know why you need cash ready at all times and a full gas tank (well, at least half) so you don’t end up somewhere on a highway in the middle of the south far far away from a city with no gas stations around; I know why it’s important to know whether or not you should turn off the gas immediately after an earthquake (you shouldn’t, unless you smell gas), etc.

But that’s all because I’ve been through a disaster (and I work in this field)…

Believe you me, however, everyone I know personally (and sometimes not personally) gets an earful every time they say “why should I spend any time preparing?”

Ranting…but all of this is true. It’s important, and no one cares till it’s too late.

Chris Bennett

Thanks for the comments, Chris & Sara.

I agree with you on how people rationalize not preparing, but I do believe small disasters are inevitable for many Americans. If you live in the Gulf, it’s inevitable (or damn near close to inevitable) in your lifetime that you will find yourself without power and access to the food, water and transportation you need. Other areas of the country will face floods, wildfires, blizzards, heat waves, etc. at some point in their lives, but don’t prepare for those much either. Simplify the examples even more and ask how many people have smoke and gas detectors (with batteries) on each floor (and can remember the last time they tested them). I believe it’s in our human nature to avoid worrying about disaster risk when day to day we have so many real smaller life crises to deal with.

The objective of this blog was to paint a picture from some experience that sheds light on how much preparedness initiatives in this country have struggled. If we can’t find some way to be marginally more effective with these programs, I fear that over time money will dry up even further for them.

Peter Sperry

Keep in mind that a great deal of “disaster” preaprations can be achieved with relatively minor effort. I almost always have cash in my pocket and room on the Visa card for emergencies because drawing large amounts from ATMs and paying down credit cards is cheaper than the alternative. I often (not always) have a “go kit” in the trunk of the car because hiking is a hobby and my backpack is either in the trunk or in the garage. Buying food in bulk helps prepare for disasters and also saves money. First aide kits are available in any drug store etc. etc.

Start by incorporating prepartions for the most common disasters (weather delays and shutins, sudden need for money, auto or other mechanical repairs) into daily life and than move to the less comman (distructive weather, unemployment, loss of car or house) and disaster planning preparation becomes much easier.

Chris Bennett

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 🙂

Caryn Wesner-Early

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?

Chris Bennett

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! 🙂

Peter Sperry

@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.

Andrew Krzmarzick

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.

Chris Bennett

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 🙂

Ryan D

Great topic, Chris. I checked out the Ready.gov 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 ready.gov 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.

Andrew Krzmarzick

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?