Recently the news has been filled with reports of a devastating fire on Maui, hurricanes affecting cities, heat domes crushing cities daily with temperatures exceeding 100 degrees, smoke in the air, fires burning in Spokane and the northern cascades, and here in the Seattle area we are behind in our rain. Every year the drumbeat of climate pain seems to be getting worse with no end in sight.
Emergency managers in every locality ask us to be prepared and have a plan. Their request may be as simple as having a clear exit strategy if you have a fire in your house. Being people, expecting the unexpected is not something we do well. In a crisis, common sense is often nowhere to be seen, but making better decisions starts with being realistic about the possibilities.
According to NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), we have had 363 weather and climate disasters in the United States that have exceeded a billion dollars in costs since 1980. As of August 8, 2023, we have had 15 events that exceed the billion-dollar mark and we are entering the 2023 hurricane season.
In our area of the country, we are sensitive to earthquakes, volcanoes, windstorms, wildfires, and winter snowfall as potential disaster events. Disaster preparation planning is a unique challenge and as individuals, families, neighbors, municipalities, school districts, businesses, and logistical support chains we all need to have a plan and sense of what to do immediately as well as during the recovery process.
Weather disasters, earthquakes, fires, and volcanoes are part of our planet’s normal cycles. As more of us live in areas that are prone to extreme weather events, many of us have the belief that through technology, or fate, we can weather any storm. That comes with the practice of prior events, arrogance as well and individuals willing to risk their survival.
Part of the arrogance comes from the pride of riding out the event. “This house has weathered many storms – it will do fine in this one too.” We have seen and heard it on television news – people making poor choices when they have never experienced a disaster event or just get trapped in the speed at which things change in dynamic situations.
Regardless of the type of event, it will change communities, lives, and families potentially forever. That is why the government asks, to the point of begging, to be prepared and follow their instructions to evacuate or shelter in place depending on the situation, but it is critical to follow instructions for the safety of all concerned.
The cycle and flow of any disaster event has a unique signature but if people have a personal plan it will mitigate some of the challenges that occur during the event as well as recovery. Each disaster has its own set of optics which should not be seen as just infotainment, but as an opportunity to recognize our own preparedness shortcomings for the types of events we may need to anticipate in our area.
The increasing frequency of the billion-dollar aftermath of these events should have us all concerned. Broadcast media loves a disaster because as their cameras capture disaster imagery, and emotional dramas which retain viewership, they get to practice speculative “what went wrong journalism.” Some of the drama heard frequently in the immediate aftermath of a disaster event spoken by those who have lost everything – “Where is the government?.”
The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) recommends a 72-hour preparedness kit for every household as well as a “go bag” with emergency essentials if a household has to evacuate. Planning information is provided on their website and is mirrored as a standard by many county and municipal emergency management departments.
If our mantra in the face of a disaster is, “Where is the government” it shows our love-hate relationship as a nation with how we want the government to be a direct or indirect participant in the “Help us pick up the pieces so we can get on with our lives” phase. The storm or crisis has arrived, we feel vulnerable, and may not understand the government’s initial response or the assistance and resources that arrive in the aftermath.
In disaster-prone areas, there are prepositioned warehouses full of supplies and equipment to support FEMA teams and the National Guard that may be deployed to start the mitigation process. However, it may take up to 72 hours to get personnel and resources in a position to provide the minimal essential support services of food, water, shelter, assistance vouchers, and the capability to file for long-term assistance.
Public safety and getting things back to normal as quickly as possible is largely the responsibility of local governments with assistance from county, state, and federal officials coordinating resources, expertise, legal declarations, and being a buffer so that localities can begin the recovery process.
Disaster emergency response is complex and is supported by multiple prepositioned contracts for mutual aid between municipalities and private sector service providers. Most of these contracts delineate areas of responsibility, support and cost structures, resource commitments, and tracking requirements to facilitate payment and filing reimbursement requests to federal disaster relief programs as well as insurance companies.
Those efforts may get a municipality through the initial event recovery process but depending on the size of the disaster it could be years before a community will feel whole again. Individuals have an entirely different challenge – rebuilding their lives, possessions, and jobs, and getting to the point of feeling safe.
Due to the frequency of storm events and associated costs, major insurance companies are refusing to write new policies and increasing policy costs significantly on policies they choose to renew in disaster-prone states. Our collective sensitivity needs to increase regarding disaster planning for self-care of at least 72 hours and understanding that government assistance is there for us with lots of caveats.
Most municipalities have on their websites emergency management guidance plans and if you have not thought about your preparedness, they are worth reviewing. Every disaster is different but with a little personal planning, you and your family will be able to navigate a very frustrating survival and recovery process.
Keith Livingston is a retired municipal management professional, lifelong artist and Federal Way resident. He can be reached at email@example.com