Pure Genius

Why Americans aren't prepared for the next mega-disaster

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The head of a national disaster preparedness center says Americans are grossly unengaged and unprepared for the next disaster, which could be a massive earthquake, dirty bomb or pandemic that puts swine flu to shame. (Does his family have an updated escape plan?)

I have multiple flashlights, a battery-operated radio, several bags of grains and 20 pounds of dog food. But if Washington faces the kind of disaster that Irwin Redlener says will inevitably happen—in some U.S. city—and I have to escape from town or seal myself in my rowhouse for any period of time, my future looks grim.

I’m not alone. According to Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Americans are grossly unprepared for the next disaster. He says horrific events such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina have served less as wake-up calls than snooze alarms—before Americans are pulled back into complacency.

Redlener is the author of Americans at Risk: Why We Are Not Prepared for Megadisasters and What We Can Do and co-founder of the Children’s Health Fund with the singer Paul Simon. Last week, I talked to him about the Disaster Preparedness Center, founded in 2003.

I see one of your research areas is citizen engagement. How are people feeling about disasters and emergency planning these days?

The issue of how, when and if citizens get engaged in an effective way in disasters is one of the greatest misunderstood challenges in the field of disaster response planning. We’ve never as a country been able to engage in a full or effective way of preparing, in which people are looking out for themselves and not depending on outside help. Even in the heyday—the 1950s and ‘60s--when there was a lot of talk about bomb shelters, very few people did anything about it.

After 9/11, we don’t find much change in the willingness of the general population in doing what they need to do. I speak a lot, and virtually every audience, I ask, “How many of you are prepared, according to published guidelines, for a major disaster?” If I get more than two or three hands in a crowded auditorium, I’m always surprised. It’s even true among disaster planning professionals. There’s a very high level of resistance in the general public to following guidelines to get prepared.

Until the next big thing happens.

Yes, then there’s a rush. People refer to these as wake-up calls. But they seem to function more as snooze alarms. We get up, we may spend some money, but the pull back into a state of complacency is overwhelming.

What are the new big areas in the field of disaster preparedness?

The development of “all-hazard preparedness.” There’s Ready.gov, or local equivalents like ReadyNYC. The message says these are the kinds of hazards you might be facing in your area—earthquakes, terrorism, fires—and how you should prepare.

I am now questioning several things about this:

  • Who are the messengers, and are they trusted messengers? Do we want to hear this from physicians, mayors, the head of the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]?
  • I question the premise of all-hazard preparedness. I think people find it overwhelming and don’t want to think about it. People have a limited capacity for reading about disasters in general.
  • The efforts people would have to make to be prepared is daunting, especially for a poor family. There can be an economic burden and a storage burden.

What does being prepared really mean?

That’s the first challenge. We’re not really sure. It means having a battery-operated radio, having your papers in order, having food for three days. But sometimes these are not appropriate guidelines. If you're preparing for a major pandemic, where gathering in public spaces is not allowed, stockpiling for three days is not enough.

There is no working definition of “preparedness,” so if you can’t define it, how do you know what you need to get there, and how much it costs?

Is it a matter of people not taking the initiative to get prepared, other than buying duct tape several years ago?

We’ve done a survey: If you are involved in and survived a really significant disaster and you can dial 911, how long do you think before responders will show up? It turns out people’s perception is way off. They think it will be an hour, but in reality, we’re talking three days or never. So if you have a misguided sense of how quickly outsiders will come and help you, don't you have an obligation to prepare yourself?

In Israel there’s a wide understanding that you have to have a safe room in the house. What’s most important to Israeli planners is this concept of situational awareness, knowing you could function in a disaster. It also suggests that people are somewhat aware at all times that potential situations can occur: If you’re a parent at the airport with your children, you have a general awareness of what’s happening, what looks suspicious, where your kids are.

Is this manner of not being engaged a particularly American thing?

It’s got particularly American aspects. Culturally we don’t really like investments in the future anymore. The days when Eisenhower could declare that we needed a national highway system for defense and commerce and get it done--those days of mega-investments for long-term gain have died an ugly political death. So I think that’s a problem that is uniquely American. The Dutch live under sea level, but they decided years ago they would invest in extraordinarily sophisticated ways of keeping the ocean under their country. If we had that, we would have never seen flooding in the U.S.

In some places—London, Belfast, Israel, Madrid—there seems to be more willingness on the part of the public to understand their role in the event of a disaster. Including, in Israel, if there’s a bombing in a café, that place is reopened for business the next day. That contributes to resiliency. In our country we have this lingering inability to do recovery, which contributes to the sense that we’re not willing to be prepared. The Gulf is still recovering from Katrina, they now have the oil calamity, and in the back of their minds they are thinking about the 2010 hurricane season.

What cities are best prepared?

I am seriously concerned--as is the federal government is—about the possibility of terrorists building a nuclear device that will be detonated in a major U.S. city. But there is no city—especially a high priority city (New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston) that has any degree of reasonable preparedness for such an event.

It’s very much disaster-specific. Miami is better prepared for major hurricanes than many other hurricane-prone cities. San Francisco is doing better than other earthquake-prone cities. How would New York City handle less dramatic acts of terrorism, like a suicide bomber or a dirty bomb? They have an extraordinarily responsive police department. In those cases, those cites are doing reasonably well.

The U.S. has about 5,000 hospital systems. They were supposed to be getting $500 million a year in funding [for disaster preparedness]. It’s more like $400 million. Putting money into disaster preparedness is very far from the top of the list. To get the hospital system to a higher level of disaster preparedness would take a $5 billion initial investment and $1 billion to maintain it. So we’re getting what we pay for—a shockingly unprepared U.S. health care system.

What are the top public worries today?

I don’t think people have that many worries, except for people like me who worry every day there’s going to be a nuclear attack a few blocks from here.

For a lot of the country, there’s no appetite to hear what we’re talking about. It’s, “I don’t have a job, I can’t pay the rent.” I wouldn’t want to ask that person if they had three days of food stockpiled.

What’s your biggest worry?

I’m always concerned about having a pandemic that’s far more serious than what we experienced last year--like a Spanish flu scenario

There are some natural disasters we’re due for: a massive earthquake, and I’m not talking about California. The New Madrid Fault runs through the middle of the country, where cities are not prepared for earthquakes. Seventy million Americans live in potential earthquake areas.

Then there’s terrorism, which I think is inevitable in the U.S.; subway bombs and suicide bombings, which I think are going to happen; and the potential of nuclear weapon detonation by a terrorist group in one of our cities.

Finally, I’m concerned about the safety of nuclear power plants in terms of meltdowns.

You live in Manhattan?

Westchester.

What have you personally done to prepare for these disasters?

We live in New Rochelle. After 9/11 we had a big extended family meeting and talked about who would pick up grandma and what our alternative ways of communicating would be. We reviewed that once a couple years later, but we have not done so in the last three or four years. We need to review our food supply. It’s on our to-do list, but it hasn’t been done. True confession now.

Well, you’ve made me feel really good about carrying on with life.

[Laughs.] Yeah, I’m just going to pick up a glass of hemlock here.

Nobody wants to think about this. But we have to think about it enough so it doesn’t disrupt our lives--like putting on a seatbelt in the car. We do it automatically now, but before that, tens of thousands of people died. These are things not particularly fun to think about, but we do them because we have a sense of potential hazards in the future that we’d like to mitigate.

As grown ups, we have to be able to expand the to-do list. It’s like saying to a busy executive, “You have to change your lifestyle or you’re going to have a heart attack,” and the executive saying, “I don’t have time.” You can’t get away with that. You need to be able to accommodate what’s needed to survive. I think that’s what adults are supposed to do.

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure