Just in case anyone missed the news in the past week, the eastern U.S. experienced the shaking of an earthquake followed by torrential rains and winds associated with Hurricane Irene. In light of the media coverage, I dare say there would be few who could have missed both events.
Not surprisingly, the howling winds and saliva spitting by some of the lesser informed pundits in the media this past week probably has the potential to cause more lasting water and wind damage than Irene, and certainly leave people shaking more in fear than the earthquake did.
By all accounts, local, state and federal officials along with their brethren in the non-governmental and private sectors performed well during their preparation and response. In both events, the headline was for the most part one of coordination and communication – not chaos. This bodes well. At the same time, one must marvel at generally how well our citizenry performed. Yes they overloaded the cell system in the critical minutes after the quake, and many chose to venture out into high winds and flooded areas. Yet one thing our citizens did (or did not do) was even more noticeable.
There is no broad evidence of wide-spread panic. True, toilet paper, D-batteries and cans of pork and beans were not available on most store shelves. Yet, beyond those supply side economics I observed something marvelous. In a high-rise parking lot filled with displaced workers last Tuesday, and then again in numerous places across the Washington region and Virginia later in the week, there was a real solid discussion among ordinary citizens about disaster preparedness. I have to tell you that one theme came out over and over again. Citizens are becoming more knowledgeable about the risks they face and are working to become better prepared.
Let me be abundantly clear. Citizen disaster preparedness as a whole is not where it should be. But as someone who has been around the disaster business for nearly 30 years, I can say that it appears a much higher percentage of citizens are better prepared than they were 10 years ago. I don’t think the improvement is limited to the Washington region. In between TV pundits over the weekend, we caught glimpses of ordinary Americans – from North Carolina to New York and from Virginia to Vermont talking in serious terms about what they, their families and their communities were doing to be prepared. It was the type of informed talk that has been a long time coming and is sweet to hear.
One thing that is also clear from this past week is that America’s politicians – at all levels and of all ideological perspectives – have learned the lessons of Katrina. From the most charismatic to the most caustic, political leaders sought to inform and manage expectations. Generally, they tempered their remarks with the right level of equivocation that is needed in dealing with vagueness of damages associated with an earthquake that had just occurred and in-face of flooding and wind damage that might occur. The politicians offered thoughtful steps individuals could take to reduce the uncertainties and consequently reduce the fears that often keep ordinarily level-headed citizens from doing (or not doing) what is best for themselves and their families in the face of a potential disaster.
I suspect there may be some pundits who will say in the coming days and weeks that Irene and the earthquake “were not all that bad.” It is important to remember that for those who lost loved ones or had their home or business damaged or destroyed, this was indeed “their big one.” Quite possibly the scope and seemingly reduced severity of the event (by comparison to what it could have been) will not test local, state, federal and corporate emergency management capabilities as if it were a catastrophic event like Katrina – especially emergency housing and recovery programs. Yet the simple fact remains that there will likely be criticisms as recovery efforts move forward. No matter how well managed recovery programs may be, the emotional tolls caused by disaster coupled with disruptions and unrealistic expectations cause even the most reasonable to become unreasonable. It is a fact of disasters that does not change – even with exceptional performance during the recovery phase.
Several years ago, comedians found amusement in some of the government’s messages about disaster preparedness. It has taken nearly a decade, but that amusement has been replaced by amazement as more and more American’s are becoming better prepared for disasters. Not long ago, my children educated their dad about a new group – “the nerd herd.” They tell me that this is the group of kids that masters a subject with such skill and depth that they can stampede the school bully who would make fun of someone for being smart. I have to wonder if the aftershocks of last week’s earthquake are in-fact the stampede of citizens seeking to be better prepared for future disasters – over the catcalls of under-informed pundits, comedians and schoolyard bullies.
To those citizens, pundits, public officials and politicians who performed well during the past week, have a T-shirt made that proudly proclaims you are part of “America’s Preparedness Nerd Herd.” If that is a reach then at least resolve to be unapologetic about preparedness. The fact is that what you did last week saved lives, and saving lives is something you should never be apologetic about having done.