More than a decade and a half ago, I heard my esteemed colleague Dr. William Hooke talk to a meeting of meteorologists in Boulder, Colorado, about a concept of his, the mutating disaster. In Bill’s words,
Reality: Disasters are mutating in response to rapid social change, and scientific and technical advance. Consider just a few examples. In 1812 the central United States experienced a series of earthquakes exceeding magnitude 8.0 on the Richter scale – three over a period of a few months. These New Madrid earthquakes destroyed the dwellings of the few hundred indigenous people and settlers in the area, created a new lake adjacent to the Mississippi River, and rang church bells in Boston, a thousand miles away. Today the area’s population runs into the several millions. Many of the natural gas pipelines serving the northeastern United States run through this region. The consequences of the next New Madrid earthquake will be far more sweeping than the last.
As Bill discussed, it used to be that disasters were localized events that took relatively large numbers of lives in the community affected but caused relatively little economic damage outside of the immediate area.
Now, meteorologists have cut the tornado death rate (deaths per million population) by more than 95% and we save thousands of lives each year in hurricanes. With rare exceptions like the Joplin tornado, American society can depend on weather science to provide advance warnings of major storms.
But, as Bill predicted, we have entered into the era of the mega-disaster that affects multiple states including areas far beyond those that actually experience the storm. This is due not only to population growth but to the interdependence now woven into our society. We no longer chop wood from our own property to put into a stove that cooks and warms. We use natural gas from a thousand miles away brought in by a pipeline. We don’t grow our food locally, we depend on a grocery store that has, at most, three days’ inventory. Instead of a warehouse of parts next door to an automotive assembly plant, it relies on “just in time inventory” with less than a day’s worth of parts to assemble into a car. If a blizzard two hundred miles away interrupts the delivery of parts, the plant shuts down. Finally, over the last six decades, increasingly affluent people have moved into the path of hurricanes (coastal counties) putting more and more valuable homes and items into harm’s way.
So, Bill was right: Disasters have mutated. But, have our disaster planning, warning, and response systems kept pace? Increasing evidence says no.
The National Weather Services forecasts of the threat posed by Sandy were excellent in what was a scientifically extraordinary storm. But, based on the best evidence I have seen, its communication of the threat was confusing and bogged down in NWS bureaucracy.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is frequently criticized on this blog and its efforts in the wake of Sandy seem characteristically high on PR value to the agency but poor in the eyes of Sandy’s victims:
“We are the people – we are the middle class, and we are getting the finger,” said frustrated resident Scott McGrath, who personally spoke to President Obama and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo when they came to Staten Island to inspect storm damage earlier this month. “You were there when I met Obama, and I told the president … that the middle class was getting the royal finger. And he said, ‘FEMA works for me.’”
“FEMA ain’t doing nothing,” McGrath added. “They keep going around in circles.”
Or, just published this morning by a Sandy victim:
Yesterday I spoke to, let’s see, eight, maybe nine different FEMA agents. Each one was there to help. Each was polite, sympathetic. Oodles of sympathy. Almost all had a form for me to fill out, a web site to visit. Each of the long, long line of people who came to see these agents went away with forms to fill out, web sites to visit.
[he goes on to explain the web of red tape he discovered, then writes:]
At that time—only a few weeks ago, but how distant it seems—everyone was urging you to push ahead quickly, quickly, maybe you’d be back in the house by Thanksgiving. Or Christmas. Or New Year’s. Certainly by the end of January, or February at the latest. Unless, of course (of course!)—well, let’s just say that there are still more chapters to come.
I used to think that Franz Kafka exaggerated things. I see now that he was not so much a novelist or fantasist as he was a documentary artist. I can’t say I am happy about the discovery.
The Red Cross seems to escape scrutiny, but their disaster relief efforts often seem too little, too late:
In the days and weeks since Sandy ravaged parts of the New York and New Jersey coasts, however, residents in some of the hardest-hit areas say they still have seen no sign of the Red Cross. “The Red Cross was not a central player in those early days,” said New York City Councilman Brad Lander. He added, however, that he was warned before the storm that when the city met with the ARC, the group warned that it didn’t have the capacity to be on the ground in all areas that could potentially be affected.
Immediately after the storm hit, Lander says, there was a lack of resources at city shelters, where he was sent by the Office of Emergency Management to organize volunteers. He added that he saw an “inadequate food and supply distribution” in the overall relief effort in the days immediately following the storm. Rather than wait for help from the Red Cross, he and other city councilmen reached out to local organizations in their districts.
“Not a central player” yet they go on television and, over and over, ask for and collect tens of millions for disaster relief. Its performance in Hurricane Katrina was so poor, Congress was forced to dictate changes. From Wikipedia,
In March 2006, investigations of allegations of fraud and theft by volunteers and contractors within the American Red Cross Katrina operations were launched by the Louisiana Attorney General and the FBI. In response, the American Red Cross increased its internal and external education of the organization's fraud and waste hotline for confidential reporting to a third party agency. The organization also elected to implement a background check policy for all volunteers and staff, starting in 2006.
In April 2006, an unnamed former American Red Cross official leaked reports made by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the British Red Cross. Such reports are typical in a large-scale disaster relief operation involving other national Red Cross societies to solicit their input, but are usually confidential and not released to the general public. These particular reports were particularly critical of American Red Cross operations in Hurricane Katrina affected regions, although the British Red Cross report highly praised the American Red Cross volunteers in their efforts.
The Red Cross's response to Sandy has received similar criticism:
But the Red Cross efforts got off to a very slow start.
As Sandy approached, the American Red Cross headquarters in Washington, D.C. arranged five staging areas in cities expected to be just outside the storm's path, Lowe said. Supplies and staff were moved out of the New York region to avoid damage.
One of those cities was Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where Lowe said response vehicles and other supplies were stored. When contacted after the storm, though, local Red Cross officials in Harrisburg said they had prepared primarily to serve local victims. Only after they made sure Pennsylvania residents were all right - a process that took three days - were resources sent on to New York City, the officials said.
Similar stories were told by local Red Cross officials in Baltimore, another staging area. Local officials in the other three designated places either would not comment, could not be reached for comment or were responding to Sandy's damage to their own communities.
The Red Cross said traffic delayed by three days its efforts to serve Staten Island, the Rockaways, Coney Island and other hard-hit communities in and around New York City. That was despite all main bridges to those communities being open the day after Sandy.
This is just a small, small sample to give readers a taste of what I believe is an increasingly serious problem.
Are these criticisms fair? I believe so but readily admit I don’t know. Why? Because there is no agency, government or non-profit, tasked with evaluating how we do in handing disasters in their entirety.
I believe it is time for that to change. I’m proposing a National Disaster Review Board modeled along the lines of the National Transportation Safety Board. It would provide independent, professional advice to the nation about how to better plan for disasters, communicate risk, and recover once they occur. It would more than pay for itself.
In Part II, I’ll explain how I believe such a board would work and its benefits.