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After The Hype 

Closing the Resilience Gap Still Crucial for Underserved Communities

On each anniversary of the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, I pause to reflect on, and pray for those 1,836 souls who perished in the devastating storm and flooding that followed. Recently, I ran across an article about efforts in New Orleans to reach out to residents with a survey asking if they plan to evacuate during a hurricane. The article made me begin to think about the realities of "stay or go" as it related to citizens, and also the ramifications on businesses organizations, and the underserved. Needless to say, a great deal of planning has taken place in the Gulf region and throughout the country since Katrina.

Within this ongoing response-recovery push exists a "resilience gap" that has become wider for the underserved. Despite the efforts of many to get individuals and households to prepare, more than 66 percent of U.S. households by conservative estimates have done nothing to prepare. That figure is likely much higher among people below poverty, elderly, limited English speakers, disabled, and those without personal transportation, disposable income, or access to the internet, Bridging this readiness gap will require new, creative approaches to get people prepared, and to better equip response and relief agencies, and private companies to respond more efficiently when they don't. While some have taken the issue to new levels, most practitioners have not.

Closing this resilience gap involves several key concepts that could change outcomes for all disaster survivors:

  • Stop preaching preparedness as a concept, and begin integrating preparedness into ALL work and leisure activities. This means conducting preparedness events, workshops, fairs, and social activities, using every opportunity to show people how to prepare. Some corporations and communities have already done this, holding regular events focused on getting families ready for major disasters and every day emergencies. Preparing the work force is preparing the community. If people can't get back to work, business and the local economy suffer. Preparedness can't be a "get to" it must become a "have to" if we are going to move the needle on our woeful lack of basic readiness. Preparedness cannot be an annual activity during National Preparedness Month, it requires a daily commitment.  
  • Funding should be re-purposed from existing federal and state grant programs that provide little more than "information", to programs that incentivize stakeholders to do more to prepare their communities. Particular attention (and substantial funding) should be given to helping non-profits, community based, and faith institutions, as well as those focused on preparing seniors, and the disabled. Discard superfluous  programs that provide little or no  funding to support organizations doing community real preparedness activities.
  • Establish Whole Community preparedness benchmarks such as number of households with disaster kits, and number of people trained in CPR and First Aid, to reward those who deliver measurable results, not soft simply "recognition for intangible outreach efforts. We should be able to ask ourselves each day "how many people did I get ready for the next emergency" While preparedness for responders is vastly improved, the reality of disasters is more must be done to prepare for recovery. Other areas must be addressed that could save lives and reduce suffering including:
  • Develop public-private partnerships for pre-staging purified water (not bottled) and disaster emergency provisions in strategic secure locations in major risk areas such as the Gulf region. It takes days or weeks to gear up the disaster supply chain after a declaration. Meanwhile, the clean drinking water needed to sustain life is tied up in a costly and slow process of getting it into the affected area, distributing and replenishment.
  • Provide mobile water purification systems to allow local municipalities and hospitals, nursing facilities, and other vulnerable facilities to purify their own drinking water. This will ensure these facilities are functional while responders focus on restoring power and other important utilities.
  • Stop planning and start doing. Enough disaster plans have been written to last for the next 100 years. (I have personally written many of them). Consultants and "experts" have made millions of dollars talking about what we can, should, or would do. Scarcely few of them have actually been close to a real disaster. Plans are worthless if at the end of the day we wind up where we are in Baton Rouge, where more poor, elderly, disabled, and people below poverty were totally unprepared for the flooding and the aftermath.
  • Focus efforts on what people need to do after the disaster. Saturate information into communities that are at-risk for disasters before they happen, and ensure residents have adequate facts to avoid scam artists, financial predators, and unscrupulous contractors. Maximize the customer service and program support for disaster relief programs. Help people recover by "demystifying" the disaster system and explaining programs in clear, understandable terms.

Last but not least, we must look within ourselves and admit that despite our best efforts we have failed to prepare those who are least able to prepare themselves......the underserved. The are, after all is said and done, unable to self-evacuate in most cases, and incapable of preparing without the resources and empowerment that we practitioners alone can provide. Resilience is not merely the ability to "bounce back" but to rebuild one's capability better than it was before the setback.

Better outcomes require better inputs. Disasters are going to happen. What we do to prepare is within our control. The suffering in Katrina, Sandy, Baton Rouge, Flint, or other devastated communities can happen where you live. Are you ready?

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