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Only The Strong Survive

Is FEMA's New Preparedness Posture a Death Sentence for the Underserved?

· preparedness,disasters,underserved citizen,at-risk communities

Several recent articles have featured FEMA Administrator Brock Long discussing the need for a culture of preparedness in disasters. He cites the record breaking financial costs of last year's hurricane season, and the continuing increase in catastrophic disasters, as clear evidence that we need a new approach to citizen preparedness. Many of us in this profession have been preaching for years that more focus (and funding) needs to be placed on preparedness, and less on response planning and recovery. So exactly what does Mr. Long mean when he says we need to do a better job preparing people to care for themselves?

On their face, Mr. Long's words appear to signal a shift in emphasis on post-disaster recovery funding at the federal level, while putting more resources toward preparing citizens and communities. But reading between the lines, one could make the equal assumption that "you're on your own" will become the new normal under this change in policy. If that's the case, it would mean a death sentence for poor and underserved communities, who already suffer and die disproportionately in disasters. It reminds me of a 1960's R&B tune from my youth "Only the Strong Survive". The song wasn't about disasters, but rather about a lovesick young man whose girlfriend has just dumped him. In the song, the boy goes to his mom for consolation and advice, to which she responds, get back out there and find another girl, only the strong survive. The parables between Jerry Butler's hit song and the "new" FEMA posture are clear. The problem is, there is no other girl except the agency that has been telling us to "get a kit and make a plan" for 16 years, without much success, even among those who can afford to do so. Now FEMA seems to be saying sink or swim, which is okay I guess if you own a raft.

Cuts in all funding of Citizens Corps several years ago (not that it was the greatest success in poor urban communities anyway, but that's another topic) and the total lack of an kind of benchmarks for what constitutes a prepared community (is it when every family has two cans of food and some bottled water stashed away?) are just a few realities of the failure to prepare Americans, wealthy or poor.

So was the message being sent in Puerto Rico during hurricane Maria, when the President giddily tossed paper towels at residents, complained to anyone who would listen how the recovery was breaking the budget, and engaged in a running feud with San Juan's Mayor over the "successful" response, declaring victory while 95% of the island was still without power, a harbinger for things to come?

I know Administrator Long personally from my work at Walgreens Co. in his role as a consultant in Chicago. I believe he is an honest and honorable person, highly intelligent and experienced, and he definitely understands the nuances of the disaster system. That said, I my experience tells me when policy begins to shape programs and funding, the disenfranchised are the ones who usually get hurt the most. Especially if said programs are cast by the administration as entitlements or handouts as was the case in Puerto Rico. FEMA is now saying citizens need to step up, but with what? and how? CPR and first aid classes aren't free, neither is a disaster kit for people below poverty, children, elderly on fixed incomes, disabled, those without transportation, and for others such as Native Americans living on reservations and the homeless. There are almost no programs at any level for training children in disaster literacy (not a fire drill) or trauma informed prevention. Preparing underserved populations is possible, but it will take more than just a threat that "we won't be there to save you so you'd better get prepared".

In 2012, the conservative Heritage Foundation said in a report on disasters, DO NO HARM. They went on to state "this means the system must not erode the ability of people to care for themselves, so first responders can care for those who are most seriously injured and cannot care for themselves". Well unfortunately, the harm has already been done as it relates to underserved communities. Partly because the message has been mixed, at least until now. It was this confusion (and other political factors) that led to the deaths of 1,836 people in Katrina in my opinion. Most of those who died could be described as underserved. Post-Katrina we continued to encourage people to prepare, but kind of gave the impression that by spending massive amounts of money on training and equipment and touting FEMA's capabilities, if you don't prepare FEMA will be there to save you.

I applaud Administrator Long's courageous stand on preparedness. It really has been a long time coming, and we must begin to change the discussion and approach to seek new ways to build a preparedness culture. The word culture to me is made up of language, habits, norms, and history. A prepared community must take all this into account, devising culturally relevant programs to resonate with, like it or not, a diverse community. So telling a single mother with a minimum wage job to put two cans of tuna and some extra cash in a plastic container under the bed for some threat that may occur in the future is not creating a culture of preparedness. She will quickly tell you that if she has two cans of tuna, that's tomorrow's dinner, and any extra cash will be used for bus fare to her job and school lunch for her child because the program that previously fed him once per day was eliminated.


My point here is that for those of us fortunate enough to have access to information, resources to survive and recover, and means to care for ourselves and our families, good for us. If we don't prepare we have no excuse, and deserve whatever consequences befall us. But there are many more who simply don't have the means or the opportunity to gain disaster literacy, and lack the resources to evacuate or recover. Just because you may not know anyone who fits the description of being underserved does not mean they don't exist.

If Mr. Long is serious, and I believe he is, the shift will be to dramatically change the current FEMA grant structures to focus on preparing the very people they've had to rescue time and again. Most people, with the proper tools and training, would rather not depend on others, especially the government for anything. The alternative is to cut and run, leaving millions of people even more vulnerable, which could spell a death sentence for underserved American citizens.

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