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Why I Became An Anti-Disaster Kit Advocate

Vincent B. Davis - CEM, MCP, NEMAA

As emergency managers, preparedness is part of our roles as defined in the National Response Framework and other related doctrines. For nearly two decades since preparedness has been integrated into planning at the local, state, and federal levels, emergency managers throughout the country have struggled with how to change citizen behavior to convince more people to' Get-a-kit'. This effort, which has cost billions of dollars to promote, advertise, beg, and cajole Americans to prepare, has not only been mostly unsuccessful but has in fact been an abysmal failure. By FEMA's own statistics, a little over 1/3 of Americans have taken any steps to prepare. In underserved communities, that figure is more likely closer to 100 percent being unprepared. This pattern escalated into a crisis in 2017 when Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria killed 3,167 people and caused $276 billion in damage, and prompted then FEMA Administrator Brock Long to declare ''We have failed to create a culture of preparedness."

The failure is partly due to the mixed message disaster agencies continue to give to the public, (prepare your home and family but if you don't we'll be here to save you) and partly because many Americans are too preoccupied, too lazy, and not financially capable of stockpiling disaster supply items. A range of factors affect the likelihood of living in poverty – the poverty threshold in the United States was defined in 2018 as a four-person household earning $25,000 or less.

Where and when a person was born, their race, their education level and that of their parents, their age and health, the composition of their family, and the status of their relationship are all variables determining poverty status. Expecting millions of people to spend their meager income on disaster convenience items is a stretch at best. The number of people living below poverty has increased dramatically since COVID-19. The real question is even if 80% of the public had a kit, would it really change death and displacement outcomes? Three days of supplies would hardly make a difference in most instances.

A Special Report by The Heritage Foundation Emergency Preparedness Working Group focused on the lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The group identified key observations, findings, and recommendations that have implications for preparing for and responding to natural disasters in the United States. Among its key findings were:

  • FEMA must no longer be made to respond to all manner of routine disasters so that when truly catastrophic disasters strike, such as Hurricane Sandy, FEMA, and its pocketbook are prepared.
  • Where FEMA failed in its response efforts and overall preparedness, the National Guard and Coast Guard excelled. Ensuring that such success continues in the future requires that both Guards receive the resources they need.
  • Particularly for disaster response, State Defense Forces offer their states important, low-cost force multipliers. Given this fact, and building on the success seen during Hurricane Sandy, more states at high risk of a natural disaster should look to establish these forces.
  • More responsibility should be returned to the states in terms of disaster response and recovery. So too, the vital role of the local community, civil society, and the private sector must not be overlooked.
  • These lessons should have been learned before—from Hurricane Katrina to the Gulf oil spill—yet the nation continues to fall short in terms of planning for catastrophic disaster response and recovery. It is time for the U.S. to stop brushing these shortfalls aside, and to ensure that the country is truly prepared for the next major disaster.

Still today only 26 states have legislatively set aside disaster funds to assist residents after emergencies. The others operate in a 'wish and hope' posture. They wish disasters wouldn't happen, but hopefully, if they do occur the damage rises to a level to qualify for a FEMA declaration to guarantee federal relief funds.

Should the states be punished for this failure to take ownership? Absolutely not. It is as much the federal government and congress fault that we find ourselves in this untenable and unsustainable situation as it is the states. While I agree in principle change is necessary, I disagree with the notion that you can suddenly hold states accountable for something they didn't create. The reason is that the people who will suffer most in this haste to pull the rug from under states are underserved populations. These are the same folks who already suffer the brunt of injuries, fatalities, and displacement during disasters. I am not in favor of heaping even more suffering on already marginalized communities.

So back to the disaster kit issue. While some would protest otherwise, I've said for years that if anyone can provide data that shows a disaster kit actually saves lives, I'll change my tune. How many victims of the massive flood that overwhelmed New Orleans in Hurricane Katrina, drowning more than 1,800 people would actually have survived if they had only had a kit? Besides the fact that if you tell a single mom living below poverty to stash some extra cans of tuna and spare cash under her bed, she'll likely tell you that the tuna will be consumed for tonight's dinner and the cash will be bus fare to her minimum wage job.

With these challenges in mind, irrespective of the people who can afford to spend $100.00 or more on a disaster kit but simply don't think it's a priority, how do we move the preparedness needle? So glad you asked. It starts with a simple proposition that will require three bold but necessary steps. if you're currently doing these things bravo. If not, you may just want to consider them.

  1. Stop telling people to get a disaster kit. First, they're not listening, and second, it's only a convenience item at best. Disaster preparedness is about survival, not preparing to be 'less' inconvenienced. I know that's going to be painful for the disaster kit providers and those who like all the cool stuff you can put in a kit, but the fact is nobody is listening. As one of my colleagues so aptly put it, a disaster kit is the preparedness placebo.
  2. Start spending your time, effort, and funding to foster community preparedness vs. individual preparedness. What do I mean? Not CERT, but 'Neighborhood helping Neighborhood' preparedness plan such as one of my colleagues has done in his municipality. Each block or two is equipped with a 'disaster communications cart' containing radios, flashlights, communications satellite equipment, and other items to help a neighborhood become self-supporting. Yeah, there are also some disaster supplies, first-aid supplies, and essentials. It is a "neighborhood" asset, not an individual asset, and is accessible, available, and ready. Community preparedness should be the goal. No individual, even the most capable, can go it alone. If resident 'A' can afford to and is inclined to stockpile supplies, who do you think his neighbors are going to go to in a desperate situation. A 'whole community' approach cannot be based solely on those who are most vulnerable, it needs to include EVERYONE, even the well-to-do.
  3. Put some metrics to your preparedness programs, and outcomes. At a conference two years ago I asked a room of over 100 local emergency managers if they had any statistics or programs that measured the preparedness of small businesses, daycare centers, senior centers, places of worship, pharmacies, gas stations, shelters (non-Red Cross) or food pantries in their respective communities. Crickets.

The Heritage Foundation Report states “Do no harm”—a simple concept. When it comes to preparing for disasters like Hurricane Sandy, it takes on profound importance. Whether it is the individual, family, community organizations, or the private sector, the primary role is to do no harm. What does this statement mean exactly? It means that the system cannot erode the ability of people to first take care of themselves, so that first responders can focus on those who are endangered, injured, and cannot care for themselves. Typically, the vulnerable population consists of the people below poverty, mentally and physically disabled, the elderly, non-English-speaking immigrants, transportation and communication challenged, food insecure, chronically homeless, and children. As was demonstrated during Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy, and of course COVID-19, a society fails when it fails those most in need.

Although I suspect few would disagree that the Stafford Act and FEMA are in dire need of reorganization and reframing, none would dispute that unpreparedness in our communities is at the root cause of most disaster failures. FEMA has been overtasked for too long, and the greater burden of 'small' disaster relief should be borne by the states, not the federal government. These long-term fixes will require time and commitment of congress, and the states undoubtedly not go quietly into that great night, because many have relied too heavily on FEMA funding for too long.

When I think about the FEMA/State financial dependency problem it reminds me of a cartoon I saw where Hansel and Gretel were standing outside the gingerbread house looking quizzically at the for-sale sign on the lawn. The caption has Hansel lamenting to Gretel "first they mess up your head, then they sell you out". The federal government has many other roles it must fulfill to support the American infrastructure. But until all the states are fully prepared financially to support their residents in low-intensity disasters, FEMA shouldn't be allowed to push them out of the plane with no parachute.

Meanwhile, what local emergency managers can do is to stop pretending we're actually preparing communities for disasters, and take steps to engage in measurable, sustainable, cost-effective community efforts, not pushing individuals to do something they will never do.

In addition to deemphasizing the 'individual' aspect of preparedness in favor of a community effort, we must also stop touting FEMA as the 'savior' whenever there is any kind of local disaster or emergency. Some governors play the public pressure game to 'do something', to conveniently ignore the fact that many have done nothing to provide for funding to help their citizens in the disaster.

For me, every time I hear somebody touting disaster kits, or promoting the same tired and useless messages that are falling on deaf ears, I hope more emergency managers agree it's time to do something differently. Checking that box is nothing more than going through the motions. If we are to be about saving lives and alleviating needless suffering in disasters, we must get serious about preparing our communities. To do otherwise is fitting Einstein's theory of insanity.

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