Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Local Need for Preparedness

This commentary in Domestic Preparedness provides some nice perspective on the need for local communities to be fully prepared for disasters. The writer is MaryAnn Warren, the County Commissioner of Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, which suffered extensive damage from a flood in June 2006 after 8-10 inches of rain fell in six days.

This should be required reading for local officials, as it illustrates the pain of not being fully prepared. You've got to understand the process:

The first and one of the most important guidelines to understand is that state and federal disaster resources usually are deployed only when the magnitude of an event exceeds local capabilities – and then only at the request of a local government.
You've got to speak the language:
If local elected officials and their emergency-management staff cannot quantify the damages suffered and/or articulate the community’s needs – using the unique language spoken in the emergency-management arena – a community will suffer.

Susquehanna County learned that lesson the hard way – because state emergency-management officials did not immediately realize the severity of the situation we were trying to report to higher levels of government, it was assumed that we were not as bad off as the counties surrounding us in our part of the state.

It cannot be stressed enough how important it is to communicate through proper channels, using correct terminology, to access help.
And you've got to have your ducks lined up ahead of time, or your response will suffer. You can't just freelance it:
One might think that decisions made and/or actions taken during a disaster are executed swiftly, but that would be wrong. Over and over, residents expressed a desire to jump into creek beds with backhoes to clear debris or dredge channels, all in violation of the environmental laws and regulations of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Although it boggles the minds of flood victims (and of elected officials as well), the fact that a disaster has occurred does not mean that permits or processes are waived or accelerated.
The recovery process will also be a headache:
In 2000, Congress passed a law requiring all of the nation’s various governmental jurisdictions to develop hazard-mitigation plans as a condition of receiving certain disaster-recovery funds. Susquehanna County had no such plan in place at the time of the flood, and therefore had to act very fast to redress this oversight – or risk losing recovery funds for those residents left homeless by the flood. There was no getting around this requirement, and residents were justifiably angry.

Fortunately, as it turned out, FEMA’s programs provide for an administrative allowance that may be used to hire experts to support recovery projects. FEMA also offers other grant programs that can be used to fund the development of mitigation plans. Recognizing the need for an expert fluent in FEMA’s programs, Susquehanna County hired a disaster-recovery specialist, a former FEMA employee, to steer the county through what to most local officials was unfamiliar terrain.

The disaster-recovery specialist, drawing fees mostly from administrative allowances, has cost the county very little out of pocket – and, in addition to preparing the county’s all-hazards mitigation plan, has secured more than $2 million in grants and appeals for the county.

The lesson is obvious: When in doubt, find an expert to navigate the disaster-recovery process.
Most disasters are to some degree predictable. Natural disasters have a history that is knowable. Certain industries involve recognizable hazards (e.g., chemical plants, refineries, nuclear power plants). Potential targets for terrorism can be identified, and likely modes of attack can be inferred from past events.

In short, no community should ever be in the dark about the threats facing it. No community should ever be not ready.

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