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Viewpoint: Agencies must rethink disaster preparedness

Oct. 20, 2013 - 11:37AM   |  
By BALDWIN H. TOM   |   Comments

With historically low hurricane activity this season, it is easy to become complacent. In such times, Sandy, Katrina, Andrew and dozens of other calamitous storms fade in our memory.

However, federal agencies must remain prepared to respond when natural disasters loom. By learning from our past, new methods and approaches to storm preparedness and response will prevent deaths, injuries and costly rescue operations, and will help reduce storm damage. In fact, hurricane preparedness offers a microcosm of the urgent need to re-imagine how government anticipates and thinks through options. With the emergence of Big Data, we are at a threshold for leaps in understanding, efficiency and productivity.

As a research endeavor, our team revisited the lessons of Hurricane Katrina. As the Senate Special Report in 2006 on Hurricane Katrina stressed, “long-term and short-term warnings went unheeded.” Indeed, one year before the storm in 2005, a joint federal, state and local team ran a hypothetical hurricane scenario using a slow-moving Category 3 storm named Hurricane Pam.

Even though the New Orleans preparedness planners worked on Hurricane Pam, which illustrated fairly accurately the human and material damages New Orleans was to suffer, the disaster planners failed. Katrina caused about 1,500 direct fatalities, with 1.2 million displaced and thousands injured or traumatized. It was the most expensive disaster in U.S. history. The geo-demographic distribution of the fatalities was striking, underscoring how those with less financial means had fewer means of escape.

Our review of many of the documents and reports about the Katrina disaster identified three important turning points: 1) the reluctance of citizens to heed warnings by authorities to leave; 2) the inability of people without transportation to leave, so they were forced to stay; and 3) the inadequacy of the support and rescue operation by government agencies and emergency personnel. In our view, these were all equally important in exacerbating the disaster.

Clearly, we need to do far, far better.

As a result of our research, we produced an approach with three critical steps to address the turning points above and to prevent another failure to adequately prepare for and respond to a major disaster.

First, a collaboration of government, business and nonprofit groups would identify the components for successful mitigation of a potential disaster. This would include organizing emergency evacuation transportation procedures, medical care and communications, especially serving those with no mobile means of escape.

Second, a geo-demographic modeling process would be used to integrate an array of routing, medical, communications, food and sheltering options, defined by using large amounts of relevant data.

Third, from the visualized results of the data-modeling process, the collaborators would select the best options that are the most viable and cost-effective, as well as most agreeable to the community to implement. The latter steps focus on the people side of the preparedness equation and need to be in place well before a disaster strikes.

This approach complements the necessary technical side to build pumps, levees or other flood-mitigating devices. No matter how well these technical repairs are, they may not be sufficient or in place soon enough.

We know that if planning is performed in a deliberate manner, the citizenry will be more receptive to taking individual and collective action when disaster is imminent. If the critical stakeholders are involved, this plan will be optimized for political and economic considerations.

In reality, what we propose leverages past lessons and joins them in a systematic new way that is politically and economically justifiable. Importantly, the plan includes multiple big data sets that lead to comprehensive and robust outcomes that optimize developing action options.

The benefits of this three-step approach include: 1) involvement of citizens in this process; 2) inclusion of both the task side (things to do) and people side (those involved) components; 3) elimination of long, drawn-out deliberations; 4) sorting, numerically, decision options; and 5) offering readily defensible decisions.

Ultimately, the goal of this plan is to mitigate risk (of unpreparedness) by understanding consequences (of inaction). In addition to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the government should apply this type of anticipatory decision-making at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Centers for Disease Control, etc., where long-range planning is crucial, especially during periods of diminishing resources.

Baldwin H. Tom is president and CEO of The Baldwin Group and the co-founder, with Scott Stafford and Greg Reinecke, of the GeoDimensional Decision Group. Student intern Thomas Chanzy of Paris, France, worked on their team.

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