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Preparing for the Next Disaster

Posted by: Stuart Comstock-Gay on 8/24/2012

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to share the story of Vermont’s experience with Irene at a national conference on building resilience in disaster response through public-private partnerships. The conference was sponsored by the U.S. Northern Command, Homeland Security, and FEMA. Folks were impressed by the work that’s been done here. (And they really seemed to like the license plates). But for me, far more impressive was the thinking that’s underway about the future. From the importance of partnerships in this work, to a recognition of climate change as the critical cause, disasters and disaster response are changing fast, and we need to work together to prepare. 

On partnerships, I highly recommend FEMA’s report Crisis Response and Disaster Resilience 2030, in which FEMA identifies factors that are going to change the way we respond to disasters and recommend new practices and tools to better prepare for these changes. One of the recommendations they make is to “practice omni-directional knowledge sharing.” And they’re doing this, in part through IdeaScale, an online service that FEMA uses to crowdsource creative suggestions: FEMA stakeholders submit ideas online, the community discusses and votes for ideas, and the best ideas bubble to the top. This kind of open discussion is not something government has always been comfortable with, and it’s encouraging to see it here.

In the report, FEMA also identifies a set of recurring themes that are critical to this work. Among them is the idea that trust between the public and government is essential: “[…] belief in large institutions, including government, has been shifting to social networks and alternative sources of loyalty. […] Since trust is so essential to successful outcomes in disasters and emergencies, we must look for opportunities to build and strengthen public trust.”  In these days of wariness towards government, I couldn’t agree more. And indeed, I would argue that part of our success so far in responding to Irene comes from Vermonters owning portions of the response and looking to government (local, state, and federal) as an essential partner, recognizing that without both the response could not be completed. 

Finally, to climate change. I was encouraged by the belief of folks at FEMA and USNORTHCOM that climate change will be a major driver for many challenges of the future. The conference I attended occurred less than a month after the devastating fires in Colorado Springs. For disaster responders and those protecting the nation’s security, the stakes are extremely high. True, neither FEMA nor USNORTHCOM made any statements about the causes of climate change. But I found myself encouraged that they’ve put climate change squarely on the table. “To heck with the politics,” you can imagine them saying. “Climate change is real and problematic. And we’ve got to contend with it.” It’s a start.  

We’re working on future response here too, by helping build better systems of response and designing low-income housing with natural disasters in mind, to name just one example. Adaptation and “building better” are important parts of disaster response at any level. To have national-level organizations focusing their work on these issues will make our collective response to the next disaster—whenever it may strike—all that much better.

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