We Are Not Ready

June 17th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security released a report yesterday (PDF) detailing a review of the state of emergency preparedness across the United States. Bottom line: we are not as ready as we can or should be. My interpretation – the response to Katrina did not necessarily reflect unique circumstances. This report is a sobering read. Here are a few excerpts:

According to U.S. Census data, the average number of people per square mile in Hurricane Belt States is 711, compared to 94 people per square mile in other States. This high-population density is a further impetus to develop and maintain emergency plans that can help warn, evacuate, shelter, and provide care for large numbers of people. p. 35

Only 27% of State and 10% of urban area [emergency operations] plans were rated as Sufficient in terms of adequacy to cope with a catastrophic event. p. 62

Only 18% of State and 11% of urban area plans were rated as having Sufficient feedback mechanisms to ensure the public is taking appropriate action as directed in disseminated forecasts and messages. . . . Although advances in technology (e.g. Internet, cell phones, pagers) have provided several avenues to communicate to the public, many participants have not effectively employed those resources to expedite or expand the provision of emergency public information. p. 66

DHS Peer Review Teams rated less than 20% of State and 10% of urban area plans as Sufficient in providing time estimates and planning for use of multiple modes of transportation for evacuation of people in different risk zones. Both DHS and DOT found that plans do not adequately address evacuation for the most socially vulnerable population segments. Some participants expressed the belief that they will never experience a catastrophic event as defined in IB197 and mass evacuations were not considered a plausible scenario. p. 67

Emergency public information is critical to reduce loss of life and property and to facilitate emergency response operations. Government at all levels does not adequately address pre-incident public education on preparedness measures, alerts and warnings, evacuation, and shelter procedures. Most Review participants do not have a process to evaluate the effectiveness of public education in these areas or for outreach to people with special needs. p. 74

No ironclad guarantees exist in a profession that combats terrorists and nature. Even the best plans will not always deliver success. The historian Henry Adams said, “In all great emergencies, everyone is more or less wrong.” Planners cannot foresee every outcome, and incident managers cannot anticipate every scenario. While disasters have a language of their own and no plan can guarantee success, inadequate plans are proven contributors to failure. The results of the Nationwide Plan Review support fundamental planning modernization. Vince Lombardi said, “We’re going to relentlessly chase perfection knowing full well we will not catch it because perfection is unattainable. But we are going to relentlessly chase it because in the process we will catch excellence.” p. 80

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