The magnitude of the relief effort for Hurricane Katrina was, by any standards, unprecedented. No agency or organization-especially the volunteer groups-could have been prepared, even had they anticipated the possibility. How much of the GDP of the United States can be spent every year on preparing for things that happen on a time scale of once or twice a century?
As an example, relief efforts could well have been improved by a state-of-the art communications system. What if that decision had been made right after Hurricane Betsey? What condition would nearly fifty year old equipment been in? Would it even have been compatible with today's stuff? Alternatively, if that system had been installed at an adjusted cost of, say, a million dollars, then largely replaced every five years or so to keep up with the times, then the cost would realistically be ten million dollars for communications used for a single disaster. It is a gamble, whose negative outcome-paying for something you didn't need after all-is politically disastrous.
So, the United States, as a society, can commit, today, to spending a huge sum of money every year in only the slimmest hope that it will yield short-term advantages. And it can do so, knowing full well that even if it does spend the money, it may have spent it on things that won't help anyway. Or, it can have a population that is able to help itself at the local level for at least the first few days while larger systems are brought into existence and resources identified and gathered.
It is in the area of preparedness, on an individual and community scale, that this country has fallen behind its needs. I am just old enough, for instance, to remember a time when the scouting movement had disaster preparedness as one of its key components. Going back even further, I have manuals from the 40's which make explicit the paramilitary nature of scouting and its role in civil defense. That emphasis seems to be gone. But that lack of preparedness is not solely a problem of the single movement. Rather it is endemic. In some ways I think the government has been a victim of its own successes. For most of the last century we have maintained a remarkable record of completing massive projects-levees, dams, the interstate system. Those successes have been unfortunately translated into a false sense of security. Given these successes, how could we not have been prepared? Of course, this is an apples-and-oranges situation. Expecting the planning for one type of project to equate to planning for the unanticipated is naive.
So, what can we do? The first thing would be to get yourself and your family better organized. Have an emergency plan and make sure everybody knows what it is. Specific suggestions can be found at the Red Cross, and other agencies.And finally, understand this: you and your community will likely be on your own resources for several days at least in the aftermath of a major disaster. It is, in fact, the policy of the Federal Government and the non-governmental relief agencies that a response to disaster begins locally, and only engages remote resources as needed.
Dale Austin, March 2006
All images and text Copyright Dale Austin, 1962-2008