Unpreparedness in America: Who Will Help You?
No one can really say if we are living in a time of more news stories about natural disasters or if indeed, we’re having more of them. The last decade was marked with hurricanes like Katrina and Rita; this decade started with major earthquakes in Haiti, Chile, New Zealand and Japan. In the US, tornado season started early this year, and with quite a fury. What’s going on?
In Japan, scientists see the culprit as global warming. At the earthquake memorial museum in Kobe where a major earthquake leveled the city in 1995, an exhibit plays a loop of video news footage of disasters that have struck different areas of the world since the 1980s. Hurricane Andrew is prominent and so are those California wildfires, volcano eruptions in places like the Philippines, etc. But most interestingly is a graph next to the huge plasma screen showing how the number of disasters has spiked since temperatures began to rise. The museum is funded by the Japanese government and no special interest is behind the claim that weather is playing a role in all this.
Japan is well aware of its unfortunate geological position in the globe – sitting right where four major tectonic plates meet and making it the most earthquake–prone country in the world. This is why the government has spent a lot of money in educational programs to make its people aware of their place in the world. The government also continues to learn from past (and current) lessons and is working on improving emergency response time and investing more in preparedness. They foresee more destruction coming in the future and they do something about it.
The coast line along Tohoku that was hit by the March 11 tsunami following the 8.9 earthquake, was not completely unprotected. In the past these same coasts had been hit by major tsunamis and the government took measures to protect its people from future tidal waves. People were asked to build their homes on higher ground and tall concrete walls were built along the shores to stop high waves from hitting the area, particularly in Iwate.
Still, no one had predicted a tsunami like the one on March 11 – a monster tsunami that toppled concrete walls with waves as tall as 133 feet high. The end result was over 15,000 people dead, and 7,300 missing. But, the death toll would had been higher if the tsunami alert system had not worked as it did, helping to save thousands who moved to higher ground in a matter of minutes after the quake hit.
Not all of the US has areas where natural disasters are likely to strike, but many cities and towns are vulnerable – rivers have flooded thousands of acres this year along the Mississippi, the Missouri River, and in North Dakota. Tornadoes have claimed over 500 lives and not in the traditional areas where they hit, like Kansas, but in unlikely places like Alabama. Fires are burning in the southwest in Arizona and New Mexico, right now threatening Los Alamos National Laboratory. Mother Nature has no boundaries.
FEMA has been quite busy this year in providing assistance to survivors and businesses, but the time to take preparedness seriously is here. We can no longer be passive on how we see the weather or ignore the tectonic plates and faults that run beneath where we stand and where our homes are built. Our American cities, like New Orleans, have experienced the challenges that come when we expect the government to act quickly. As citizens, we must be proactive and not see storing water or food for emergencies as silly, but as important as picking up your kids from school.
Americans must also look at what cuts your local and federal governments are proposing. Cuts to emergency preparedness programs are not talked about as much, but they do happen. Preparedness and emergency response is not viewed or understood the way it should be by politicians. According to an article in the magazine Emergency Management, 33 cities did not receive funding for their emergency preparedness programs in 2011. Here is a portion of that article:
…although the regions may not feel the cuts immediately, the long-term impacts could be great. The UASI program — which began in 2003 with $100 million to strengthen regional preparedness in seven large metropolitan areas — was appropriated $662 million for fiscal ’11 to distribute among the designated 64 urban areas. The funding is about $170 million less than was available for fiscal year 2010, and has many UASI city representatives wondering how they will sustain their programs and capabilities long term.
Cuts are unavoidable in times of unbalanced budgets, but there are things that should be off the table, specially if public safety is a priority for politicians and anyone with legislative power. Emergency preparedness and other programs are investments in saving the lives of people in our communities and it’s something we all should be conscious of.
How prepared or unprepared for an emergency is your local government, do you know? And, how prepared are you?