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Publication date: Jan. 4, 2006


Most U.S. residents feel ill-prepared for disasters, are confused about what to do if one occurs, and have little confidence in the ability of local and federal institutions and government agencies to provide help, according to survey results released Dec. 22, 2005.

The surveys were conducted by New York University's Center for Catastrophe Preparedness and Response, which is funded by the US Department of Homeland Security. For a copy of the reports, contact Rodney Ferguson, 202-262-1684. The lead author is Paul Light, 301-642-4150.

The study results are broken down by categories such as education and income level, and suggest trends worth checking out in your own community. The authors also make a range of recommendations for ways to improve disaster preparedness.

Whatever your angle, there are many sources worth investigating.

At the local level, one key point of contact is your Local Emergency Planning Committee, which is supposed to coordinate first responders such as police, firefighters, emergency medical crews, etc. The track records of LEPCs are quite variable.

For various big-picture angles, an overall starting point is the NYU Center's Web site, which lists scores of public and private organizations, government agencies, and joint efforts established to protect vulnerable sectors such as the chemical industry, the food supply, and transportation, energy, and drinking water facilities.

While last week's media were dominated by retrospectives on the tragic Indian Ocean tsunami of Dec. 26, 2004, only sparse coverage focused on preparedness for another. The past year saw some upgrades in tsunami preparedness, especially in US areas of the Pacific. However, other areas, especially the US Atlantic coast, are years away from good preparedness.

Driven by fear of terrorism (some would say driving it), the federal government has justified many of its acts in the last 4 years on grounds of "homeland security." Yet Hurricane Katrina washed away most illusions that government at any level is providing competent homeland security. Whether disasters are natural or manmade, the US has shown little progress in understanding them, predicting them, preventing them, preparing for them, warning of them, responding to them, or getting systems in place to recover from them.

Evacuation is still an unsolved problem in most US cities whether the disaster be a terrorist's dirty bomb or a hurricane. Yet many key US cities, as Houston's experience with Rita showed, don't have mechanisms in place for effective emergency evacuation. Does your city have a plan? Who's responsible for it? Would it work?

Communications are often one of the first systems to fail in any disaster. How good are your local systems for interagency sharing of looming threat info? For warning the public? For coordinating operations once a disaster is going down?

Mass casualties may quickly overwhelm the medical resources of many communities, and when hospitals themselves are hit by a community-wide disaster their ability to handle patients is often impaired.Public drinking water utilities are often knocked out or contaminated in floods and other disasters. How diverse are the sources of raw water for your community? How vulnerable is your local treatment plant to disasters most likely in your community (flood, hurricane, earthquake, landslide, etc.)? What contingency plans has your utility made for disasters? EPA Local Drinking Water Information.

Electric utilities in the past were used to responding heroically to restore power after events like wind and ice storms. But after the devastation of Katrina, the New Orleans unit of Entergy filed for bankruptcy, and power is still not on in vast tracts of that city. Ask your state's public service commission how likely electric utilities in your area are to walk away from their customers after a major disaster (National Association Of Regulatory Utility Commissioners). Does electric industry deregulation and restructuring make this more or less likely?

Some of the federal agencies that may be particularly important in environmental disasters include:

If you need to cover a particular type of disaster, many good starting points are available via SEJ's Useful Links, particularly under the heading of "Disasters".

Previous TipSheets also provide starting points for many types of disasters. A few examples include:

Last revised January 22, 2013

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