03.11.11

Why America Isn't Ready for a Disaster

Japan’s tradition of emergency planning and strict building codes saved countless lives this week—but what would happen here? Disaster-preparation expert Irwin Redlener on America’s shocking lack of readiness—and our history of ignoring wake-up calls. Plus, full coverage of Japan’s quake.

Japan’s tradition of emergency planning and strict building codes saved countless lives this week—but what would happen here? Disaster-preparation expert Irwin Redlener on America’s shocking lack of readiness—and our history of ignoring wakeup calls. Plus, full coverage of Japan’s quake.

On Friday morning, Americans awoke to news of an unfolding catastrophe in Japan. This latest disaster will certainly fall among the more serious natural calamities in modern times.

Unfortunately, fatalities and damages will most certainly dwarf early estimates. The need for bolstering initial rescue efforts and preventing secondary calamities is rising by the hour, with the most serious threat ahead being damage to a nuclear-power plant located in the disaster impact area. A meltdown at the plant could imperil tens of thousands of citizens, especially children and pregnant women.

But unlike Haiti, for example, Japan is a highly developed nation that was motivated to develop and invest in a national plan to protect its citizens and vital systems in the event of precisely this kind of catastrophe. Strict earthquake-resistant standards apply to building codes, tsunami early-warning systems are in place, and Japanese citizens have a high level of awareness with respect to emergency planning and response. This means that the consequences of this kind of “megadisaster” will be less than would otherwise be the case.

But what about the United States?

Every major disaster is invariably labeled a “wakeup call.” Media coverage is intense, rescue efforts rise to the occasion and we are fully focused—until we’re not.

Unfortunately, the U.S. has not reached a level of preparedness that we might have expected 10 years after the 9/11 attacks and five years after Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans.  Billions of dollars have been spent and progress has been made—but progress has been slow and spotty. Part of the problem is a multiplicity of federal, state and local agencies have a major influence on planning, from decisions about priorities to levels of dedicated funding. One bright spot: FEMA is being upgraded and reorganized and, under the leadership of its director, Craig Fugate, the agency is even more effective than it was in its prime, prior to its serious degradation under the previous administration.

Still, major challenges remain. American citizens are extraordinarily underprepared for disasters. Few of us have the supplies we’d need if we were caught up in a disaster or know how we’d keep ourselves and our families’ safe. Motivating citizen efforts to prepare for any kind of disaster, from earthquakes and hurricanes to pandemics and terrorism, has been essentially unsuccessful over the past decade.

And we have only begun to address the disaster-readiness needs of our most vulnerable citizens, particularly our children, who make up nearly 25 percent of the nation’s population. This is an issue that the National Commission on Children and Disasters has been working on for the past two years. But we also need to make sure that other groups, including the elderly, people with disabilities, and economically disenfranchised individuals, are fully accounted for in our disaster-planning efforts.

Every major disaster is invariably labeled a “wakeup call.” Media coverage is intense, rescue efforts rise to the occasion and we are fully focused—until we’re not. The predictable pattern is rapt attention and concern followed by a drift back into a state of complacency. This is hardly a wakeup call; it’s more like a snooze alarm.

We have much work to do to make America as disaster-ready as it should be. Our health systems and hospitals are woefully underprepared, our infrastructure is dangerously fragile, and our response systems poorly coordinated.

What worries me is that in this time of serious economic distress, we seem have a general lack of capacity to make critical long-term investments for anything, including doing what’s needed to prepare America for the inevitable disasters of the future.

Irwin Redlener, MD, is director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. He speaks and writes regularly on disaster preparedness and recovery policy and is the author of Americans at Risk: Why We Are Not Prepared for Megadisasters and What We Can Do Now (Knopf). He is also president of the Children's Health Fund.