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Published: August 29, 2007

 
 

When There Is No Cavalry

  1. Identify and Empower Stakeholders. The unpredictability of disaster events requires not just a full panorama of allies, but creative and engaging ways for them to participate from the beginning. NorthCom, for example, maintains an “NGO desk” to mobilize support from the civil sector. The desk is run by employees of the Humanitarian International Services Group, a non­profit that specializes in identifying, mobilizing, and managing private-sector resources in response to a disaster.
     
  2. Be an Initiator. Florida state officials played an essential role by convening the state’s disaster preparedness megacommunity. This involved engaging publicly elected officials at the state and local levels, emergency management officials and professionals, first responders, public health professionals, private-sector and civil organization experts, academic leaders, and others. The key was engaging these players as full partners.
     
  3. Embrace Interdependence. During a crisis, effective medical assistance cannot be provided if hospitals lack electric power; if various police jurisdictions don’t work together to provide safe, open roads for travel; or if vehicles are not available to deliver water and medical supplies and to remove medical waste. Plan, train, and rehearse the methods by which these separate but interrelated organizations will function together if a crisis occurs.
     
  4. Allow for Ambiguity. Accept that your organization will have overlapping responsibilities with other organizations. For example, in the U.S. federal government, HHS, the Department of State, DHS, and NorthCom have all been assigned crucial but sometimes overlapping roles in the fight against pandemic influ­enza. Rather than ignoring this reality or resisting perceived encroachments on their turf, these organizations — if they want to succeed — will have to communicate, negotiate, and decide together in advance of a disaster how they will manage their common responsibilities.
     
  5. Reward Collaboration. Everyone knows collaboration is a must, but organizations and people often need a push in the right direction. Instead of protecting their turf by punishing cooperative behavior, agency leaders should create incentives that encourage it. And, of course, example is the best teacher: How much planning and training are you doing with stakeholders in your preparedness community?
     
  6. Strengthen Your Social Networks. Many officials have learned through sad experience that an emergency is not the time to start exchanging business cards. The more contacts that preparedness leaders have already developed in the community, the more effective their networks will be in facilitating preparedness. An important part of megacommunity activities is establishing the trust and rapport ahead of time that will be needed during a crisis.

For many leaders, this new perspective is liberating; it frees them from the notion that they must control outcomes and events unilaterally when, in fact, complexity makes that virtually impossible. This approach also provides greater adaptability, allowing the entire community to call on an ever-expanding circle of resources, capabilities, and talents during catastrophic events. Finally, the megacommunity concept embraces and empowers all actors as full partners with unique strengths to offer, thus capitalizing on the very best ideas, ingenuity, and innovation from across the public, private, and civil sectors — to meet the urgent needs of a global citizenry that arguably faces more frequent and complex disasters than ever before, with less of a clear sense of which cavalry to call.

A Bottom-Up Strategy for Catastrophic Events
by Governor Jeb Bush, Florida, and Deirdre Finn

Florida is a natural paradise that is home to more than 17 million people and plays host to millions of visitors from around the world every year. However, the very characteristics that make our state a great place to live and visit — its tropical climate and geography — also make us vulnerable to extreme and catastrophic natural disasters, from floods and hurricanes to droughts and wildfires.

Because of this, the ability to respond quickly and compassionately to emergencies, such as natural disasters, is essential to our quality of life and our long-term economic vitality. Floridians and tourists alike need to feel confident that their communities and state are prepared for both response and recovery. Without that sense of security, visitors will choose other vacation destinations, and businesses will invest in calmer, if colder, climates.

Preparing for a catastrophic event is the key to a rapid, effective re-sponse. A successful response in the immediate aftermath of a disaster is the linchpin in a sound, long-term recovery. So although we can’t control the weather, we can manage and mitigate the impact of dangerous weather throughout our state.

As we learned from eight hurricanes during two consecutive hurricane seasons, our response can always get better. To improve our capabilities, Florida invests time and money in the tools and training that are necessary to achieve the level of readiness that saves lives and minimizes damage from catastrophic events. For example:

  • We are one of the few states in the nation to have an interoperable, statewide radio network in place that allows law enforcement officers and emergency responders with different information technology and systems to communicate to coordinate response during and immediately after an event.
  • We are mapping our entire coastline, using the latest technology, to determine storm surge patterns that will provide the scientific data to support updated evacuation plans. Getting people out of harm’s way is the priority, but knowing who doesn’t need to evacuate to higher ground can also save lives by reducing crowding on roadways.
  • We are expanding our capacity to shelter evacuees. And we are installing permanent power generators in special shelters that care for the frail, sick, and elderly — the most vulnerable among us, whose lives are threatened when the power goes out.
  • We have one of the strongest building codes in the U.S., but we continue to strengthen it to protect people and reduce the loss of property. Strong building codes also allow more and more people to weather storms in their own homes, reducing the risk of disaster and the cost of recovery.

Just as all politics is local, so are all disasters. The most effective response is one that starts at the local level and grows with the support of surrounding communities, state agencies, and, if necessary, the federal government. The bottom-up approach yields the best and quickest results — saving lives, protecting property, and getting life back to normal as rapidly as possible.

Our approach also recognizes that government alone cannot effectively respond to a disaster, nor can government afford to maintain a full-time cavalry of emergency response workers capable of managing a wide range of potential catastrophic events. Florida has fewer than 200 full-time emergency responders on staff, but when disaster strikes, thousands of state workers don their emergency management hats and play a role in the response. Likewise, the state coordinates and collaborates with multiple partners outside government, including businesses, trade associations, and charitable organizations, to provide a swift humanitarian response.

Florida also places a premium on individual preparedness. No country or community in the world can effectively respond to a disaster if its citizens are unprepared to cope with crisis when disaster strikes. Just as government needs to prepare and practice for emergencies, so do families and businesses.

To help citizens prepare, Florida declared an annual sales tax holiday, a weeklong period when we waive state sales tax on purchases of items such as flashlights, radios, and generators that help residents get ready for hurricane season. Knowing the evacuation route to escape the imminent danger and having enough food, water, and other vital supplies to survive independently for the first 72 hours after the disaster are only the first steps.

Substandard housing remains a significant vulnerability in our ability to respond to and recover from a hurricane. A home that loses part of its roof can be completely destroyed by the rain and mold that follow — adding significant time and money to rebuilding. In large-scale catastrophes, hundreds of thousands of families could be forced from their homes for long periods while their homes are repaired.

According to the Shimberg Center for Affordable Housing, nearly 4 million of the 4.4 million single-family homes in Florida were built before the uniform statewide building code was adopted in 2002. And the overwhelming majority of these, nearly 3.2 million, were built before 1995, when the code was significantly strengthened after the devastation caused by Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

The risk of damage associated with homes built before the current building code was implemented has caused insurance premiums to skyrocket. Although efforts to address the issue have provided much-needed relief to homeowners, a catastrophic hurricane or multiple storms such as those we have experienced in recent years could bankrupt private insurers or drive them out of the market.

The long-term answer is to fortify Florida against the damage caused by hurricanes. The state has aggressively pursued a strategy to align the financial interests of all those involved — insurers, contractors, members of the retail sector — to expand the scope of, and add velocity to, our mitigation efforts.

Just last year, we launched a $250 million preparedness investment program — the first of its kind in the nation — to protect residential property from the damage that can be caused by hurricanes. Under the My Safe Florida Home program, the state matches homeowners’ investments, dollar for dollar, up to $5,000, in approved damage-mitigation projects, such as window and door shuttering, on their home. Additionally, insurers are required to give discounts on policy premiums for homes with approved measures.

In the ultimate "culture of preparedness," all Floridians would have a personal plan to recover from disasters. Homeowners need to harden their houses with shutters and stronger roofs to prevent damage that could force them out of their homes for long periods. All property owners need to secure adequate insurance to cover damage from wind, rain, and flooding. Business owners need to have a plan to reopen and, if necessary, relocate their businesses.

Preparedness saves lives and taxpayer money. When individuals take responsibility for their safety and well-being during and after a catastrophe, government can focus resources on the most vulnerable and hardest hit.

Florida is already a model of emergency management for the nation. Yet we can always do better. We need to continue to sharpen our skills, enhance our capabilities, and practice, practice, practice to ensure that we remain prepared to respond to and recover from whatever emergency lies over the horizon.

Jeb Bush (jeb@jeb.org) served two terms as governor of the State of Florida, from 1999 to 2007. During his eight years in office, he cut taxes by $20 billion, reduced the size of government by 10 percent, and reformed many programs, including public education and Medicaid.
 
Deirdre Finn (dfinn@meridianstrategiesllc.com) is a governmental and public affairs consultant. From 2004 to 2006, she served as Governor Bush’s deputy chief of staff for environmental, transportation, and emergency management issues.

 
 
 
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Resources

  1. Bill Adair, “10 Years Ago, Her Angry Plea Got Hurricane Aid Moving,” St. Petersburg Times, August 20, 2002: Source of the “cavalry” quote.
  2. Bob Brewin, “Northcom’s New C2: Collaboration and Communications,” Federal Computer Week, December 12, 2006; and “Northcom Beefs Up Emergency Response: New Organization Structure Brings NGOs and Private Sector into Command Center,” Federal Computer Week, December 18, 2006: Source on U.S. Northern Command (NorthCom).
  3. Mark Gerencser, Fernando Napolitano, and Reginald Van Lee, “The Megacommunity Manifesto,” s+b, Summer 2006: How to bring together multiple organizations to develop solutions to complex problems. Click here.
  4. Ellen M. Gordon, “Multi-State Initiatives — Agriculture Security Preparedness,” master’s thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, 2004: Study of a Midwestern multistate, multisector, megacommunity-style partnership for response to agricultural threats. Click here.
  5. Adrian Sainz, “Ten Years After Hurricane Andrew, Effects Are Still Felt,” Sun-Sentinel, August 18, 2002: Describes the devastation of the 1992 Florida storm.
  6. Judy Stark, “New Building Code Brings Cost, Confusion,” St. Petersburg Times, August 19, 2002: Describes the post–Hurricane Andrew building codes and regulations in Florida.
  7. Anisya Thomas and Lynn Fritz, “Disaster Relief, Inc.,” Harvard Business Review, November 2006: Stories of corporate responses to catastrophes, including Coca-Cola’s use of bottling networks to provide drinking water after the 2004 South Asian tsunami.
  8. Kathleen Tierney, “The Red Pill,” ssrc.org, June 2006: Acerbic view of U.S. emergency preparedness from the director of the Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder; this article makes points that reinforce a mega­community perspective. Click here.
  9. For more articles on global perspective, sign up for s+b’s RSS feed. Click here.