Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

Emergency Managers Prepare for a Changing Disaster Paradigm

Are plans based on historical data out of date? Emergency managers and scientists discuss the impact of irregular storms and other natural phenomena.

In a large country with myriad natural threats, some responders are more experienced than others in handling certain types of disasters. Certain phenomena, such as earthquakes and hurricanes, typically don’t happen in some areas of the country.

But with a surge in the number of incidents declared as disasters by FEMA over the last 20 years, it’s become paramount for regions to plan for the unexpected, particularly when it comes to Mother Nature.

In 2011, tornado activity was observed in places that rarely see it, from Northern California to the East Coast and in between, leaving some residents in disbelief that the weather phenomena actually occurred there.

In addition, areas known for hurricanes and tropical storms are experiencing larger, more powerful weather systems. Hurricane Katrina laid waste to New Orleans in 2005, and while Hurricane Sandy wasn’t as deadly as Katrina, it was the deadliest in the northeastern U.S. in the last 40 years and the second costliest disaster in U.S. history. Hurricane Irene in 2011 was supposed to have been a “storm of the century” until Sandy hit.

Then there were the 1,000-year floods that hit Tennessee in 2010 and the devastating wildfires in Colorado last year, described as “freakish” by experienced firefighters. It all follows a pattern predicted in recent years by some experts who say the frequency and severity of storm activity are increasing, along with intensified wildfires, drought and more flooding, resulting from a warming climate.

Emergency management experts and sustainability planners say it’s important to begin planning for a changing paradigm, that plans based on historical data are out of date. So should there be a one-size-fits-all or all-hazards approach to disaster preparedness and response? Or should regions craft specific strategies for each type of disaster? Experts believe the prevailing approach is — and should remain — a bit of both.

According to Mark Ghilarducci, secretary of the California Emergency Management Agency, the state takes a holistic approach to disaster planning. Because the state is so large and parts of it are susceptible to different types of threats, he said California uses a collaborative process involving local governments and the private sector.

“We try to put emergency plans in place or countermeasures working with our local governments, our other state agencies and possibly the federal government,” Ghilarducci said. “Then we have a very robust preparedness program that ties to these efforts so that we make sure the community is involved and engaged to let them know what the risks are and how they can work to prepare themselves.”

From a local government perspective, Boston does the same thing. Rene Fielding, director of the Boston Office of Emergency Management, said her team goes through an annual hazard identification risk assessment of what threats could jeopardize the city. The team ranks the threats and then outlines steps to address them. But some unusual events are starting to crop up in those evaluations.

Fielding explained that the city had a tornado watch in 2012 for the first time in as long as she could remember. In addition, while Boston isn’t noted for earthquakes, the city has felt tremors in the past couple of years from temblors in both Maine and Virginia.

The magnitude 5.8 quake that struck Virginia on Aug. 26, 2011, took many by surprise and caused significant damage near the epicenter in Louisa County, Va. But its impact stretched all along the Eastern seaboard.

While the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM) didn’t necessarily reassess or change the steps it takes in evaluating a disaster, its staff members did add something to their emergency operations plan following the quake: an earthquake annex. Brett Burdick, deputy state coordinator for administration of VDEM, said the department didn’t have one, since its major disaster concerns are floods and hurricanes.

Brian Heaton  | 

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines from 2011 to mid-2015.

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