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Community Characteristics Preventing the Proper Implementation of a Disaster Plan

The April/May/June 2012 print issue of PA TIMES published a series of articles on the topic of Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Recovery. The piece below is part  of a Student Symposia from that issue.

Matthew Polek

As stated by Brenda Phillips, author of Disaster Recovery, “though not the best time to commence recovery planning, the post-disaster time period is when most recovery planning occurs.” Not having an efficient plan for likely contingencies can adversely affect the recovery process by extending the time to accomplish recovery tasks- Certainly, all aspects of recovery would benefit from having a well-constructed plan. For instance, because debris management is an important component of planning, clear guidelines should be established in the emergency plan. Various scenarios could result in a victim being trapped under rubble of a collapsed structure and if the streets are not quickly cleared for the fire department or emergency medical services, the possibility of further injury becomes amplified. Organizations like the Red Cross will also be delayed entry into a community if the roads are blocked with debris.

A community should routinely update its plan as its recovery ability is improved or diminished. An emergency management team would be wise to work closely with other regional EM teams and update changing capabilities. A post-disaster environment is the worst time to discover a nearby community no longer possesses the equipment that could assist in recovery efforts. Debris management is just one of many post-disaster efforts that will be more quickly facilitated if a proper plan is in place.

As stated by Brenda Phillips, author of Disaster Recovery, “though not the best time to commence recovery planning, the post-disaster time period is when most recovery planning occurs.”

A community’s pre-event participation will have another impacting effect on post-disaster recovery efforts. Key principles FEMA identified for long term recovery are community driven efforts, recovery based on public involvement, local control of recovery, and recover projects that primarily focus on community recovery. These principles depend on community involvement and their participation is essential for successful long-term recovery. If an emergency management team excludes the community and does not routinely foster a sense of participation among community members, then efforts made toward a quicker recovery will be greatly diminished. Community members have the potential to provide a valuable resource for information as well as additional assistance with labor immediately after a disaster. In addition, community members can provide ideas not previously considered during the mitigation and recovery phases. The manner in which citizens participate also will affect their interest and involvement. As Phillips states, requesting community feedback on a solution that has been provided has been shown to “limit public involvement” and more effective methods would include a participatory strategy. Participatory strategies of community engagement are those in which residents of a community join emergency managers and together identify problems, mitigate and provide solutions for them, and evaluate their outcomes.

Social networks such as Facebook could also aid the recovery process. If an emergency manager is able to find a prominent member of a social network, public involvement could be improved via word of mouth. This is, however, dependent on the existence of social networks in a community. It will be up to an emergency manager to gain a comprehensive understanding of the population in their community to discover the best methods for reaching out to fellow citizens.

Other characteristics of a community that will adversely affect its ability to recover are community building codes and standards and the physical location of a community itself. Daniel Alesch, professor emeritus of public administration at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay, points out that if similar earthquakes were to strike California and a developing country like Indonesia, the latter would suffer much more damage. Because the buildings in California are built with much more stringent standards than those in Indonesia, a similar earthquake impacting Jakarta and Los Angeles would have drastically different results. Only Los Angeles’ oldest buildings would have the most serious damage while Jakarta offers itself to be devastated. If proper building standards are not accepted in the developing world, then these countries, in the event of a major disaster, may end up spending more for rebuilding and cleanup than the initial investment in a hardened structure. Simply put, not adhering to more stringent standards reduces consequences of a disaster and inhibits the prospect of a shorter recovery. Similarly, if a community were situated on a floodplain, the probability of flood damage greatly increases. A community in this case will benefit from specialized building codes and standards suited to flooding. A strict adherence to these standards will reduce exposure to the dangers, but this exposure will be limited to the degree of the disaster impact. An emergency manager should be made aware of existing codes in their community and understand the impact regional disasters will have on the structures the codes have been enforced upon. Community leadership should be made aware if building standards are not adequate.

However, while building code enforcement is important, building contractors must adhere to any new standards that are enforced and should allot the time necessary to train appropriately for the new standards. Building codes are only as effective as the amount of oversight given to them.

A community will also take longer to recovery if the local economy is less diversified. Economic specialization increases the potential for economic disaster if the primary industry is not unique or in-demand. A beachfront community dependent on tourism has a much better chance of a quicker recovery than a community dependent on retail sales. The simple reason is people cannot find good beaches as easily as they can retailers for a new pair of shoes. While an emergency manager is not directly responsible for the economic output of a community, they do have an opportunity to influence a city council that makes such decisions. If city leadership knows the risks at hedging all recovery bets on one or two industries, they may consider coaxing others into town. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder attempted to improve his state’s economic output by providing tax breaks to the film industry. While the full outcome of this venture is yet to unfold, taking such a chance has the possibility to greatly diversify the state’s economic input and improve the chances of a quicker recovery.

While community leadership can enhance the recovery process, it also can be a strong inhibitor. Emergency managers need to be able to tactfully help leaders understand how critical the correct decisions are immediately after a disaster. Bringing political tensions to the surface so all can see the effect they have is another method of working through issues. While politicians in multiple levels of government have personal agendas such as concentrating on projects that are short-term and lead to re-election, an emergency manager can rely on thoughtful persuasion, more effective voting habits, and a working culture of integrity and honesty to help ensure the right decisions are made for the community.

Matthew Polek is a graduate student in the Department of Emergency Management at Jacksonville State University. Email: [email protected]

Constructive comments and responses to the papers are encouraged and can be submitted directly to the scholar at their email address listed below each article, or by clicking on Post A Comment below each article.

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