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Is Preparedness Pointless?

May 25, 2011

Watching coverage of the devastation wrought by the EF5 tornado that struck Joplin, Missouri over the weekend, I have been pondering the theme of the Washington State Emergency Management Association’s conference scheduled for later this year: “Preparedness: It’s Not a Mystery.” As catchy as that may sound, I find it hard to accept.

Gregory Treverton’s famous distinction — first made in the context of national security but certainly applicable here — warns us that things we do not know are very different from things that are contradictory, confusing or complex.

For most of us, weather remains one of the most enduring if not profound mysteries affecting the course of our daily lives. The uncertainty surrounding the occurrence of severe weather — will it rain today or not? — pales in comparison to the mysteries surrounding the capricious nature of the forces unleashed upon us when it strikes in with the suddenness and severity of a tornado.

The heartbreaking images and stories of personal loss strike a particular chord with me as a survivor of the F5 tornado that struck Xenia, Ohio on April 3, 1974, as part of a super-outbreak that spanwed 148 twisters across the country’s mid-section. Like a similar outbreak last month in Alabama, the Xenia tornado was huge and stayed on the ground for a very long time. Thirty-two people died as a direct result of the storm, and two National Guard soldiers were killed a couple of days later when fire swept through a downtown furniture store in which they were billeted.

As painful as the loss of life was for those who knew someone killed by the twister, the scope and scale of the devastation left many of us bewildered. So many landmarks were swept away that many had difficulty even figuring out where they were despite having grown up in the town. The loss of schools, homes, businesses and so many historic structures simply obliterated by the storm had a profound and lasting impact on the town. Xenia, like Joplin, has a long and proud history that changed forever in just a few minutes.

Nothing we say or do can really prepare us for the devastation that such disasters bring. Despite efforts to develop better building standards, we still cannot build economical structures for routine human habitation that will resist the effects of catastrophic storms like those that struck Xenia and Joplin. Even if we could, that would not make it any easier for those left to pick up the pieces of these shattered communities to make their way back to a sense of normalcy.

At best, preparedness helps people provide themselves, their loved ones and neighbors with the necessities of life for a short time following such an extreme event. Those who make a big deal about preparing for events like the Xenia and Joplin tornadoes often have little or no first-hand experience of such devastation themselves. As such, their exhortations strike even my sympathetic and trained ears as preachy and moralistic.

Any objective assessment of the situation in Joplin today, like that of Xenia almost 40 years ago, makes it clear that the survivors do a pretty admirable job of looking after one another despite their so-called lack of preparedness. What people lack in preparedness, they often more than make up for in empathy and resourcefulness.

If we want the public to take us seriously, we would be much better off telling it like it really is: “We can neither prepare for nor adequately protect against events like the Xenia and Joplin tornadoes or the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor meltdown that struck Japan or other similar events. What we can do is help you understand the sorts of challenges that will face us as a community when these events strike.”

With any luck, such honesty will motivate people to do something that will make a difference: Worry less about the uncertainties and do more to resolve the ambiguities associated with disaster risk, such as figuring out what systems will fail and why. A clear-eyed assessment of these risks just might encourage people to invest in the institutions, develop the dispositions and reinforce the relationships that will allow them to respond with resilience when disaster strikes rather than relying on the planners and preachers who spend so much of their time extolling the virtues of preparedness that they have neither the time nor the inclination to come to the rescue.

When it comes to the capriciousness of catastrophic disasters like the Joplin tornado, rescue doesn’t really start until the recovery phase. The skills and sensibilities emergency managers need for this work emphasize asking the right questions not supplying prepackaged answers. Inevitably, the communities that come back better have taken the time to get the questions right before they start implementing the answers. And it’s never too early to start asking these questions since every community that has been through a disaster before is already in line for another one.

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