Fading Away from Hurricane Sandy: We’re good at relief, but where’s the public will for prevention and planning?

hurricane sandyBy Elaine Mejia, Senior Program Associate

Does our public will have attention deficit disorder? We can summon such national energy and action to provide emergency aid in the wake of a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy, but we seem to have little capacity to support broader systemic efforts to plan for or even prevent future devastation.

In the days and weeks after Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, Americans were glued to news coverage of the personal and community devastation and the remarkable efforts of public and private relief organizations to help affected families.
The government response was impressive, prompting Chris Christie, New Jersey’s Republican governor and then-surrogate for Mitt Romney, to praise the efforts of Democratic President Barack Obama and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The governors of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut have spent the past several weeks attempting to persuade Congress to provide $60.4 billion in relief aid (down from their original $80 billion request) to their states. The reception they’ve received from Congress has been anything but enthusiastic although they did finally pass a “down payment” version of the package ($9.7 billion) in early January.
The relief proposal is running into familiar obstacles, such as allegations of waste, political gamesmanship and the insistence that funding be limited to only “emergency” or “essential” needs. One of the chief criticisms of Senator Dan Coats of Indiana, an outspoken critic of the original bill, is the fact that it included “mitigation funding” in anticipation of the next storm. In his statement about the aid package Senator Coats says that “The most effective way to provide aid to the victims of this devastating storm is to fund immediate needs first so we can assess and plan for future requests.”
The current debate in Congress is illustrative of where our American conversation too often stalls out: following strong support for immediate emergency efforts, we fall woefully short time and again in forming a shared consensus behind anything that resembles public prevention and planning.
We know from research commissioned by Public Works and conducted by the TOPOS partnership that Americans tend to favor a limited role for government when it comes to economic matters—in particular, they believe government efforts should be the last resort and should only assist the “truly vulnerable.” Further intervention is seen as intruding on the private marketplace and fostering dependence. In this prevailing belief system, prevention and planning are things individuals do by weatherizing their homes, buying insurance or even building emergency bunkers. What’s missing from this standard thinking is any recognition of a larger role for government beyond an immediate response—upgrading infrastructure, addressing climate change, and so on.
Right now, Americans respond to disasters with, “Somebody ought to do something to help those people” or “Those people should have planned ahead.” We need to shift their thinking to, “What do communities need to be better prepared?” and “What can we do together to stop this from happening again?” This shift is essential if we are to build public will for the kinds of structural and systemic changes we need to prepare for the inevitable storms ahead.
Through our research, we have developed strategies for fostering conversations that help people see that public investments, planning and stewardship are essential to a healthy economy and functioning society. We can help people move beyond the standard crisis response to a deeper appreciation of the role government must play in long-term preparation, planning and prevention. Here’s how:

● Highlight the day-to-day work of public agencies in planning for future natural disasters (see below for examples).

● Engage audiences as “citizens” who have a role to play, in partnership with their government, in the stewardship of their communities—not just as recipients of aid in the aftermath of disasters.

● Encourage people to explore their goals and aspirations for their communities with respect to natural disasters, and help them see the role public systems play in making those goals reality.

● Assert intentionality. For example, if we want resilient communities that are well-prepared for natural disasters, we can work together to make choices now to ensure that we are ready.

● Point to real solutions to trigger “systems thinking.” It’s important to go beyond broad rhetoric about the need for better infrastructure or planning and give tangible examples that offer logical next steps we should take to improve our infrastructure, much like David Cay Johnston suggests in 12 Steps to Stop the Next Sandy.

Emergency Management Success Stories (needs a grey box)

Many of our emergency management systems—at the local, state and federal levels—are already working to modernize how we communicate about, plan for and deal with future emergencies. Here are some good examples of our public systems working hard to plan for and protect us from disasters:

● The city of San Francisco is focusing on accelerating post-disaster recovery.

● The Illinois Emergency Management Agency and the Central United States Earthquake Consortium have developed a private-sector integration project that enables the private and public sectors to communicate before, during and after a natural disaster.

● FEMA Director Craig Fugate is embracing technology by monitoring local weather reports and tweeting.

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