In Case of Emergency, Read This Blog

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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

The Many Obstacles To Citizen Preparedness

July 12th, 2008 · No Comments

In a post earlier this week, I discussed the Florida Legislature’s attempt to address an obstacle faced by citizens as they try to prepare for emergencies — storing prescription medicine. In last weekend’s New York Times Magazine, there was an article, “Are You Ready For The Next Disaster,” by Eric Klinenberg that describes the range of other impediments that have kept the U.S. public from preparing for disasters. Klinenberg is the author of a wonderfully researched and written book, Heat Wave, about the 1995 Chicago heat wave which killed 700 people.

In the Times article, Klinenberg asks and tries to answer a key preparedness question:

“What prevents us from preparing for disasters? Some of the reasons are readily apparent. Bad advice and false alarms discourage all of us from listening to authorities; the government’s calls for us to build atomic shelters or heed code-orange alerts have done more harm than good. For the poor, scrambling to make it through the small crises of everyday life is far more urgent than planning for a possible emergency, and investing time in preparedness efforts seems relatively unimportant. For everyone, there are opportunity costs involved in preparing yourself and your family for a catastrophe that’s unlikely to happen. But the puzzle persists. The great majority of us believe that there are things we can do to reduce our vulnerability (and our family’s too), and we have enough time and money to do them. So what’s keeping us?”

In 2006, Klinenberg organized some focus groups in New York City to look into that question:

“One major concern I heard was that there are simply too many things to worry about. Participants complained about having to prepare for too many specific disaster possibilities and in turn feeling overwhelmed, if not helpless. Their list of disasters was daunting: another terrorist attack, perhaps a dirty bomb that would require evacuation, or an assault on the subways. An infectious disease. A heat wave leading to prolonged power outages (like the regional one in 2003, or the Queens outage of 2006). A hurricane.”

I spoke with Eric last year about Heat Wave and the subject of civilian readiness. I appreciate how he sees  disaster preparedness as part of a broader community resilience and his focus on the needs of disconnected parts of society. As he notes in the Times piece:

“We must also recognize that community organization is essential for disaster preparation. The two deadliest recent U.S. environmental disasters, Katrina and the 1995 Chicago heat wave, highlighted the vulnerability of socially isolated people, for whom the safe house becomes a tomb. Efforts to build strong, durable connections among neighbors, local organizations, businesses and government agencies will help improve community resilience in crises of all kinds.” 



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