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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

“What Should We Tell The Public? — Alan McCurry (With Added Article)

August 24th, 2008 · No Comments

Alan McCurry, an emergency management consultant, is the former Chief Operating Officer of the American Red Cross. In this “What Should We Tell The Public?” segment, McCurry draws from his experience as a U.S. Navy nuclear submariner. He says that the more prepared you are in an emergency the more ready you will be to handle the always fluid conditions.


McCurry, whose consulting firm, The McCurry Group, helps individuals or organizations with disaster preparedness, has also recently written an article, “American Refugee”. In the piece, he explains the public’s lack of emergency readiness and lays out a very vivid and disturbing future scenario. I thought it was worth reprinting in its entirety on the blog. Alan’s e-mail address is:

“American Refugee” By Alan McCurry

Americans watch with horror and fascination as thousands of displaced people – refugees – from other nations move in despair and shock from their homes and towns as a result of the effects of war or from the effects of natural disasters such as a tsunami, flood, or an earthquake.

As a nation, Americans are caring and compassionate and respond with donations of all kinds and with strong encouragement for our government to help relieve the suffering they see. The reality is that Americans stay focused on such disasters and the plight of the refugees as long as they see it daily on our media. But with time, new stories grab our attention and the care for the refugee’s shifts to the hands of the government of the effected country and a handful of relief agencies and non-profits.

Few Americans would consider that such a calamity or scenes of refugees could happen to them or to other Americans – but could it? Hurricane Katrina gave a glimpse of such a possibility and it was heart wrenching and sad to watch.

Unfortunately and in my view, the federal government, state and local agencies and the network of non-profit organizations are not prepared, staffed, practiced, nor funded to handle a mass migration of displaced citizens from a major metropolitan area regardless of the cause. Without such preparation and practice, Americans could watch with the same horror as thousands of fellow citizens move from their cities and homes with the same shock and despair as does any other refugees from any other part of the world.

The thought of Americans as refugees causes almost a visceral reaction with most people; however, the reality is that it could happen under the right (or wrong) conditions. America has not seen such a migration of people since the days of the dust bowl and the plight of those migrants is not a pleasant part of our history. The urgent call of this article is to point out that without proper planning and practice, large numbers of American citizens could suffer greatly as refugees. How could America be in a position to let this happen?

There are three key components to how this has occurred. The U.S. is a very large country and hardly a day goes by that Americans do not witness a disaster of some kind – tornados, wild fires, large snow storms etc. – so they are accustomed to seeing disasters and first responders and others helping to save lives and restore normalcy in these relatively small disasters (though certainly not small to the effected people and communities).

Secondly, as a nation, America has suffered very few massive disasters and most of them have fallen well with in our capacity to properly respond – even 911 as tragic and horrific as it was, was relatively easy to contain. The last key part of the answer lays in our focus on the first few hours and days of a disaster rather than on the much more complex and difficult recovery and stabilization phase of a disaster. Without question, the first few hours and days of a disaster are critical. Again, look back at Katrina to see the criticality of rescuing people clinging to rooftops and from other places they were trapped. Resources were rightly focused on saving lives and providing immediate water, food and shelter. However, even this most thought out and practiced phase of a Katrina-type disaster was very disappointing in resource shortfalls, and plan execution failures. The results of those failures and shortfalls were the suffering of thousands of displaced people as they tried to escape from the effects of the disaster.

Still with these cited shortfalls and failures during the early phase of Katrina, the response was far better than the next phase of the disaster (which continues today): recovery and stabilization. This phase of a disaster is equally important as the first phase but is a much less dynamic and does not command media attention except perhaps every few months or on the anniversary of the event. However, the depth and severity of the impact on the people and their community is greatly affected either negatively or positively in this phase.

In our current world of terrorism threats and the threat of ever increasing numbers and severity of natural disasters, we cannot afford to fail to adequately address and prepare for the recovery and stabilization phase of a major disaster on one of our metropolitan cities. With out such preparation, planning and most importantly, practice to identify issues and problems, the results could lead to a mass migration of tens of thousands of people — American refugees.

Additionally, it is important to understand the difference, potentially, in America’s response to a major natural disaster compared to the response from a large-scale disaster resulting from an act of terrorism. Let me explain. If a major metropolitan city were devastated from a natural disaster, the unaffected areas of America would respond appropriately with donations and resources. Why? Because people understand natural disasters, expect them and know if they and their family are safely out of the impact of that particular disaster. Additionally, they can assess the likelihood that a similar event could strike their city in the near-term. For example, if Houston was devastated by a hurricane, St Louis citizens and leaders would be confident that their community will not be struck by the same hurricane and would have no reservations about giving assistance to Houston or provided resources. (Not discounting the possibility of severe storms to St. Louise could result if the remnants of the storm were to travel north.)

However, if Houston had been devastated by a terrorist attack using a nuclear devise, or a radiological dirty conventional explosive, or a biological attack and the threat of additional attacks on the U.S. was undetermined, would those same St Louise citizens and community leaders be willing to release resources they might need if they were worried they might be next? It is not possible to say with certainty that the required level of response to a terror caused disaster would happen for even the first phase of the response. If the initial response was inadequate, the potential negative impact on the remaining phases of the disaster would be huge. With out the necessary help from first responders and other communities, the effected people would be forced to migrate to seek the basics such as food, water, medical assistance and shelter. Again, they would become refugees.

An issue that exacerbates this predicament is that each potential terrorist attack and natural disaster has substantive and subtle differences needing to be addressed. For example:

  • Chemical attack:

o Many variations of possible chemicals exist and require different protocol to deal with the effected people.
o Mass fear of the general public for their personal and family risks and whether they would be willing to help those “contaminated” by the chemical?
o Would the first responder and medical community be able to handle large numbers of contaminated people – both from a treatment and decontamination perspective? Without question, such capability exists to help but the numbers of potentially contaminated people would swamp our current capability.
o Although the community infrastructure would remain viable, large areas could possibly be isolated for long periods of time depending on the persistence of the chemical. Establishing and maintaining short term and long term sheltering could be a concern. A comment on sheltering: first, it is not a pleasant experience but a great comfort when needed; secondly, the idea is to have temporary shelters for as short a period as possible so the people can get back to some semblance of their normal lives; third, most people don’t realize that shelters have other functions – school gyms, church basements, sports arenas, etc. — and the community would like to restore the normal function of the shelter ASAP and the pressure is to shut down the shelter.; Fourth, any shelter open for more than several days requires different leadership skills from the shelter staff, organization within the shelter, sustainable sanitary and privacy concerns, and additionally, a great deal of pressure from the facility owner to close so it can be returned to normal use.

  • Biological attack:

o As with chemicals, there are potentially numerous biological agents with widely varying incubation periods and treatment protocols.
o Again fear is a major issue and if the bio agent is contagious, will those in the affected area be allowed to move or will large areas be quarantined. Would those yet unaffected but in a quarantined area remain there or will they try to migrate to “safe areas?” Will authorities be able to designate an affected area or a safe area? If the bio agent has a long (days or weeks) incubation period and with the mobility of the American public, affected people will have moved throughout the country by the time they display the effects of the agent and/or become contagious. (Interesting to note: once an agent is released, response will be the same as it would be for a pandemic disease. – preparation for a pandemic flu is great preparation for a bio attack.)

  • Radiological dirty conventional explosives:

o Again, fear and lack of understanding of the effects on people from radioactive material would create hesitation in the response to this disaster.
o Large areas would be cordoned off with large numbers of people contained within – both contaminated and uncontaminated. The ability to check for radioactive contamination and then decontaminate the affected people would be problematic. Not that the capability to decontaminate does not exist, but the potential numbers needing to be helped would swamp our capability.
o Most of the community’s infrastructure would not be destroyed (except for the immediate area impacted by the explosive) but large areas would be isolated while contamination surveys are conducted. To date, there is little agreement on the “safe” levels of radioactive contamination would be used for such a disaster.
o Until the affected people could be decontaminated, providing safe shelter, and non-contaminated food and water will present a problem.

  • Nuclear detonation:

o Besides the obvious massive destruction and casualties resulting from the blast, all of the issues of a radioactive dirty explosion apply but the magnitude and the horror would exacerbate the ability to deal with the after effects.
o The need for long term sheltering and feeding of massive numbers of people will be horrendous – even more so if no detailed planning or practice has taken place.

  • Earthquake /Hurricane:

o What is removed from both earthquakes and hurricanes is the terror and fear in the unaffected portions of the Nation. Normal response would be expected from the first responders and federal and non-profit agencies.
o However, with the growth in population in major cities, the potential numbers of casualties and displaced people would overload our ability to care adequately. The impact on New Orleans by Katrina was dramatic and the response was disheartening but New Orleans was a relatively small city compared to the potential disaster in one of our major metropolitan such as Los Angles or San Francisco, or Miami, or New York.

Pointing out the differences in these possible disaster scenarios serves only highlight that each one needs its own analysis and plan and to develop a sense that without practice, the impact on the affected community and its people could result in the unnecessary suffering.

What is it that needs to be done to reduce or mitigate the effects on a metropolitan area resulting from major naturally occurring or from a massive terrorist attack? First and most importantly, recognition and understanding that the problem exists is key to solving the problem. With that recognition, American’s can start to develop strategies, plans and a practice regiment to greatly reduce the potential plight of the American Refugee.

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