President Obama and his family travelled to the Gulf Coast on Saturday to take a dip in support of the area’s recovery from the oil spill disaster. The willingness of the swimmer-in-chief to jump in literally and figuratively and even take his family in sent a strong message, amplified by the huge media coverage, to the public about the Gulf. These types of photo-ops are an important presidential function, though I think the power of the image here comes in part because it also involved his role as a father as well
So, of course, this blog must ask what kind of activity/photo-op could President Obama undertake to promote citizen disaster readiness for National Preparedness Month which starts in just two weeks? I think it would be great for the President to undertake a similar high profile event (also ideally involving his family in some small way).
My suggestion: have the President create a mock family emergency communications plan.
President Obama and daughter Sasha show they are not afraid of the post-oil spill Gulf water in Panama City, Florida. (Photo: White House)
Obama will undoubtedly issue a proclamation at the beginning for National Preparedness Month. But he — like his predecessor George W. Bush — has not done a public family preparedness event to promote the issue with the media and the citizenry.
One activity that might make sense is for the President to start on a rough mock family communications plan as a model and inspiration for other American families. This would be very appropriate since his FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said in an interview with me on Friday that if he could get the public to do one thing this National Preparedness Month it would be create their own family communications plan.
It’s actually a topic he’s raised before. During a visit to FEMA last Spring at the start of hurricane season, the President made a very strong statement calling preparedness a responsibility of citizenship and specifically urging Americans to make a family emergency plan:
“…one of the most important things we can do is make sure the families have prepared appropriately. We just saw some statistics coming out of Florida indicating that a huge percentage of people in hurricane areas simply don’t make plans. They don’t have a plan, they don’t have a set of contingencies that will allow them to respond in an effective way. Those people who have the capacity to plan, they will thereby relieve some of the resources that the government has to provide and we can stay focused on those folks who are most vulnerable and have the most difficulty dealing with a storm. So I hope that message of personal responsibility sinks in.”
Now, obviously the President of the United States does not have to worry about an emergency communications/evacuation plan (as he happens to have an entire agency, the Secret Service, dedicated to that exact challenge). But the other 112 million or so American households do not have that support system in a disaster, and it can be daunting to begin that process themselves.
But if Obama raised went through the disaster planning process even in a very broad way it would significantly increase the profile of the issue and the task. He wouldn’t need to get into his own family’s personal specifics at all but just go through the some of the steps recommended on Ready.Gov “Make A Plan” section, including:
setting up an out of town contact, learning how to text message, subscribing to local alert services, trying Ready.Gov/Ad Council’s online planning tool, picking places where your family will meet, both within and outside of your immediate neighborhood, checking with work and school (no mention of the Obama kids’s school of course) about their emergency plans, and planning for your pets.
Having the President do something rather than just say it would signal to the public and the media that he feels the objective of family preparedness is really important. Now, I understand there are sensitivities about bringing the First Family into the public discussion, but this would not be an actual plan and could be done very generally and half tongue-in-cheek (Obama could say that I’m hoping I won’t need to use this for six more years not two!)
And, as I have written recently, there is a real need for the emergency management community to include far more personal stories and modeling in its disaster preparedness messaging in order to more directly and effective engage and guide the public. This would personalize preparedness from the top.
In the almost nine years I have covered the issue of citizen preparedness, one of the things that has confounded me most is how political leaders have generally ignored the issue. There is not one major elected official who has identified public disaster readiness as one their top issues (despite the fact that even the smallest interest has a political backer in Washington). To me, it’s amazing that no one has taken up leadership considering the number of major emergencies that have either occurred or threaten the nation, and the fact that preparedness — unlike most issues — should be a bipartisan, community-building, patriotic apple pie issue. So, in the absence of political, media and public focus at present, to have President Obama take the time to do a high profile event would be hugely helpful in jump starting citizen interest and action.
In congressional testimony last year, FEMA’s Fugate underscored the importance of political commitment to preparedness:
“I’ve said it time and time again, and I will continue to say it: personal disaster preparedness is and must be a national priority, and every elected and appointed official at every level of government must make it a priority.”
Obviously, the President already has many pressing issues on his plate, but if he does indeed feel that preparing for disasters is indeed “a responsibility of citizenship” as he said last year (and I totally agree with him) I would think it is worth a public appearance and a high profile photo-op demonstration. And as an added bonus, it will give him a chance to get a start on the civilian-life Obama family communications plan whenever they end up needing it.