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Earthquake Country Needs a Sense of Urgency

We mosey along thinking we have until next month, next year, five years from now to get ready for the Big One.

Emergency managers and the many different disciplines and organizations they partner with are working every day to make their communities a safer and better place to be; before, during and after a disaster.

Having cut my teeth here on the West Coast, I have always envied emergency managers who have hurricanes as their worst-case disaster. This is for two reasons. One is that they have a set schedule on the calendar that is identified and known by as the hurricane season, which, by the way, just started on June 1, and was preceded by Tropical Storm Alberto. Evidently Alberto did not get the save-the-date message and arrived a few days early.

Secondly, you can see hurricanes and tropical storms coming days, even weeks out as they form in the Atlantic or Gulf of Mexico. With our 24-hour news cycle, even the people who are procrastinators will finally run to the hardware store to get plywood and to the grocery store for canned food and water. People have time to heed warnings and evacuate from danger areas.

Emergency managers and their associated partners on the West Coast have earthquakes as our major catastrophe that everyone is working to address. We too know that a day of reckoning is coming and will arrive with a vengeance. Our problem is that the earthquake “season” is 365 days long. There is no predicting when the next Big One will arrive. It could be tomorrow, it could be another 100, 200 or 500 years from now.

Though not an earthquake, we also know that the Mt. Rainier volcano did erupt around 500 years ago, sending forth a significant lahar. Thus, we have catastrophic events that will be “come as you are” events. There will be no significant warning that allows people and businesses to become prepared. If you want to prepare—now is the time to do it.

And that brings me to the issue that exists today among those who think there is plenty of time to work on things that need to get done to become better prepared, ahead of the disaster. I think, in general, we have been lulled into a state of complacency. We come to work, do what we can and go home as though the mega disaster is way off in the future.

Collectively, we seek additional funding for this and that to make our programs stronger and more robust. Researchers do their academic thing, exploring past disasters and in multidiscipline approaches or they burrow down deep into one topic. Science types do research into earthquake faults to find new ones and refine what they know about those that have been discovered.

What’s missing is a sense of urgency. Since there is no set time schedule or season, we mosey along thinking we have until next month, next year, five years from now to get ready for the Big One. What if it happens tomorrow or next week? What would we be doing differently if we thought that a disaster was just around the corner on the calendar?

I know that we can’t be running at 7,000 revolutions per minute all the time. The every-day disasters, program management and grant administration disrupt our rhythm and schedules on a regular basis.

You can call this venting if you like. I don’t have an operational role in a disaster anymore and perhaps I have the luxury of being worried about others being ready. I just look at the Ring of Fire in the Pacific Ocean and know our turn is coming.

What can we do today that we are not doing, to be ready for tomorrow?

Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.