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Avoid Answering This Question Post-Disaster

How many people have died?

Few things are certain in life but there is one that I can guarantee you will be true. In a post-disaster event, two questions will be asked of senior elected officials and emergency managers:

  1. How many people have died?
  2. What is the estimated cost of damages?

I will address just the the first one in this blog post. It is natural for the question to be asked. When the question is asked, many a person, like the governor of Kentucky, will hazard a guess based on the limited information they have.

In the case of the recent Kentucky tornadoes, it was early in the disaster, still the dark of night, when the governor estimated “50 or more” people had died.

There were initial reports about the collapsed candle factory and the stretch of the path of the tornado would indicate that there would be dozens of deaths.

Since the governor made that pronouncement, the death toll has become part of the story, with media continuing to ask for updates from the governor. Rather than just being a number to report, reporting the number has become a story.

Here’s what the governor should have said: “I fear that with a tornado that is reported to have caused extensive damages and the initial reports of collapsed buildings, the death toll may be significant. We will report the number of deaths as they are confirmed by local coroners. Further updates will follow as we have firm information that is reported to us.”

Then, the state emergency management agency will have that mission of staying in touch with their local counterparts and telling them “we don’t want death estimates! We only want confirmed deaths as reported by the coroner. Put those in your daily situation report as a key item of information.”

Then the problem that will have to be watched for is “double counting” of deaths and mistakes happening at local jurisdictions. Watch for the number of deaths to all of a sudden double. That needs to be checked and rechecked before reporting that level of increase.

The number of deaths will still be a key item to be reported on, but it won’t be the guessing game that it has become in the terrible tragedy that these storms have wrought.
Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.