5 Ways to Educate People About the Realities of Disaster Recovery

The public doesn’t know that much about emergency response, and even less about disaster recovery and what's involved with getting federal assistance.

by / May 30, 2013
Sharon Karr/FEMA

A 2010 American Red Cross survey found that an alarming 75 percent of 1,058 respondents expected help to arrive within an hour if they posted a request on a social media site. Hold that thought.

The public, and by that I mean the average Joe and Sally, doesn’t know that much about emergency and disaster response, and even less about disaster recovery and what is involved with getting federal assistance. What little they do know often comes from disaster movies.

There was a made-for-TV movie, 10.5, which had the FEMA director being lowered into a hole to personally set off an atomic bomb to stop a devastating series of earthquakes from continuing. I could think of a couple of past FEMA directors who I’d volunteer for the task — and no, not Craig Fugate, the current one.

Yes, it is improbable, unrealistic, outlandish, crazy and impossible. Yet, what would you bet that people believe it can be accomplished? In reality, the public expects government to do most of what they see being done in these fantasy movies.

Today’s Hurricane Sandy survivors are finding out the realities of disaster recovery, flood plain management and sea rise that will impact their ability to rebuild where they once lived. 

Here are some basic steps we can all take to educate the public:

  • Educate our own elected officials about how the disaster response and recovery system works. They shouldn’t make broad pronouncements about how quickly aid will be delivered and the extent to which people will be made whole. That only sets up people for a huge disappointment in the future, which will quickly lead to anger about broken promises.
  • People need to be told about the capabilities of their local emergency responders. Their staffing is based on day-to-day emergencies and not for surge events that will overwhelm the capabilities of existing people and equipment.
  • The response speed must be communicated. For regional events, there won’t be any aid coming from traditional sources of mutual aid. Most neighboring jurisdictions will be dealing with the same level of damages and trauma. The National Guard must first mobilize. They as the Guard and as individuals may have been impacted by the same disaster, and that will lessen the availability of personnel and other resources.
  • The active-duty military is at least three days out from no-notice events. And depending on where they’re coming from, it might only be an advance party with boots on the ground at 72 hours. Full-force relief efforts could take five to seven days to arrive and be functioning.
  • In communities where there’s a threat from hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis, we need to tell people to become prepared for a minimum of seven days since relief forces won’t be immediately available. I know many will argue about this last item, saying, “If we can’t get people prepared for three days, how are we going to get them prepared for seven?” I’ll refer you to the title of this column. Saying three days only sets you up for later failure.

We have a huge task ahead of us in managing the public’s perceptions. I prescribe a huge dose of reality to be taken as needed and, when the opportunity presents itself, to share what is physically possible. Otherwise we are doomed to disappoint.

Eric Holdeman Contributing Writer

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

He can be reached by emailTwitter and Google+.

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