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How Can We Improve Disaster Response?

How Can We Improve Disaster Response?

This video was recorded at MIT World Series: Big Questions After Big Hurricanes 2005. Even if the U.S. draws the right lessons from Hurricane Katrina, panelists suggest, the nation may still be caught short in the next disaster. In some areas of government, Kenneth Oye points out, "weaknesses can go on for a long time because you don't confront a reality test. Katrina was a reality test with implications for (FEMA) that could not be ignored." This agency had functioned quite well in prior administrations, he continues, having learned from mistakes following Hurricane Andrew more than a decade ago. But then came 9/11 and the incorporation of FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security. Says Oye, "With its (new) focus on terrorism, middle management people with experience in natural disasters left, and were replaced with patronage appointments…It became a hollow agency." Oye worries about disasters "not in the play book, where we project and guess" such as nuclear or biological terrorism. Richard Larson grades the effectiveness of responses to such disasters as the Oklahoma City bombing, the Tokyo subway sarin attack, the Bhopal gas explosion, and summarizes some lessons from these experiences: preposition supplies and equipment; anticipate lots of volunteers and off-duty personnel, and set up rules for their deployment; implement "data trawling" of 911 calls in case "independent reports turn out to be really one massive thing;" reduce traffic congestion on phones and radios; and expect tradeoffs around evacuation decisions. But, notes Larsen, "as important as an improved hurricane response is, it's probably more important to think about the next flu pandemic." Yossi Sheffi has seen organizations splutter and fail after catastrophe strikes. The British government's initial response to a 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth disease made things worse, he recalls. When it "closed its entire countryside to instill confidence, the damage to tourism was 2.5 times the damage to the agricultural sector." This kind of overreaction is typical of high impact, low probability events, says Sheffi, so "developing resilience to withstand big shocks is an organizational issue." Just as many global corporations build redundancy in inventory, and beef up communications and security, national prevention must involve "process tightening" and investing in infrastructure, from achieving energy independence to shoring up leaky water supplies. "Prepare for the next one, not the last one," Sheffi counsels. "It won't be coming with three days warning next time."

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