Updated: Oct 17, 2022
As emergency managers, preparedness is part of our roles as defined in the National Response Framework and other related doctrines. For nearly two decades since preparedness has been integrated into planning at the local, state, and federal levels, emergency managers throughout the country have struggled with how to change citizen behavior to convince more people to' Get-a-kit'. The effort, which has cost billions of dollars to promote, advertise, beg, and cajole Americans to prepare, has not only been mostly unsuccessful but has in fact been an abysmal failure. By FEMA's own statistics, a little over 1/3 of Americans have taken any steps to prepare. In underserved communities, that figure is more likely closer to 100 percent being unprepared. This pattern escalated into a crisis in 2017 when Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria killed 3,167 people and caused $276 billion in damage, and prompted then FEMA Administrator Brock Long to declare ''We have failed to create a culture of preparedness."
This failure is partly due to the mixed message disaster agencies continue to give to the public, (prepare your home and family but if you don't we'll be here to save you) and partly because many Americans are too preoccupied, too lazy, and not financially capable of stockpiling disaster supply items. A range of factors affect the likelihood of living in poverty – the poverty threshold in the United States was defined in 2018 as a four-person household earning $25,000 or less.
Expecting millions of people to spend their meager income on disaster convenience items is a stretch at best. The number of people living below poverty has increased dramatically since COVID-19. The real question is even if 80% of the public had a kit, would it really change death and displacement outcomes?
The fact is, in a catastrophic event such as the recent tornado outbreak in and around western Kentucky where nearly 100 people were killed, and hundreds of homes were destroyed, three days of supplies would hardly have made a difference in most instances.
So back to the disaster kit issue. While some would protest otherwise, I've said for years that if anyone can provide data that shows a disaster kit actually saves lives, I'll change my tune. How many victims of the massive flood that overwhelmed New Orleans in Hurricane Katrina, drowning more than 1,800 people would actually have survived if they had only had a kit?
Besides the fact that if you tell a single mom living below poverty to stash some extra cans of tuna and spare cash under her bed to 'prepare' she'll most likely tell you that the tuna will be consumed for tonight's dinner and the cash will be bus fare to her minimum wage job.
With these challenges in mind, irrespective of the people who can afford to spend $100.00 or more on a disaster kit but simply don't think it's a priority, how do we move the preparedness needle? So glad you asked. It starts with a simple proposition that will require three bold but necessary steps. if you're currently doing these things bravo. If not, you may just want to consider them.
1. Emergency management agencies should stop sending mixed messages. Telling people to prepare, but not showing them how while constantly touting the 'rescue' aspect of disasters is akin to drinking the poison and hoping it kills your enemy. Emergency managers should focus their time and effort on community-based activities such as basic first-aid and CPR classes, tornado drills and simulations, and helping small businesses create good disaster and business continuity plans for their community's critical services i.e., child care centers, places of worship, grocers, gas stations, and pharmacies.
2. Start meeting people where they are rather than assuming everyone is at the same socioeconomic, intellectual, and cultutal starting point (middle-class, insured, financially stable, and socially connected) Then tailor your messages and programs accordingly. Prioritize the marginalized and underserved populations, people below poverty, seniors, limited English speakers, food insecure, homeless or housing challenged, and others that will undoubtedly require more assistance and attention after the disaster. These will be the same people that drain resources after the disaster so why not do everything possible to minimize their impacts and maximize available resources to deal with the most severely injured and distressed during response. If for no other reason than economical, it projected that every dollar spent on preparedness saves 6-9 dollars on the cost of response. Make those preparedness dollars count.
3. Abandon the attitude that the public is too lazy, apathetic, and unintelligent to grasp the nuances of disasters. It is one that too many EMs have come to embrace (albeit privately) which is a hinderance to effective preparedness measures. Don't be afraid to trust your community members to do the right thing. But EMs can't continue the 'God' complex that prevents them from being forthcoming with information the public needs to make informed decisions about their own survival. Stop kicking the can down the road, and put some metrics around your preparedness programs. How many people in your community have been trained in basic bystander lifesaving skills, e.g., CPR, first aid? How many drills do you conduct that include anyone outside public safety, i.e., businesses, places of worship, etc.? If you cannot measure the true depth of your community's readiness to care for themselves during the onset of an emergency, what value are you adding to improve outcomes?
Note none of the above recommendations involves a disaster kit. Supplies should be a community-based function rather than an individual pursuit of personal convenience. One emergency management colleague placed locked storage containers throughout his community, with supplies, communication equipment, generators, and emergency food and water. It is a community resource to be used to benefit the 'whole' community, not just a few that can afford to stock personal supplies.