Ask The Experts: How Prepared are Governments & Consumers for Natural Disasters?
The enduring image from Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, is thousands of New Orleans residents on the roofs of homes and apartment buildings waiting to be rescued from the rising flood waters. Since 2005, federal and state emergency management units have worked to prevent a similar debacle from occurring again.
New disaster management policies are now in place and have been implemented in the wake of 2012's Hurricane Sandy in the Northeast, the outbreak of tornadoes in Kansas and Oklahoma and the wildfires that have ravaged the Southwest this summer.
Two Areas of Concern
In a natural disaster there are two areas of concern. First, there is focus on ensuring the safety and survival of the people who live in the stricken area. Second, there are efforts to protect property to minimize loss.
When a home is damaged or destroyed, the consumer suffers an emotional loss. The insurance company insuring the property suffers a very real economic loss. And in the recent case of Sandy, governments along coastal areas suffer damage to vital infrastructure and the loss of tax revenue from businesses that were unable to operate.
The experts we talked to generally agree that policymakers have done a better job of coping with disasters in the last eight years, though consumers are not as proactive in preparing for disaster as they could be.
Focus Back on Natural Disasters
David McEntire, a professor of public administration at the University of North Texas, says Hurricane Katrina has shifted emergency management policy back to a focus on natural disasters. In the wake of 9/11, he says it had shifted to homeland security.
“While we still are concerned about terrorism, there was a recognition that we cannot ignore hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding, and other disasters," McEntire said. "Also, a new law was passed after Katrina – the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act -- which basically rebuilt FEMA after the organization suffered due to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Hurricane Sandy resulted in a new law to improve recovery operations.”
Thomas Cova, Director of the Center for Natural & Technological Hazards at the University of Utah, says disaster spending can be divided into before and after, and both have gone up following Katrina.
“On the after-side, there are simply more people and infrastructure in hazardous areas every year, and disaster losses continue to skyrocket," Cova said."Disaster spending on the before-side has also risen but not as fast as the after-side as more communities invest in mitigating and preparing for disasters. Hurricane Sandy is too recent to speculate on rising expenditures, but the upward trend in spending is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.”
While governments have a responsibility to protect citizens from natural disasters as much as possible, the citizens themselves also have a responsibility to reduce their own risk, where possible. Jeffrey Czajkowski, research fellow at the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center at the University of Pennsylvania, thinks consumers could be doing a better job.
“We've surveyed households over the past three seasons that were under threat of hurricane and we asking them things like 'what kind of mitigation have you added to your home?' And we found that only 20% to 30% of these households had done anything to prepare,” he said. “And these include people living directly on the water.”
Among the things they could be doing, he says, are elevating their homes, flood-proofing them or adding proper wind mitigation to the roof or windows. Meanwhile, those living in the nation's heartland are at risk of, not hurricanes but tornadoes.
In areas with a lot of tornado activity, homes with basements offer the best protection. Homeowners without basements have, in recent years, added underground storm cellars adjacent to their homes. They not only add a place of safety during a disaster but can add value to your home when you sell.
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