Are we prepared?
BLACKSBURG, Va. ― Recent natural and human-made disasters have forced our societies to re-consider existing emergency management systems and plans. The year was a memorable one for the many Americans impacted by disasters. Massive blizzards and floods affected dozens of states across the country. Texas and other states fought dangerous wildfires for months. Last spring, the United States was devastated by the deadliest tornadoes since the 1950s over just a few weeks. In August, a magnitude 5.8 earthquake struck Virginia and was felt as far as away New York City. It was just one of 5,017 earthquakes experienced in 2011, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. As a result, emergency management systems are asked to reflect global changes in the environments of ecosystem, politics, economy, society, technology, and international situations. So as we reflect on the past year, many wonder what lessons we learned.
In 2011, more than 1,100 American people died in weather-related incidents and more than 8,000 were injured. The year also included a record of at least 14 individual events that caused economic damage of over $1 billion and carried a collective price tag of more than $55 billion. Events such as the southern drought contrasting the floods across the northern United States represent the extreme temperature and precipitation swings that climate scientists project will become more common in the future amid a warming climate. Trends such as urban sprawl and conversion of rural land to suburban landscapes increase the likelihood that a tornado will impact densely populated areas. The wild weather of 2011 reminds us all of our increasing vulnerability and prompted an initiative to build a weather-ready nation.
Weather warnings are critical to protecting people and property. Nationally, the average lead time for tornadoes is 12 to 14 minutes, but during the various outbreaks of severe weather in 2011, tornado warnings were issued with an average lead time of approximately 25 minutes and some exceeded half an hour. Not long ago, the average lead was half as long. Warnings for flash flooding, another leading cause of weather-related fatalities, have also improved greatly with the nationwide average lead time of one hour or more. An effective warning requires that the threat be detected, notice communicated and the people in the impacted area take action to protect themselves. By helping atmospheric scientists and the emergency management community better understand how weather information is received and what triggers people to take action, we can communicate the threat more effectively and save more lives..
Various types of major pollution incidents continue to occur, which have an important impact on the ecological environment, people’s health and social development. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established the Environmental Response Laboratory Network (ERLN) to assist in addressing chemical, biological, and radiological threats during nationally significant incidents. The ERLN is managed by the EPA’s Office of Emergency Management and serves as a national network of laboratories that can be accessed as needed to support large-scale environmental responses by providing consistent analytical capabilities, capacities, and quality data in a systematic, coordinated response. The ERLN integrates capabilities of existing public sector laboratories with accredited private sector labs to support environmental responses. The ERLN provides an environmental laboratory testing capability and capacity to meet EPA’s responsibilities for surveillance, response, decontamination and recovery from incidents involving release of chemical, biological, or radiological contaminants; facilitates coordination of laboratories capable of responding efficiently and effectively to incidents; and establishes relationships and priorities with other federal laboratory networks through the Integrated Consortium of Laboratory Networks (ICLN) in preparation for a major environmental event. Implementing the concept of scientific development and constructing a harmonious society needs to solve environmental risks properly. Based on the analysis of the main problems to the regional emergency management of sudden environmental incidents, the suggestion of an environmental emergency management system (E2MS) of regional emergency pollution accidents was mainly concerned with constructing a regional emergency management information system, improving environmental protection and risk management infrastructure, building a regional environmental emergencies sudden decision support system, perfecting an emergency management mechanism and increasing the level of risk management.
Reform of EM systems
Structurally, emergency management systems should be established in terms of three basic principles: integration, organism, and collaboration. Emergency management agencies and functions should be centralized. These centralized emergency management systems are characterized as operating designated leading emergency management agencies responsible for coordinating and managing emergency management resources and information to deal with specific types of disasters. The United States created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to coordinate national security services including emergency management and risk management after 9/11. The centralization principle leads to create DHS in the United States. Likewise, in 2008 Korea introduced roles of coordinating emergency management services. The change from decentralized to centralized emergency management systems enables the designated emergency management agencies to monitor and control entire emergency management activities, to increase efficiency of managing and using limited resources, and to operate consistently emergency management activities with clear roles and responsibilities of each agency across disaster types and situations. In particular, there needs to be serious awareness of new hazards such as global warming and terrorist attacks. It is imperative that we better understand such threats and find ways to limit and more effectively deal with such possibilities.
The Korean government has made efforts to emphasize its role for emergency management, without equally supporting the activity of other players such as voluntary organizations, business corporations and the local community. That is partially why the Korean government has not substantially succeeded in managing all kinds of disasters. Residents and their communities have to deal with emergencies more directly than anyone else. Since the establishment of the National Emergency Management Agency, many residents have increased their awareness of disasters and emergency management, although there is still room for improvement. When an emergency receives national attention via mass media or the Internet, awareness among residents and their communities dramatically increase. However, a majority of the residents have not attempted to set up their own written emergency operation plan, though some have done it verbally.
Another challenge to be overcome is the ongoing belief that planning is all that is required to prepare for disasters. Instead of writing emergency operations plans, we need to find ways to reduce vulnerability and enhance capabilities. Ways must be found to improve communication among all pertinent actors during disasters and work harmoniously to promote recovery in the aftermath of such events.
Voluntarism without being paid has not historically been a popular activity in Korea, although its activity has recently increased.
However, the virtue of cooperation has been very popular by giving and taking diverse forms of assistance during emergency. To elaborate, cooperation entails a reciprocal exchange of service.
Building effective defense network: US case
In 1950, two important laws further shaped emergency management in the United States. The Federal Disaster Relief Act resulted in the federal government’s ability to provide disaster assistance.
The Civil Defense Act created the Federal Civil Defense Administration to deal with possible attacks from foreign enemies on U.S. soil. Over the next several years, the government would witness poor coordination of disaster assistance programs because they were broadly dispersed across many federal departments.
In 1979, President Jimmy Carter created the Federal Emergency Management Agency by executive order. FEMA mandated that state and local governments plan and prepare more for disasters. Emergency management was slowly being recognized as a profession. The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (Stafford Act) in 1988 specifies how federal assistance may be given upon a presidential disaster declaration.
However, all of these changes set up the failure of the federal government during Hurricane Katrina. President George Bush and Congress were reminded of the impact of major natural disasters and the need to be prepared for all types of hazards. In 2005, Congress passed the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act to avert evacuation challenges witnessed during Hurricane Katrina. It instituted the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act in 2006. This reinstated ties of the FEMA Administrator to the President, and gave additional monetary and personnel support to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
It appeared as if the federal government was trying to undo many of the mistakes made after the introduction of the Department of Homeland Security, although the priority given to terrorism was never given up.
The creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was perhaps the most visible policy response to the events of Sept. 11. A common problem is the creation of emergency operations plans without the development of the capacity to implement them in any meaningful manner. For instance, poor policy formulation and lack of training also limit the ability of public officials to prevent disasters or react to them in an effective manner.
Culture may be another cause of disasters in the United States. People tend to disapprove of government regulations that could keep them safe. Individuals and families often downplay risk or make decisions that make them prone to disasters.
Meanwhile, the federal government mandated the National Incident Management Strategy as a way to promote interagency communication and coordination.
The President also repealed the Federal Response Plan and put in its place the National Response Plan, which downplayed FEMA’s role in disasters and seemed to be overly-consumed with terrorism alone. Many of the laws passed during this time focused on the prevention of terrorism through intelligence gathering, counter-terrorism operations and law enforcement functions.
Dr. Choi Sang-ok is an associate professor in the Department of Public Administration at Korea University in Korea. He was an assistant professor at Virginia Tech and California State University-Dominguez Hills for seven years before he joined Korea University in August 2011. A graduate of Syracuse's Maxwell School of Public Affairs, Choi earned his Ph.D. at the Andrew School of Public Administration and Policy at the Florida State University.
His papers have appeared in Public Administration Review, Administration Review of Public Administration, State and Local Government Review, Administration & Society, International Journal of Public Sector Management, International Journal of Emergency Management, and Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) is being organized in pursuance of the General Assembly Resolution. The Conference will take place in Brazil on June 20-22, 2012 to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), in Rio de Janeiro, and the 10th anniversary of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg.
It is envisaged as a Conference at the highest possible level, including Heads of State and Government or other representatives. The Conference will result in a focused political document.
The objective of the Conference is to secure renewed political commitment for sustainable development, assess the progress to date and the remaining gaps in the implementation of the outcomes of the major summits on sustainable development, and address new and emerging challenges.
The Conference will focus on two themes: (a) a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication; and (b) the institutional framework for sustainable development.