In Harm's Way

Government must act now to thwart the economic and human toll of the next disaster.

New Orleanians are counting down the days to the start of hurricane season-June 1-the way merchants count the shopping days left before Christmas. In neither case is there a thinkable alternative to being ready.

When it comes to hurricanes-and earthquakes and floods, let alone bird flu and terrorism-cities, states and the federal government certainly are not ready. Policies for managing risk are in disrepair, and citizens continue to pay dearly.

In order to take seriously the need to better manage risk, these six steps are critical:

  1. Seek fairness and equal treatment. Risks have a nasty way of hitting some people harder than others, and those suffering the most often have the least resources. A disaster management strategy must begin by weighing who is most likely to suffer losses and how the costs are distributed. The strategy begins with treating all Americans equally.
  2. Mitigate. It's easier, cheaper and better to work in advance to prevent or minimize losses than to struggle after the fact to put the pieces back together. Many regions in the 1990s learned that new building technologies, such as devices that tie roofs down to ceiling joists, can dramatically reduce storm damage and mitigate the costs of aid to people pushed out of destroyed houses. Now is the time to act on that knowledge with stricter building standards in high-risk areas across the country.
  3. Grapple with the Samaritan's dilemma. Many businesses and homeowners have made risky decisions, such as forgoing insurance or building in hazardous areas, in the belief that taxpayers as good Samaritans would come along to bind up their wounds. Deciding not to provide help strands people at their time of greatest need. But if the government always arrives to write checks, then people have less incentive to act before disaster. Government at all levels must develop standards that encourage individuals to protect themselves. "It cannot happen to me" is an attitude that produces more development in high-hazard areas, increasing the economic and human toll.
  4. Help the poor obtain the protection they need. Not everyone can afford adequate insurance coverage or the measures required to reduce the risk of losses. Government should provide subsidies to low-income residents of hazard-prone areas so they can afford to protect their property. That would help them recover faster and would reduce the need for assistance after a catastrophic event.
  5. Weigh the true costs and benefits. Evaluating the economic costs for preventing, reducing or recovering from disasters is important. But assessing the social impact is, too. Katrina inflicted as many psychological wounds as economic ones. Many people are grieving not only the loss of their homes but the shattering of their lives and communities. Strategies for relocating residents must account for more than just providing emergency food and shelter. Citizens also need counseling as they struggle to put their lives back together, and help obtaining medical care and education for their children.
  6. Create a governance system that truly works. People rightfully expect a disaster management system that is transparent, efficient and responsive. State, local and federal agencies must eliminate the barriers among them that have hamstrung the effort to build an effective system.

Citizens surely will face more disasters, both natural and man-made, and government should grapple with these tough issues in advance. Waiting yet again until after disasters occur will inflict far greater costs and suffering than necessary-or than the nation can afford.

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