Gaps remain in government strategy for handling natural disasters

Plans aren’t comprehensive enough and are too reactive, observers say.

Despite the billions of taxpayer dollars spent every year on emergency preparedness and disaster cleanup, the United States lacks an overall strategy for reducing the number of lives lost and the amount of property destroyed when Mother Nature unleashes a wildfire, earthquake, flood, hurricane, tsunami, or other calamity.

On paper, federal, state, and local planners prescribe an "all-hazards" approach to preparing for disasters -- a one-size-fits-all plan on how to anticipate and respond to the many non-terrorism hazards, everything from volcanic eruptions to chemical spills. In reality, though, federal agencies and their state and local counterparts organize their plans into disaster-specific programs of detection, prevention, and response, while specific agencies remain focused on particular kinds of disasters. And all responders still have to deal with federal bureaucratic infrastructures that grew haphazardly out of past crises and are strapped for cash.

"It's almost inevitable that the windows of opportunity for change are going to happen in the aftermath of disasters," says University of Colorado disaster expert Roger Pielke. The nation's dam-safety program, for example, was created after the poorly designed Teton Dam in Idaho broke in 1976, killing 11 people and costing millions of dollars in damage.

The federal earthquake program came to life after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The volcano program exists thanks to the cataclysmic 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington state. The wildfire-response system was developed following the catastrophic California fires of 1970. A myriad of flood and drought programs around the nation were created on the spur of the moment after various floods and droughts.

"What we're doing," says Dennis Mileti, a natural-hazards expert at the University of Colorado, "is getting ready for the disasters we've already experienced."

Most of the disaster-specific programs have notable, even growing, gaps that leave the nation more vulnerable than it needs to be. Because of budgetary constraints, stream gauges that warn of impending floods are being shut down, even as more people move onto the floodplains below them. Few tsunami-prone communities have workable evacuation plans. Some dangerous volcanoes are inadequately monitored. Community-preparedness boards are dwindling, despite nonstop reports of hazardous-chemical accidents. The state of the nation's levees is a mystery.

No one has undertaken a comprehensive federal effort to assess these gaps or to encourage experts in the many disciplines of science and engineering associated with natural hazards to work together to try to minimize the damage that disasters can inflict. "We live on a very unsafe planet," Mileti said. "We just always try to pretend it's safe. And it's because we prefer believing it's safe that we don't tend to do the things we need to do, to deal with the problems nature throws at us."

Whose Fault?

It's 4 p.m. on the second Tuesday in July, sometime in the future, when the ground starts to shake in the Pacific Northwest. The Cascadia Subduction Zone, an 800-mile-long fault on the Pacific Ocean floor running parallel to the Washington, Oregon, and Northern California coasts, has shifted, triggering a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and a massive tsunami. The last time this happened, in 1700, the Pacific Northwest was sparsely inhabited. Now, 6 million people on the West Coast will feel the effects.

This once-every-500-years event was going to be a disaster no matter what. But because things that should have been done to prepare for the double whammy of an earthquake-tsunami were never done, the event turns out to be a true catastrophe. Sections of several long bridges collapse, power lines snap, and pipelines rupture. Many older structures weren't retrofitted to withstand the 4-minute earthquake that accompanies the fault's lurch; as a result, portions of buildings fall off, injuring a few pedestrians; in a major city, one tall concrete-frame building collapses entirely, killing nearly half the people inside.

In coastal areas, small wood-frame houses survive virtually intact, but multistory brick buildings -- including some schools -- are reduced to rubble. Portions of the coastline drop several feet and flood with seawater. Buildings and roads resting on weak soil crack, crumble, and slide away. Landslides bury houses at the foot of predictably vulnerable hills. Tilt-up doors on some firehouses break, making it impossible to get trucks out immediately. Few coastal towns have sirens to warn of tsunamis, so police try to drive down streets shouting through bullhorns that people should head for higher ground. But because roads are torn up and littered with debris, officers can't warn everyone. People who do survive the tsunami on higher ground have enough provisions for only a few days.

This scenario was scripted by a Pacific Northwest multiagency workgroup of geology and engineering experts for a Cascadia Subduction Zone failure. It envisions three disasters in three states in the span of a few hours; the events affect more than 6 million people, kill hundreds, injure thousands, and cut off numerous communities from road access, rail lines, power, and water service. The first disaster is the earthquake, the second the tsunami, and the third an inadequate human response.

Even the single task of searching debris for survivors will overwhelm state and local responders. Hospital staff will be consumed with assisting patients already in the hospital when people injured on the outside begin trickling in. Communications systems will be down, so relief efforts will be confused. For days, many areas will be reachable only by helicopter.

Buildings and structures that could have been built to withstand the earthquake and tsunami forces won't have been. People who could have been educated to deal with the danger won't know what to do. And backup plans won't have been thought out well enough.

Emergency planners already recognize that current strategies are inadequate. "We no longer support the three-day-preparedness mantra that the federal government puts out," says Stephanie Fritts, the emergency manager in Pacific County, Wash. "We encourage [individuals to keep] seven days of supplies, because we recognize we're going to have 'islands' of people for some time."

The Fires Are Burning!

The interagency command post that offers the best model of coordination, prevention, and reaction in the disaster-response community is in a nondescript cluster of buildings at the edge of the Boise, Idaho, airport, next to an overnight shipping warehouse. A boulder at the headquarters' entrance displays a large logo of the National Interagency Fire Center. That sign partially obscures a second sign, which bears the same name as well as much smaller logos of the nine federal and state agencies represented in the center.

Inside, several hundred staff members from the various agencies roam the halls with no indication of who comes from where. The only logo worn on any shirt is the fire center patch. This state of affairs is symbolic of the center's mission: State, federal, and local agencies work in nearly seamless coordination to put out forest fires before they become actual disasters.

The ferocious 2000 wildfire season featured a "prescribed burn" (set by federal officials to reduce the risk of wildfire) that leaped out of control, burning nearly 50,000 acres in New Mexico and destroying 239 homes. After that, federal fire spending nearly doubled, from $1.6 billion in 2000 to close to $3 billion annually since then, according to the Congressional Research Service.

This money goes for a range of prevention activities, such as clearing brush to reduce the "fuel" for forest fires, carrying out prescribed burns, thinning certain forests, and educating communities about how to reduce their own fire risks. Nevertheless, the fire center in Boise recorded 206 new fires, nationwide, on September 27 alone, and considered that a "moderate" day. The bulk of the federal money is spent fighting fires.

What's interesting is how responders fight those fires. After the disastrous 1970 California wildfire season, a group of state, local, and federal officials developed a fire management system called FIRESCOPE (Firefighting Resources of California Organized for Potential Emergencies). Although the system has evolved over the years and been renamed the Incident Command System, the general concept remains the same: Establish a standard organizational structure for managing fire emergencies, so that any person from any agency who has been trained to do a certain kind of job -- such helicopter coordinator -- can do that job at any site.

The system is analogous to political campaigns, in which consultants who specialize in polling, or fundraising, or direct mail can perform that job on a campaign anywhere in the country, no matter the issues or the office being sought. The more complex the campaign (say a senatorial or presidential race), the more experience a consultant needs to handle the top job, but even the biggest national campaigns need people who know how to set up computers and rent ballrooms.

Within the fire community, people around the country are trained and certified for specific roles in the Incident Command System, such as "logistics section chief," and are listed on a national database. At a small wildfire, the local firefighting unit that arrives first designates a single person to serve as "incident commander" with full authority for all decision-making at the site. If the fire grows, the commander can call for additional staff from local dispatchers, specifying what roles need to be filled.

If the fire begins to threaten, say, a residential area, the commander can summon a more highly qualified regional or national team. The national center in Boise oversees 17 national teams capable of managing the most-complex wildfires.

A national distribution system manages all orders for staff or equipment; any request that cannot be filled locally will be passed up to a regional or a national dispatch center. The fire center in Boise has direct access to 11 regional supply caches stored around the country. It deploys the national response teams, and it maintains contracts with air tankers, caterers, and other suppliers who promise to deliver supplies wherever they are needed within a specific amount of time.

Clearly, the system works. In late September, a fast-moving wildfire fueled by dry Santa Ana winds broke out near the northwest suburbs of Los Angeles. Within hours, a five-agency command center had been established at the site, and a chief goal had been agreed on: Do not let the fire jump the highway into more-populous areas.

But even inside that perimeter, an estimated $800 million worth of property lay in the fire's path. Over several days, nearly 3,000 firefighters battled the blaze, and hundreds of residents were evacuated. Ultimately, the fire was controlled. It destroyed only three homes and three commercial buildings; property damage was limited to about $2 million. Nobody died.

The National Interagency Fire Center has proven so adept at handling emergencies that authorities have called in its teams to assist with many non-fire events. Sitting in his spartan office above a Boise supply warehouse, Fire Center Operations Chief Tom Boatner notes that in 2003, fire teams were sent to California to assist in the slaughter of chickens carrying exotic Newcastle disease and to Texas to help collect debris from the space shuttle Columbia, which was destroyed in an explosion.

The incident command system used in the wildfire community is "simply a way to organize [ourselves] to manage an emergency incident," said Don Artley, fire director for the National Association of State Foresters and a member of the Boise fire center's directorate. "If you are going to bring a bunch of people with different talents and equipment with different capabilities to a location where there is some sort of an emergency, you need a system to organize it -- a command-and-control system."

The wildfire system also involves more than just fighting fires. Morning meetings begin with a briefing from the National Weather Service that reports which areas of the country are at highest risk for wildfires. Eleven regional command centers participate in regular conference calls to update each other on local activities and the availability of resources in their part of the country.

Doug Shinn, assistant manager of the fire center's interagency coordination unit, said that this regional network allows him to know what resources are available where -- so he knows exactly what he can immediately tap when any wildfire grows beyond the capabilities of its region.

The fire system's standardized management procedures and high level of coordination have become the model for all other federal disaster-response efforts. By presidential decree, all state and local emergency-response agencies are required to adopt a version of it in order to be eligible for federal homeland-security grants.

Last December, the Department of Homeland Security adopted a National Response Plan that spells out which agencies would take the lead on particular kinds of emergencies, and the plan mandates that all emergency-response agencies adopt the National Incident Management System, which is based on the firefighting model. By October 1, 2006, state and local emergency-response agencies must certify that they are implementing NIMS before they can qualify for any federal homeland-security money.

But the system is still a work in progress. Fire teams were called in to support recovery operations at about a dozen Gulf Coast sites in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The teams, however, found the situation maddening, Boatner said, because "FEMA had no system, no way to certify people." He added, "We found it difficult to integrate with FEMA and coordinate with them [during the Katrina response], because we do all of our work using the incident command structure, and they are using it in some places but not in all places. And they are not real comfortable with it yet, and that just led to a lot of confusion."

FEMA officials admit that they are still learning how to implement the command system. The Gulf hurricanes, they say, simply slammed ashore before the new system was fully in place.

At a congressional hearing at the end of September, representatives of several first-responder organizations said that the Gulf Coast recovery efforts lacked an organized command structure. William Killen, president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, said relief workers sent to Louisiana found that that state's emergency operations center had no formal command structure "until two weeks after the hurricane hit. There was no formal procedure for making requests for supplies or services. Instead, requests were written down on bits of paper and passed around until someone filled them."

For now, there is no reason to believe that the federal, state, and local response to other sorts of serious natural disasters -- other than wildfires -- would be much better. Speaking of the National Interagency Fire Center, Jim Hubbard, director of the Interior Department's Office of Wildland Fire Coordination, declared, "There is nothing else like this, except maybe in the military."

The End Is Nearing!

Whatever preparations humans make, hurricanes will still hit coasts, earthquakes will shake the ground, volcanoes will erupt, fires will burn, and waters will rise -- and the cost of such disasters will continue to explode, as more people move into hazardous areas.

"People tend to live in areas subject to natural hazards," said Thomas Birkland, director of the Center for Policy Research at the University of Albany's Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy. "We put more and more property at risk every year. There might not be more hurricanes and earthquakes and floods, but there are more people. The other thing is, we've altered the environment to make natural disasters worse. When you get a big flood, you get a really big flood."

What's most striking about the threat is not how varied the natural hazards are but how similar the challenges are. Nearly all call for enhanced monitoring and detection systems. Nearly all techniques for mitigating the destruction from one hazard can be applied to other hazards. And preparedness for all involves both educating the public about the dangers and developing coordinated response strategies for federal, state, and local agencies, as well as for the private sector and the public.

The closest thing the nation has to a national vision for dealing with natural disasters is a report issued last June by the National Science and Technology Council, a White House-managed interagency committee. The report laid out six common challenges facing the country, no matter the disaster.

First, the right people need to be warned at the right time. Second, scientists need to understand the causes of disasters. Third, Americans must build their communities to resist natural hazards. Fourth, the vulnerability of critical infrastructure -- water, communications, power, gas, transportation, and sewage -- must be reduced. Fifth, communities must regularly assess their resilience to disasters using standard methods. And sixth, people must be educated to make wise choices about risks and disaster preparations.

But the report assigned no responsibilities, made no assessment of relative dangers, and issued no specific call for action. The report's existence is little known except among the people who helped create it.

Priscilla Nelson, a former National Science Foundation executive and an author of the report, said she doubts that the study will lead to a coordinated national strategy on natural hazards.

"We've got to figure out how to combine apples and oranges," said Nelson, now provost at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. "The federal government needs to take a leadership role to pull the agencies together.... That really hasn't happened yet. Showing the way to integration is something I would hope would happen. I don't have a reasonable expectation it will. People are organized in a way that doesn't promote integration or accountability or authority."

For each challenge identified in the report, lessons already abound within each disaster discipline. Among all of the hazard planners, earthquake engineers, for example, have the best mitigation programs. Coastal engineers trying to prepare for hurricanes could learn from the earthquake specialists. Wildfire managers have the most advanced response system. Their method of fighting fire with fire offers a lesson to floodplain managers, who could rely less on levees and more on natural methods of allowing minor flooding to lessen the chance of a dramatic flood.

But the experts are not sharing lessons well, and little coordination is taking place. "It's hard, because each field, each discipline, may have developed their own catechism of words and their own judgments about what kind of response is necessary," Nelson said.

There are, of course, bright spots. The National Science Foundation, for example, sent researchers from the University of Hawaii to study the effects of Hurricane Katrina's storm surge on the Mississippi coastline. The researchers will use those findings to develop engineering standards to help structures resist tsunamis.

Meanwhile, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is spearheading a 10-year international effort to develop a global network of sensors and monitors placed in space, in the upper atmosphere, and on the ocean floor to better predict and prepare for all types of hazards.

The network, called the Global Earth Observation System of Systems, theoretically could predict droughts early enough to avert unsuccessful plantings, anticipate tornadoes before they form, and improve the accuracy of hurricane forecasts to prevent needless evacuations like that of Houston before Hurricane Rita, said retired Navy Vice Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher, the head of NOAA. "I would call it a giant step in helping us understand how the Earth works."

Similarly, emergency managers and scientists from a variety of agencies are trying to develop standard warnings for alerting the public to various disasters without resorting to disaster-specific jargon. The Common Alerting Protocol, as it is called, is in the early stages of development.

Just as past disasters caused governments to change their ways, Hurricane Katrina has prompted federal, state, and local officials to give more thought to natural disasters -- and how to minimize damage from them.

But will interest translate into action? Many hazard experts say that a key improvement would be better coordination -- which could mean a national strategy for natural hazards, or it could just mean that the White House or FEMA brings together the experts in the various fields of science, politics, engineering, communication, and technology to learn from one another.

But history suggests that narrow, disaster-by-disaster policies will continue to be implemented, and that most people will continue to behave as if a natural disaster will never befall them.

And most people really won't experience an extreme natural disaster, according to the University of Colorado's Mileti, because the natural cycle of most of these catastrophes is hundreds or thousands of years. But, he added wryly, "all we are is human beings, twirling in space. We haven't been here very long, and we're not going to be much longer. Life on the planet has ended seven times. It's probably going to end an eighth."

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