Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Getting Ready for the Next Big One

As I write this, I'm listening to the Diane Rehm Show on National Public Radio, and the discussion concerns the concept of resiliency, the ability of our nation to recover from natural disasters (such as Hurricane Katrina) and man-made catastrophes (such as 9/11 or a major industrial accident). You can also read an article on this topic by homeland security expert Stephen Flynn (who is Diane's guest on the show) on the CNN website at

This is a very important topic, but receives little attention because it isn't sexy. It concerns things like stockpiling of emergency equipment, establishment of tough construction standards in disaster-prone areas, setting realistic insurance rates, and a million other general public and private infrastructure measures that help us recover from disasters. Because it's not sexy, it tends to be ignored until disaster strikes, at which time state and federal agencies point fingers at each other, outraged Congressmen (who previously ignored the issues) thunder and posture for the cameras, and people who in many cases should have known better plead before the TV cameras for public help in recovering from their plight. Many of the actions which build resiliency also have economic impacts that provide immediate pain without immediately-visible benefit - high insurance rates in disaster-prone areas hurt now, regardless of the aid they'll provide later, and the construction industry doesn't like construction standards that add time and cost to their products.

Let's look at this dispassionately for a moment. One reason for the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina was the failure of the levees which protect the low-lying parts of the city. Those levees failed in large part because millions of dollars allocated for their repair and maintenance were diverted by the Federal government to other uses. And now, as New Orleans struggles to recover, we find people demanding assistance and cheap insurance so they can rebuild in areas which have proven to be high risk. Are we obligated to help them take such a risk?

Hurricanes are a fact of life. They happen every year. And yet we continue to build huge cities and homes directly on the most threatened stretches of coastline. Katrina devastated New Orleans. What will happen when another Katrina strikes Miami head-on? Or when a giant nor'easter hits New York? Will we have the resiliency to recover, or will we see the same flailing exercise in governmental ineptitude at all levels that characterized trans- and post-Katrina New Orleans?

Emergency preparedness and resiliency aren't sexy. They are mundane activities that eat up resources and don't show any return on investment - until they're needed, at which time they are valuable beyond price. We all gripe about paying insurance premiums until we need to make a claim, at which time we're glad we paid them. It's time to start paying more attention to the un-sexy street-level planning that provides the insurance for our critical infrastructure.

Because when the next Big One hits, it'll be too late.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


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