Apr 052014

A mud slide in Washington State kills 30.  A plane disappears with 239 people on board.  At Fort Hood, a disturbed man kills 3 people and injures 16 before taking his own life.  Washington Mudslide

Like baby birds frantically peeping to be fed, the public implores mother media to feed them details. We demand answers and want to know what will be done to prevent similar events in the future.

I’m sensitive to the feelings of those who have lost loved ones in these events. However, can we expect government, emergency managers, and public safety officials to do much more to protect the population in the case of sensationalized events? Despite efforts to inform, the impact of prepared media releases fade as fast as winter’s light.  So too does the public’s interest in real calls for action.   Is there a true need to expend effort to mitigate these events? No. I believe we have already defined our society’s standards of tolerable loss, even if it hasn’t been consciously done. Failing to admit it is what holds us back.

For example, about 100 people die in motor vehicle crashes in the United States each day. That’s the equivalent of 1,200 Washington mudslides, 153 missing flights, or 9,000 shooting events over the course of a year.  Should we spend public funds to mitigate sensationalized events (slides, plane crashes, shootings) when we chose to accept the high probability events (car crashes) as the cost of living in society? One person died in this three-car crash. (KATU News photo)

Even though there is risk, I still drive. But the consequences are tolerable, and the level of risk is agreed upon by most Americans. 35,000-40,000 dead every year due to car crashes is our consensus standard of tolerable loss.

Achieving zero risk is an unattainable goal. Bullet proof vests, for example, are merely bullet resistant. They are not bullet proof.  When mud slides, plane disappearances and shootings occur, it’s fair to investigate and identify weak links that need urgent attention. Gather data, ask subject matter experts where faults exist, and then share the findings so both the policy-makers and the public can make informed decisions.

Defining reasonable expectations of tolerable loss will help us to develop realistic preparedness capacity and to build resilience. Are we prepared to agree that in an earthquake-prone city with a population of 100,000, a tolerable loss of life is 0.2% or 200 people?  Or that in a local economy of $10 billion dollars, we take a hit of 0.2% or $20 million? These are the discussions we need to have.

The point is not to achieve the lowest possible impact, but to find the acceptable impact of a given event.  By setting realistic tolerable loss limits now, we avoid the emotionally charged atmosphere that happens after an incident. Emotional spending is wasted spending. It also raises false expectations that there won’t be more slides, plane crashes, or shootings. We know these will occur despite our best efforts or money spent.

Let’s calculate possible life risk threats from natural hazard events and then compare them with the risks we face in everyday life. Let’s identify the level of economic impact that towns, regions, and the nation could withstand. When our risk assessment shows an impact potential greater than our tolerable loss, let’s reevaluate current plans and agree to fund mitigation and preparedness efforts.

If it proves difficult to make a financial case to mitigate rare events, set a benchmark of ten times our tolerable loss limit for more probable events. That should provide a measure for a catastrophic impact and show whether there is a clear need for mitigation and preparedness activities. seattle

The next steps are discussions that involve subject matter experts, the public, and policy makers. Science will give us evidence based data that looks at the cost-benefit ratios of particular mitigation strategies for specific events.  The public offers their expectations of safety, and policy makers are tasked to fund efforts to balance the two.

We need to move beyond emergency management and public safety policies that are driven by knee-jerk reactions.  There is a cost to living on this planet and it is not risk free. Quantifying that risk and setting tolerable loss limits will serve to take emotion out of the discussions. Only then can we set realistic goals and move forward.

Mar 252014

A weekly round-up of news, articles and surveys to make your next emergency better. Have a suggestion for the round-up? Contact me at abetteremergency@gmail.com.

March 27th is the 50th anniversary of North America’s worst seismic event, The Great Alaskan Earthquake.  This week’s round-up is to refresh our memories and to stimulate actions that will hopefully mitigate the impact of the next big west coast event. As we’re all aware, growth in infrastructure and the population over the past five decades suggest the consequences will be greatly magnified.

In 1964 we did not have good tsunami warnings. Since then, systems have greatly improved for those distant from an earthquake epicenter.  However, if you are near the source, you must get to higher ground quickly.   Numerous maps have been produced for localized threats. So if you see natives running after an earthquake has taken place, try to keep up.

In California they have produced planning tools for Harbormasters. These tools help to develop strategies that will mitigate loss of life and property damage from a distant-generated tsunami.

It’s not just coastal communities of the United States that are at risk. In Canada, Port Alberni lucked out when no one was killed during the 1964 event.  As a regular visitor to that area, I hope they fare as well next time.   A recent study in Canada suggests they are looking at direct damages upwards of $75 billion dollars if a major quake struck.

Along the coast, much of the economy is based upon tourism.  Christchurch has some sobering news that businesses should consider for resilience planning and alternative business strategies.

From an individual and household standpoint, having potable water is a huge advantage after an earthquake. This how-to guide may be useful. You should also assume that power will be out for months in some locations and that your X-Box will rapidly lose its entertainment value. Instead, consider this board-game out of Texas A & M. It’s designed to help prepare people for disaster recovery.

Finally, this offers an outsider’s view of the confusing, non-linear method for earthquake measurement. People may intuitively guess a 7.0 and 7.2 magnitude earthquake are pretty close together in destructive force; however, a 7.2 would release almost twice the energy.

Mar 172014

A weekly round-up of news, articles and surveys to make your next emergency better. Have a suggestion for the round-up? Contact me at abetteremergency@gmail.com.

This week marks the third anniversary of the massive earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan.   Arguably they are the best prepared country in the world for the threat, yet tremendous challenges remain.  As we reflect on the event, I think everyone living along the west coast of the United States needs to consider the impact a similar, Cascadia event would have. We are not as well prepared as Japan.

It’s hard to argue with the lessons from 2011 quake. Milk Carton Castle After watching this slide show about a whole generation of children growing up in post-Fukushima disaster, all I can say is “wow.”

I’m sure many have seen pictures of the missing children on milk cartons.  Consider them as you read about the thousands still missing in Japan.

As you read about the toll Fukushima continues to take, think about how prepared we actually are. I argue that we’re not.

We know that the 2011 earthquake remains an ongoing disaster. However, it appears that the resources required for the the Olympics outweighs what’s needed for disaster recovery.

I wonder if the author of this article would have a different view of the data if talking about her child and the discovery of thyroid cancer.

I have no illusions that somewhere down the road articles eerily similar in content as those you just read above will list cities like Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, Cannon Beach and Seaside. Difficult to find an upside based upon the amount of effort being put into our preparedness but I think this is a great way to help young adults learn about disaster consequences and needs of survivors.