Saturday, September 09, 2006

Worst Case Scenarios: Preparing For Future Disasters

We've looked back at Hurricane Katrina, but now it is time to look forward to possible future disasters. What did we learn from Hurricane Katrina that can be applied for other disasters in other locations. What is likely to strike next?

We were lucky with the hurricane, we knew it was coming a week in advance. Of course, the government still had a horrible response. I predict the worse natural disaster that could hit the US is an earthquake. (Besides a large asteroid striking in or near the US.) An earthquake would be bad because there's no warning, it just happens. There's no time to evacuate, to go to the store and stock up on supplies, no time for anything. There's no time for the feds to call up the national guard, or preposition supplies. Now you're probably thinking of the San Andreas fault in California. And that's certainly a possibility, but we also must consider the New Madrid fault in Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri, and my own state of Kentucky. It should be pointed out that the largest earthquakes on record in the United States were from the New Madrid fault, and not the San Andreas fault. Three occurred in 1811 and 1812. The only reason not many people died is because it was 1811 & 1812 and so the area wasn't heavily populated. The same quakes today would cause immense damage. And indeed, there is much talk about us being due the big one.

I think the first lesson learned is you cannot expect help from the Federal government in the first few days to reach you in the disaster zone. Now with Katrina, the government new it was coming and probably should have responded better faster. But with say an earthquake, no warning will be available and so you definitely can't expect a fast response. Who knows what condition the roads will be in to allow aid to reach people. No, communities and individuals will be on there own for at least several days, if not longer.

So, perhaps each person in a vulnerable area or even the whole US should have a survival kit assembled with several days worth of nonperishable food (probably MRES - Meals Ready to Eat), water, a first aid kit, a radio for information, water filter, tarps, and other supplies. I doubt too many people are going to do this, (I myself have not and probably won't anytime soon) so the government would need to encourage this somehow, maybe by making it tax deductible. Then you have the problem that if all these buildings have collapsed, how will people reach the kits when they're buried under debris. People could build sheds to store all their emergency supplies. (Build a earthquake resistant house, call it an emergency shelter, and you'll be exempt from property taxes.)

Chances are that's not going to happen, so each community should store emergency supplies, not in one central location, but at various locations within walking distance of all residents. Each neighborhood could be responsible for their own supplies. And as the shelf life approaches, if MREs do indeed have shelf lives, the food could be given out to the homeless so it doesn't ruin and go to waste and be replaced with new food.

Each community should have disaster centers from which to manage disasters. For starters, the buildings should be especially built to survive the disasters, whether hurricane, earthquake, etc. They should have back up generators and maybe solar panels, satellite phones and satellite internet for communication in case the land lines go down, two way radios, food, water, gasoline, vehicles, etc. Communications was a problem after Katrina.

What about after the initial disaster and when aid must be distributed? After Katrina, the government was criticized both for being too slow in getting out money while being criticized for people getting away with fraud. First of all, if you want speed fraud will happen, that's the price you pay. What we need is a database of everyone including biometric information (fingerprints and retina scans), where they live, and other information. This would be a national database and backed up in several locations in case a disaster strikes any one server's location. Then, when a disaster hits an area, the government will be able to quickly verify if someone really does live in the affected area, and if they are who they say they are. and get the money to people who are suppose to have it quickly. It would also be able to make sure people don't double dip into the funds. The government might not be able to stop people from buying $100 bottles of wine, etc., but they could control who gets the money in the first place.

After Katrina, many people had trouble getting new ID since they lost their birth certificates along with it. With a database, new IDs could be quickly issued. This is important since an ID is needed to access one's bank account, etc. Who knows, maybe the government could provide each American with an allotted amount of electronic storage in this database to backup important information in case all their belongings are destroyed.

A final step step we should take is disaster mitigation to reduce the impact of disasters in the first place. This could include not building in areas prone to flooding (like under sea level), building earthquake resistant homes, clearing brush away near buildings in wooded areas, and not building on the sea coast or building hurricane proof houses. Obviously disaster mitigation costs some money, but its cheaper to mitigate a disaster than to recover from a disaster. They can actually make buildings that are designed to resist earthquakes better, and homes that survive hurricanes. Building codes should require new buildings to follow guidelines that would mitigate disaster. We also don't want to repeat the mistake of requiring casinos to be floating, resulting in casinos ending up miles inland. If you are going to have casinos, they might as well be on land, because its not going to affect how many people gamble anyways.

More disasters are likely to happen. Sooner or later an earthquake is going to strike without warning, and we need to prepare now for that worst case scenario in addition to everything else. We cannot expect the federal government to be there to help for several days, and each community and each individual needs to be prepared to survive on there own in the mean time. We should have centers to manage disasters in each community that will survive the disaster. We need a national database so that we can get new IDs to be people, and get aid to the people that need it without wasteful fraud. And finally, but still importantly, we should take steps to mitigate disasters before they happen.

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