How Institutionally Prepared is the US for Major Disasters?

When Sandy struck the East Coast last year, one of the most horrifying parts of the aftermath was watching communities wait for weeks for even basic assistance. Living without power and other services, people struggled to survive, and grassroots organising was what saved the day; small groups mobilised quickly to provide food and supplies, assist with cleanup, and help people get back on their feet. Larger service organisations and the government lumbered far behind, flailing when it came to allocating their resources and getting help to people who needed it.

Natural disasters are not uncommon in the United States. Flooding, earthquakes, wildfires, and other events happen every year, although they don’t always make national news. Sandy was remarkable for its ferocity, where it struck, and the level of damage. The fact that the storm brought New York City to its knees was obviously terrifying for many people, and because it struck at the heart of a US cultural centre, it’s not surprising that media all over the world followed the storm closely and provided constant updates.

Which wasn’t really much consolation to the people asking where the basic services were and why they weren’t receiving help.

There are a lot of reasons why institutional help was so slow to arrive in many corners of New York and other regions affected by the storm, and a lot of these reasons were picked apart in Sandy’s wake. Factors like classism and racism certainly played a role, as did poor government planning and less flexibility on the part of big organisations like the Red Cross. Other groups were accustomed to providing aid in other nations, not the US, and thus had to scramble to adapt to the needs of Sandy. And the storm was simply so large and so devastating that even sound planning wasn’t enough in some cases.

What Sandy, and events like it—who can forget the horrors of Katrina?—illustrate is that the US may not be institutionally prepared for major disasters, and this is a serious issue. Any nation should be ready to handle serious natural disasters, especially one the size of the US, where a diverse array of things could strike. The West Coast is exposed to the risk of earthquakes, tsunamis, and wildfires, while the East Coast faces hurricanes and other serious storms. Wildfires, flooding, and tornadoes strike in the middle of the country, and Southern states also face risks from storms and flooding.

This is a big country, and a lot of things can go very very wrong in many corners of it. Unfortunately, thanks to climate change, the risk of things going wrong, and doing so much more catastrophically than before, is much higher than it used to be. Climate change was a contributing factor in the size of the storm surge created by Sandy, for example; it would have been more manageable without rising sea levels. Climate change affects the size and behaviour of storms, and dictates how bad flooding will be.

As part of its climate change policy, this country needs to develop adequate disaster response, because these things are going to keep happening. It needs effective tools ready for deployment anywhere in the nation in the case of a major disaster—the same tools it can send overseas to help allies when they, too, need assistance. This country, like many others, sent aid to countries affected by the Southeast Asian tsunami, for example. We should have the capacity to provide for our own citizens, and not to have to rely on the kindness of grassroots to get help on the ground quickly.

But we could learn something from grassroots organising. Those teams pulled together extremely fast, relying on volunteerism, a sense of civic responsibility, and rapid organising. Many were developed directly from existing activist groups, like the Occupy movement, mobilising the same people who’d already united to address other social issues and common causes. They worked fast to establish direct contact on the ground, find out what people needed, solicit materials, and distribute them as rapidly as possible.

Grassroots organising kept people alive, got people to safety, allocated resources as fairly as they could in distressed communities, and worked to restore communities as much as possible. It also cleared the way for institutional responses like utility service restoration. One reason it was so successful was because it was highly mobile and lightweight, not bound up in bureaucracy and tangles of policy. Many people felt failed by the institutions around them, and as a result, they joined grassroots organisers, creating a ripple effect that spread to even more communities and provided even more help.

It was a network, rather than a centralised hierarchy, and that’s an important distinction from the traditional centralised model of disaster response. A balance needs to be struck between the potential chaos of a totally disorganised network and an obviously inefficient central command, because that’s where nimble and effective disaster response is going to lie. We need effective and rapid communication across networks and communities to prepare for disasters and respond to them. That means a fundamental rethinking of the way we handle disaster response, though, and it’s not clear whether the government and the service groups who traditionally handle situations like these are ready to handle that.

Are we ready to totally upend our traditional disaster response model? We’d better be, because there are more Katrinas and Sandys in our future, more disasters that are going to devastate communities and require responses that don’t utterly fail the people who need services most.