While elements of disaster preparedness have long been a social adjustment to environmental hazards, both the art and science of disaster preparedness are relatively new courses of study in business, non-profit, government, and academic sectors (Fox, 2006). As with any new course of study, the beginnings of established practice will have inherent weaknesses and areas for improvement. To date, a multitude of issues that should be addressed by stakeholders have been introduced. Some of the issues pertain to 11 problems created by the theoretical aspects of disaster preparedness, while others relate to the practice and application. Some of these issues have been resolved, while others have been neglected or ignored.
John Twigg of Benfield Gregg Hazard Research Centre, University College London, presented eighteen disciplinary and institutional groups involved in disaster reduction during his presentation at the International Conference on Climate Change and Disaster Preparedness (2002). Each of these eighteen groups represents broad stakeholder classifications and can be further divided by disciplinary and institutional boundaries (Twigg, 2002). The many factions of independent researchers and stakeholders can complicate advancements where collaboration is an essential aspect. Cooperation and collaboration tends to lag when groups vie over limited available funding and strive to become the premier group of its respective area.
Each discipline and organization involved takes its own approach to disaster preparedness, tailoring its metrics, data, works, and products to its specific needs. In general, however, there is a lack of uniformity of data, which further decreases the potential for cooperation among the stakeholders.
The lack of cross-compatibility also affects the consistency of the language, as definitions are aligned with organizational needs (Kirschenbaum, 2002). Definitions are created that take on additional characteristics to make them more appealing to social, business, academic, or other groups. The variance in taxonomies makes it difficult to extract a particular topic, such as disaster preparedness, from the existing literature. Many authors use such terminology as disaster preparedness, hazard mitigation, and disaster reduction interchangeably where each term could be perceived as distinctive. Other authors provide definitions that may suffice for one field, but would be fundamentally inadequate in another.
Examining the existing definitions of “disaster preparedness” demonstrates this point. The literature does not provide a “definition” of disaster preparedness the way that a dictionary might. Instead, the literature states what disaster preparedness entails from the perspective of the author/s. If taken literally, disaster preparedness would mean being satisfactorily prepared for a catastrophic event. However, a sufficient definition of disaster preparedness would also need to include ways in which persons and organizations can be satisfactorily prepared for such a circumstance. It is in this way that “definitions” of disaster preparedness can be extracted from the literature. Several authors touch on potential “definitions” of disaster preparedness. Many of the definitions contain a piece of the meaning, without stating precisely what disaster preparedness should contain wholly.
Christopolis, Mitchell, and Liljelund emphasize the importance of including “efficiency, effectiveness, and impact of disaster response” as a central goal of disaster preparedness (2001). The development of local response, such as early warning systems, is also a central part of disaster preparedness (Integrated Regional Information Networks, 2005).
McEntire, Twigg, and the United Nations Development Programme all have definitions with similar attributes, but add their own spin on disaster preparedness. The United Nations Development Programme views hazard mitigation as a core resource of disaster preparedness, but also includes planning in its descriptions (2004). McEntire and Twigg also view hazard mitigation as critical to disaster preparedness, stating that it should either coincide with disaster preparedness or be a part of it (McEntire, 2003 and 13
Twigg, 2002). McEntire continues by addresses other factors that may define disaster preparedness: it is a function of local government and it includes hazard and vulnerability assessments. Other elements of disaster preparedness are less emphasized in the literature, but equally as important. Izadkhah and Hosseini stress education as “one of the best media to prepare a community for disasters (2005).” Individual levels of disaster preparedness are also discussed. This level includes preparing households through such means as emergency plans, securing heavy furniture to walls, and storing food, and through building inventories of stored food and equipment (Paton, Smith, Johnston, 2003 and Siembieda, 2001).
When examining the examples of what disaster preparedness entails according to the above authors and organizations, it becomes evident that the definition of disaster preparedness is loose and evolving. Disaster preparedness involves preparedness on personal, community, and national levels; it includes elements of both a private and public nature; and it is intertwined with hazard mitigation and vulnerability and requires each to be accurately assessed.
The inextricability of the terminology, as well as the lack of a common vocabulary among professions, is another of the great challenges facing policy makers. Several attempts have been made at creating universal definitions for the various terms of hazard research, but the lack of cooperation in and among the varying fields has thwarted these attempts. In addition, the general acceptance of using the terms interchangeably has discouraged further efforts to separate the terms’ different meanings. The terminology of hazards research remains confusing and vague.
Without agreement on the definitions, disaster preparedness study and experimentation will remain relatively unproductive (Gillespie & Streeter, 1987). The development of an emergency management planning model of wide applicability is another issue that should be addressed by the disaster preparedness community. The premier models of emergency planning began from military models of command and control designed to handle enemy attacks and other non-civilian emergencies (Dynes, 1994).
More recently, empirical and pragmatic models of emergency planning for civilian emergencies have been developed, but none of them have been accepted wholesale by the disaster preparedness community. Emergency planning paradigms for disaster resistant communities, disaster resilient communities, sustainable development, and sustainable hazard mitigation have provided stepping stones for a comprehensive emergency management plan (McEntire, Fuller, Johnston, & Weber, 2002).
The preceding brings to light some of the pressing problems with the theoretical development of disaster preparedness and disaster preparedness community synthesis. The aforementioned issues are not an exhaustive list of issues in the development of disaster preparedness theory, but do highlight recurring themes in the literature. The following set of issues emphasize the problems associated with disaster preparedness policy and practice.
Rapid urbanization is the center of several pressing issues in the practice of disaster preparedness. Several sources have noted the decennial increases in city populations, not only in the United States, but globally. One needs only observe the mega-city phenomenon of the last century to understand current population trends.
Urban areas are attractive because they offer their inhabitants many benefits not available in non-urban areas: accessible medical facilities, markets, public transportation, various types of employment, and a variety of people and experiences. These benefits draw people to cities, creating greater urban densities, and inadvertently making them more hazardous places to live.
The sheer population, masses of infrastructure, and material assets of an urban area provide increasing opportunities for common natural events to have disastrous consequences (Munich Re Group, 2004).
Urban areas place a large number of people, infrastructure, and capital enterprises into a small geographic area, increasing the potential for an ordinary natural event to become one that is exceedingly large and costly. In addition to hosting large populations, complex infrastructure, and large capital enterprises, urban areas are generally the regional centers of politics, economics, and technology. As financial leaders, urban areas often develop complex market relationships with other urban areas around the world.
Thus, if an urban area is affected by a disaster, adjacent urban areas also suffer. The complex relationships between urban centers and its partners can cost billions of dollars in lost business, damaged products, delayed transactions, and missed work hours, in addition to the direct damages to people and infrastructure. Therefore, when urban areas are adversely affected by natural disasters, there are internal and external costs that can have global consequences. Another problem is that the plight of urban areas is so noticeable and affects so many people that it draws attention from smaller, non-urban populations.
The majority of the time and effort in disaster preparedness is focused on solving preparedness issues for urban areas, leaving those who choose to remain in non-urban areas more vulnerable. Non-urban areas, although smaller in size, population, and infrastructure, lack the resiliency to recover when a disaster strikes. The lack of available assets, resources, and capital can make it very difficult for a non-urban area to recover from even isolated natural events. While urban areas present many problems for the disaster preparedness community, there are other issues that should be addressed.
An additional policy and practice issue is identifying and protecting vulnerable populations. Cortis and Enarson define vulnerability as “A condition wherein human settlements or buildings are threatened by virtue of their proximity to a hazard, the quality of their construction, or both. Degree of loss (from 0 percent to 100 percent) resulting from a potential damaging phenomenon.”
The ability to correctly identify vulnerable population locations, characteristics, and special needs is a central issue in disaster preparedness. A discussion of vulnerable populations is difficult because, to some degree, all populations are vulnerable. However, there are certain factors that can be identified as playing a critical role in creating vulnerable populations. The following will examine what we know about vulnerable populations and what we can do to improve preparedness for vulnerable populations.
Each individual within a population is made vulnerable by a variety of personal factors, some of which cannot be controlled and some of which may be controlled. There are several factors that contribute to vulnerability that cannot be controlled. For example, the age of an individual is an uncontrollable potential vulnerability. Those persons that are young and elderly have a higher vulnerability than those who are middle-aged adults (the phrase “middle-aged adults” suggests those people that are neither young nor elderly, but are in-between such life stages).
Young and old people may not be as mentally capable of processing information as middle-aged adults, as strong as middle-aged adults, and may be completely or partially dependant on middle-aged adults to care for them. Mentally or physically handicapped persons are more vulnerable than persons in good mental and physical health. The mentally and physically handicapped have special requirements and needs that may require another person to help them when those requirements and needs are not accessible.
In addition to those uncontrollable personal vulnerability factors, there are factors that may be controllable that can make an individual vulnerable. For example, a lack of preparation for disasters can make a person more vulnerable than those that have prepared. Saving cash, storing clean water, creating food and tool caches, and developing emergency plans on an individual level all contribute to reducing a person’s vulnerability to disaster. Furthering education as much as possible also reduces a person’s vulnerability. The more highly educated a person is, the less vulnerable they become. Improving physical fitness is also an excellent way to reduce a person’s vulnerability. In most instances, a person has some degree of control over these issues, although they can be restricted. This is why these vulnerability factors may be controllable for some, but not for others. Identifying other factors that contribute to vulnerable populations requires examining socio-economic status, location, and social structure.
Perhaps the most condemning vulnerability causing factor is socio-economic status. This can be viewed in one of two ways; as a characteristic of a population or as a characteristic of a nation. Socio-economic status as a characteristic of a population creates vulnerability in the poor faction of the population. Vulnerability in poor populations manifests in several ways. First, poor populations do not have the financial support that the wealthy do, making it more difficult for them to prepare for, endure, and recover from disaster.
Access to assets and entitlements in a pre and post disaster situation are critical to preparation for the disaster, protecting self and property, and in recovering from disaster. The availability of cash and savings, as well as access to entitlements such as insurance, stocks, and bonds, is often reserved for those who can afford them. Poor populations are often excluded from assets and entitlements because they lack the capacity to gain them. Therefore, the losses incurred as a result of a disaster can be absolute losses for poor populations.
Second, poor populations often locate in unsafe areas. Some poor populations locate on ancestral grounds that are prone to a particular disaster, but refuse to move because of the connection to their heritage. Other poor populations locate in or on “floodplains, riverbanks, steep slopes, reclaimed land, and highly populated settlements of flimsy shanty towns” (Cortis & Enarson). In some cases, such as locating on ancestral lands, the population chooses to live in a more vulnerable area. In other cases, the poor locate where they do because they are claming the cheaper lands that the more wealthy population has discarded. And still in other cases, the poor are forced to live in a particular area by inability to afford to move or by force.
Whether by choice, lack of choice, or by force, poor populations typically live in areas that are more prone to disaster. The lands that are readily available to them are the lands that belong to them by ancestral rite and the lands that people with a choice have not chosen; these are the lands that flood, easily erode, are toxic, are dangerous to live on, etc. Third, poor populations lack the resources to construct safe buildings and living structures. Many poor people’s homes are made out of such flimsy materials as mud, sticks, cardboard, plastic (or variant of plastic) paneling, thin sheet metal, and paper. Such materials lack the quality necessary to withstand disasters and to protect the people within them.
Socio-economic status as a characteristic of a nation creates further population vulnerabilities. The economic inequality between industrialized and developing countries has proven to be one method of demonstrating the effects of poverty on disaster impact. In fact, “According to a statement by the relief organization Tearfund, ‘ninety-eight percent of those killed and affected by natural disasters come from developing countries, underlining the link between poverty and vulnerability’” (Cortis & Enarson). A few problems in developing countries cause vulnerability to develop.
First, over half the population in many developing countries is under the age of eighteen years old (Izadkhah & Hosseini, 2005). The lack of experience of such youthful populations, as well as adult dependence in some cases, makes these populations more vulnerable to disasters. Second, the fragile infrastructure of developing countries and the inability to support disaster preparedness projects financially also takes a toll on developing nations. Even disasters of a low magnitude can have extreme effects on ill prepared countries (Cortis & Enarson). Lastly, developing countries contain a disproportionate number of socioeconomically challenged populations. All of the problems associated with these populations, as previously discussed, further hinder the capacity of developing countries to reduce vulnerability.
Another factor that contributes to vulnerability is location. By virtue of the proximity to certain known hazards, some countries are made more vulnerable than others. The physical layout of a settlement or country is a very important factor in determining its vulnerability. For example, countries located along the ocean are more prone to hurricanes, typhoons, tsunamis, and costal flooding than inland countries. Developments created along rivers area more vulnerable to floods and erosion. Places along the “Ring of Fire” can expect earthquakes to happen more frequently. Countries in the extreme north and extreme south are likely to have severe winter storms and heavy ice. By choosing to develop in areas with poor physical surroundings, populations can be made more vulnerable to hazards.
Location also has an impact on vulnerability when applied to urban areas. Urban areas present a large part of the vulnerability stemming from location. Boullé, Vrolijks, and Palm examine nine points that make urban areas more vulnerable to disasters: hazardous exposure of the location, economic and political relevance, physical vulnerability, urban management capacity, dependence on infrastructure, density of the population, poverty, informal settlements, and ecological imbalance (1997). Each of these nine points is examined in-depth in their article Vulnerability Reduction for Sustainable Urban Development. The purpose of presenting these nine points is to emphasize that urban areas create vulnerability in a variety of ways; environment, development, and socialization all impact the vulnerability associated with urban areas.
Social structure also contributes to population vulnerability. The structure of a society can heavily influence vulnerable populations, either unintentionally or systematically. In one instance, reasonable thinking assumes that time and money will be well spent on identifying the disaster preparedness needs of the most people possible. Therefore, the majority population receives the most attention by the policy community and practitioners of disaster preparedness. However, this leads to inadequacies in protecting the minority populations, which usually need the most help. This diversion of resources towards the majority has unintentionally created a greater vulnerability in the minorities.
In disaster planning, one often finds that those populations with the least social, political, and economic influence are the populations in the most danger when disasters occur (Wisner, Blaikie, Cannon, & Davis, 2003). In other cases, small factions of a population may be the population with the most political influence, economic power, or the population with the greatest social networks. In such circumstances, valuable disaster preparedness resources may be diverted away from the majority population and towards the more powerful few. In this way, the social structure has systematically excluded a population, enhancing their vulnerability.
The preceding are two ways that vulnerable populations are created by the social system that surrounds them. Time, resources, and money are all used to reduce vulnerability to disasters. However, it is often the social system that dictates where time, resources, and money should be utilized. Therefore, a social system that is exclusive and constructed poorly may be more apt to create population vulnerability than a social system that is inclusive and well-constructed.
The last major issue that should be highlighted as a policy and practice issue is convincing those with policy-making capabilities of the benefits of disaster preparedness. This has proven to be an exhausting task for the disaster preparedness community. Many reasons underlie this difficulty, some of which relate to internal disaster preparedness community problems already addressed. However, the primary difficulty in convincing policymakers that disaster preparedness works is that, like hazard mitigation, one is attempting to measure the absence of an event.
In order to convince policymakers that disaster preparedness works, it would facilitate the process if one could show just how it has worked. Yet, if disaster preparedness has worked, nothing noteworthy should have happened. Proving the absence of an event is often difficult because the factual basis for the absence of an event requires years of observation. Estimates of saved lives, saved properties, and saved monies have been produced, but none can be guaranteed as necessary to convince policymakers of the immediacy of action. The disaster preparedness community can demonstrate the success of drills and provide written plans, but none will accurately demonstrate the cumulative effectiveness of these measures.
Convincing the policy makers to act on recommendations from the disaster preparedness community is crucial to the success of disaster preparedness. Disaster preparedness is a multi-disciplinary activity, but the most implementation takes place at the local governmental unit. Disaster preparedness occurs on both a horizontal and vertical plane (Institute of Medicine, National Research Council, 2005). Horizontally, it requires the cooperation and integration of public services, healthcare centers, emergency management, academic, and public, not-for-profit, and private enterprises. Vertically, it requires the cooperation of all levels of organizations and all levels of government (Institute, 2005). The permanence of government in the disaster preparedness equation means that the disaster preparedness community needs the policy-making community in order to be effective.
Therefore, it is critical for actors in the disaster preparedness community to unite and collaborate to adequately measure disaster preparedness. Once consensus is reached on the measurement, then the findings can be presented to policymakers, who can in turn move it toward an enforceable directive. Thus far, the underlying theories and best practices have been addressed, the metrics available to disaster preparedness practitioners have been discussed, and a discussion of the issues from different aspects of disaster preparedness has been developed. Each of the preceding sections served to form a picture of the current state of disaster preparedness from which stakeholders can move forward. The following section suggests recommendations for improving disaster preparedness and facilitating its continued growth.
Recommendations for the creation of a comprehensive disaster preparedness measure can be broken down into two separate, but linked, phases. The first phase involves constructing a model for measuring disaster preparedness and the second phase is implementing the model. An examination of current advancements in these two phases provides a starting point for the development and implementation of a disaster preparedness “template” of general applicability.
1. Adger, W.N., Brooks, N., Bentham, G., Agnew, M., & Eriksen, S. (2004). New indicators of vulnerability and adaptive capacity (Technical Report 7). Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.
This research is intended to provide a robust set of indicators with which to measure the adaptability of environments to climate change. The report develops a framework in which risk, vulnerability, and adaptive capacity can be related to one another. A key focus of this report is on improving how to measure the adaptability of persons based on social, economic, political, health, and environmental factors. 2. Adger, W.N., Hughes, T.P., Folke, C., Carpenter, S.R., & Rockstrom, J. (2005) Social-Ecological Resiliience to Coastal Disasters. Science 309. The authors of this piece content that human settlement patterns are concentrated along the coastlines and that our actions have severely altered and impacted the natural ecosystems. This as a consequences has led to vulnerability to extreme events such as hurricanes. This article examines how a greater link between human social systems and ecosystems can reduce vulnerability and enhance the resilience to resist the impact of catastrophic events.
3. Alexander, D. (2005). Towards the development of a standard in emergency planning. Disaster Prevention and Management. 14(2), 158-175. This journal article sets out to provide a set of comprehensive, generally applicable guidelines for the creation of an emergency management plan. The chosen guidelines and models are provided in conjunction with eighteen principles to judge the quality of the plan. The author takes an all-hazards approach and focuses on a local level plan. 4. American National Government: Government and Finance Division. (2006). FY2006 homeland security grant distribution methods: Issues for the 109th congress (CRS Order Code RL33241). Washington, D.C.: Shawn Reese.
This report addresses the implemented changes in the DHS for security assistance based on risk and need. The report discusses the methods for determining funding based on risk and need, as well as proposes issues that may arise from the implemented changes. 5. American National Government: Government and Finance Division. (2005). FY2006 homeland security grant guidance distribution formulas: Issues for the 109th congress (CRS Order Code RS22349). Washington, D.C.: Shawn Reese.
This report provides a summary of the implemented changes in the DHS from granting funding for security assistance based on population to granting funding based on risk and need. It discusses the method that the DHS anticipates using to determine funding for FY2006 as well as potential issues stemming from the proposed change. 6. American National Government: Government and Finance Division. (2005). Homeland security and grant formulas: A comparison of formula provisions in s. 21 and h.r. 1544,109th congress (CRS Order Code RL32892). Washington, D.C.: Shawn Reese.
This report discusses the fiscal year 2005 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) appropriations for security assistance programs at the state and local level. During 2005, Congress passed two bills that would affect the way that DHS distributes funds to states
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