Disaster Preparedness Is an Illusion
“Get a kit, make a plan, be informed” is a simple mantra. But wasted dollars and lives haunt the empty spaces of this command.
Disaster management, on an institutional level, performs an illusion of security; or a collectively shared pretense that people can prevent such events from occurring if a collection of actions is undertaken. It is a fantasy mainly because managing large-scale disruptions in a meaningful way is something we are generally very poor at doing, as has been demonstrated many times. Despite countless instances of failure during big disasters, scholars, emergency management professionals, and even members of the public place great trust in the concept of preparedness, as well as in the institutions set up to respond to disasters, as guarantors of a safe and normal future.
Among such failures are the crisis spectacles like 9-11, Hurricane Katrina, and now Harvey and Maria. Our institutions throw paper towels at hurricane victims, call them refugees in their own country, and pull guns on them like enemy combatants in Iraq, even though they are in New Orleans. Is this the “homeland” that we seek to secure?
Here in the United States, we have built up vast hierarchical but mostly ineffectual and extremely expensive homeland security institutions, especially since September 11, 2001. What has been established to protect us from terrorists has been extended to natural disasters and other issues like “biothreats.” In the constantly threatened landscape of our country, we worry more about ISIS and the Zika virus than about what, statistically speaking, actually threatens us: our bodies, loves, vices, and personal miseries. We cling to empty practices like storming grocery stores for bread, milk, eggs, and water before a hurricane, for example, in the hopes that if something bad happens, we can maintain control over disruption to the façade of normalcy that makes up what we think of as everyday life. We try to remember a world without the TSA, a world where we could walk in a US airport as if it were a shopping mall.
As a scholar who has studied big crises like Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, as well as how people understand other threats like terrorism, I am in a position to write something here that would be a bit taboo to state in an academic paper: there is no real body of scientific evidence that shows a direct correlation between preparedness actions like assembling kits, making plans, and being informed, and successful response to disaster. I have studied disasters, preparedness, and response for almost a decade, and published papers that made this argument in a passive-aggressive manner; but while I can’t say it outright in my world, I can say it here.
The reality of disaster is—in general—that if you and your loved ones don’t die, you’ll continue to live. Your life might suck a little or a lot, depending on your context, but mostly on the extent of your means, and I underscore the latter. However, the common notion of preparedness as espoused by authorities in the media and emergency management entities is connected to the concept of resilience—which is the gold standard of human behavior in crisis situations. There is an intense focus in disaster practice circles on figuring out how to “build resilience,” only to neglect the pre-existing strengths of even the most disadvantaged people when it stares them in the face. Further, academics have come to little consensus on what even constitutes disaster, let alone what it means to be prepared for it or to respond successfully. Yet American society still persists in an almost religious belief that preparedness as connected to resilience is the answer to a future problem of disaster. It is not.
Preparedness is an ideology, or fantasy, and never really works in practice, at least as demonstrated in scientific research. This assertion feels scary to many, even to the very scholars and practitioners who understand the science. Yet, scholars in multiple fields that range from artificial intelligence, organizational studies, and disaster research even, have essentially shown that planning and preparedness, as related practices, serve more to provide a framework for human action than dictate it. What matters most, they argue, is ability to adapt in context. Empirical studies on a range of disasters also indicate this assertion is true. For example, I have been to countless practitioner and academic conferences that directly connect a need to bring planning and preparedness practices and connected knowledge, to disaster vulnerable communities. Here, the goal is to pass off information to such groups, like those of little means, as a way to hand the responsibility of response to them so they can make themselves disaster resilient. Again, research on how disasters unfold, and their short and long-term consequences demonstrate this practice is a waste of time. There are many reasons preparedness doesn’t really work—mainly, because preparedness and associated acts of planning cannot account for the dynamic nature of human social life, which is especially heightened in times of extreme stress.
Many of those without means cannot undertake actions prescribed within the preparedness infrastructure. If you don’t have a car, you can’t evacuate. If you can’t afford food, you cannot buy supplies. If you have trouble getting the drugs you are addicted to in normal times, you are most likely going to suffer withdrawal in disaster. If you are a 71-year-old man in the initial throes of dementia and an alcoholic to boot, you are going to drown in your house when the city doesn’t take great effort to inform you they are releasing floodwaters into your neighborhood to save other parts of the city.
If this approach to disaster doesn’t really work, then why do we do it, and what can we do instead? The answer to these questions rests in what we already know about crises. What we know, from an interdisciplinary body of scholarship that has existed for many years, is that we enact plans and acts of preparedness to “perform” a sense of security over the unknown, rather than ensure the future is secure. Planning and preparedness makes us feel safe. More insidious, this obsession with planning to harness the chaos of the future allows us to neglect what brings us to disaster in the first place—poverty, inequality, capitalism, colonialism and so on. For example, Hurricane Katrina showed the color of disaster—those most affected by the storm were poor, black, and/or elderly. Most of the dead from Harvey were people of color, citizens who tried to rescue people and animals, or those left vulnerable in some other capacity—as in the case of my cousin’s husband, the 71-year old man who drowned in his home. Preparedness allows the ostensive ‘inaction’ of people like those in New Orleans or Houston who did not evacuate (mainly because they had no choice) or collect supplies to become their burden. In this sense, if you do not prepare as you are told to, then it is your fault for what happens to you in disaster. This assumption vastly neglects how people actually behave when infrastructure crumbles—they do not loot, they do not panic, there is no social chaos. What does happen, time and time again, is emergent collective action where publics perform the burden of disaster response alongside or in the absence of first responders.
Truth be told—disaster institutions, aside from their individual actors, fail us when we need them the most because, at this point, humans cannot control uncertainty that much. Context and means are what matter most for individuals and communities. What saves us in dire times when everyday life fails is ourselves—family, neighbors, and strangers. What puts us at risk is our individualistic, increasingly expensive, militarizing security culture, which both burdens and blames citizenry with the vulnerabilities they are expected to rise above in times of disaster. We spend more money on beefing up police departments with military equipment than we do on poverty alleviation programs. Fears of terrorism, active shooters in public arenas, and foreign disease seem to necessitate the allocation of funds to create new ways and technologies to thwart a host of looming enemy invasions. Yet, disasters, whether large or small, happen much more often than the former. Our infrastructures are crumbling, putting us at much more risk to our natural and manmade environments than the fantastical evils we are bombarded with via news. Further, poverty, race, age, and social isolation are perhaps the biggest predictors of the negative consequences of disaster. None of these issues are in line to be addressed in current disaster management institutions or governmental entities tasked to protect us from such things.
There is little hope this will change anytime soon. In the meantime, know and care for your neighbors.