The starting point for reducing catastrophic risk? Maybe it’s as simple as awareness.

From time to time, different groups or individuals will post their candidate “top-ten” lists of disaster scenarios facing the United States – the so-called “Big Ones.” As a rule, these inventories don’t wear well with time! Maybe some unanticipated new form of hazard comes along (think: terrorism, space weather, financial-sector meltdowns, cyber threats, pandemics, regional electrical blackout, etc.). Or perhaps an old enemy resurfaces. For a long time, few people were fretting about tsunamis. But since the Indonesian tsunami of 2004, we’ve had a tsunami following the Chilean earthquake, and now the Tohoku-Sendai tsunami weighs heavily on our minds. The lists are then hurriedly revamped.

Just a few leading candidates on today’s list of concerns:

-          a tsunami off the Pacific-, Gulf-, or Atlantic coasts

-          category-5 hurricane landfall at a major city (Houston-Galveston, New Orleans, Tampa, Miami, Charleston, Norfolk, New York City…)

-          an earthquake (Cascadia, the Hayward fault under Oakland, the San Andreas, New Madrid, or under any major city from Charleston to Boston)

-          a major mudslide off the flanks of Mount Rainier

-          pandemic

-          cyber threats

-          willful acts of terror

-          asteroid or meteor impact

You live in Asia? Europe? Africa? You’ve got your own lists don’t you?

Enough! There’s more, but please! We get the idea.

Psychologists tell us that we’re numbed when we contemplate events of this magnitude. We might be tempted to say, “let’s leave this thinking to our leaders and our government agencies.” Believe me, they’re already on this. Department of Homeland Security? FEMA? DoD? National security agencies? State and local emergency managers? State Department? All have staff working far into the night, and then losing sleep, fretting over these concerns.

But you and I needn’t be passive. Here’s set of small steps we can take that might not prove so overwhelming. Start with that Sendai earthquake and tsunami so much on our minds. It’s already starting to fade a bit, but the ache is still there, isn’t it? Now, with part of your brain that remains, call to mind one or more of your social networks, or groups, or clubs. Maybe it’s a Rotary Club, or a local Chamber of Commerce. Possibly a campus social group at your university. Perhaps it’s your book club. Or – from my world – a local chapter of the American Meteorological Society, or some other such professional group. Or – also from my world – a church or synagogue.

Now, suppose you devoted one evening to a discussion of the hazards peculiar to your city or county. You might try to get a feel…which of all the possible risks your community faces are the most likely to occur soonest, and why? Why might be less likely? By how much? (Remember, at the community level, floods, drought, tornadoes, landslides…a whole host of hazards not mentioned on the above list of Big Ones…come into play).

Then ask, in the face of these risks, how safe are our schools? Our hospitals? Will electrical power, water supplies, and other critical necessities be maintained uninterrupted? What about the big local employers? Will their doors stay open? Why or why not?

That’s probably enough for one session. Along the way, you might begin to notice that the group that formed your starting point didn’t have all the answers. A bunch of meteorologists might not know all that much about the structural engineering of the buildings in their city. Or whether doctors and nurses would be able to maintain the local hospital. A Rotary Club might wish it had a few more scientists and engineers in membership, or at least contributing to the discussion.

But the fact is, whatever your starting point, you will be able to grow the dialog, draw others in. And you’ll find out, organically, which folks are interested and have some staying power with respect to this conversation, and which are going to move on, and refocus their attention on other matters. Pretty straightforward to develop a coalition of the willing! If you’re feeling a bit more ambitious, you might arrange for several groups from your community to independently make a start on this discussion, and then arrange for those of you who are interested to come together.

At some point early on in these sessions – maybe even the very first – you might start asking folks to brainstorm ideas for locally reducing the impacts of a given risk or set of risks to your community. Find some good ideas? Then you might turn to a discussion of how to implement them. Come up short of suggestions? That might be a signal to reach for some outside help.

Once you and your network have accumulated a few concerns or a good idea or two, you might be ready to try them out on some local political leaders. Or maybe first line up some support from among the business and other community leadership, or some of the non-governmental organizations or faith-based organizations. And then seek out the politicians.

You might get your kids involved, at least those above a certain age. At one of those PTA meetings, you and your group might ask what education on these subjects is being provided by your school system. What ideas do your young people have on these subjects? Who’s listening? How can their ideas be given a hearing?

So far, none of this is rocket science, and none of it has taken that much time. You’ve hardly spent a dime. Even what the economists call the opportunity cost is low. You were going to participate in these social groups anyway. What you’ve done is change the subject a bit. What you’ve done is tap into the wisdom of crowds.

Now, suppose that you weren’t the only ones doing this. Suppose that it were happening in other towns and cities across the country, and in other countries. Guess what! There would be a lot of bad ideas and dead ends. But out of the larger universe of these ideas would come a smaller number that would get traction, that would make a difference. Suppose folks then started looking over each other’s shoulders, sharing both the good experiences (try this!) and the bad (this was a dead end for us!). Now what you’ve done is set into motion a new set of possibilities for your community, possibilities that will start to reduce the rate at which risk and vulnerability mount over time. And when people see those possibilities, they’ll demand action. And they’ll get it.

You know what? In aggregate, that increased community resiliency would start whittling down the vulnerability to some of those showstoppers enumerated above. [There’s another small, low-cost step we can take, but let’s save that for the next post.]

In the meantime, what better way to honor the memory of those who lost their lives in Sendai, in Haiti, in New Orleans, or across the Indian Ocean, or on September 11, or any of the other horrific catastrophes that have marked the human experience?

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One Response to The starting point for reducing catastrophic risk? Maybe it’s as simple as awareness.

  1. Pingback: Want to build disaster resilience in your community? And worldwide? | Living on the Real World

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