Disaster Management? Sounds like an oxymoron…

…but it isn’t.

Today’s post comes from Toronto at the start of the 21st World Conference on Disaster Management. The Canadian Centre for Emergency Preparedness puts on this annual meeting, this year assembling 1500 attendees from 40 countries.

Participants variously characterize their expertise as emergency management, business continuity, risk management, emergency response, health and safety management, public health, IT disaster recovery, security, or something else. Quite a range of titles! But whatever the label, the job pretty much boils down to the same thing: disaster management.

Blog readers may not know whether to laugh or cry. The winter storms and heavy snows of the past year in the northeastern United States? The Christchurch, New Zealand earthquake, and the Japanese tsunami? The volcanic eruptions of Eyjafjallajokull, Grimsvotn (Iceland), and Puyehue-Cordon (Chile) and disruption of international air travel? The BP oil spill? Flooding, tornadoes, and wildfire across the United States?  Just a sampling of recent living on the real world (as threat). Plenty of disasters, sure enough – but where are the signs of disaster management?

Actually, they’re everywhere. The simple fact is, had disaster managers not been busy the past 20-30 years – and not just busy, but effective – the casualties, property loss, and economic disruption from these events would have been far higher. Those winter storms? Time was, forecasters wouldn’t have given everyone several days’ warning. The volcanic eruptions? The ash plumes have been tracked by satellite imagery and instruments, and the trajectories forecast. No jet engines gummed up by silicates, no crashed planes here. Passengers on the cancelled flights, grumpy to be sure, but better to be alive and frustrated than dead, however serene. The death toll from the tornadoes? Everyone agrees the fatalities would have been far greater in the old days, with so much less time to take cover. Even in the case of the Japanese tsunami, it’s clear that the warnings saved many lives.

The same can also be said about the post-disaster recovery.  Many have commented on the speed with which the cleanup is proceeding in Japan. Click here for some examples. You can find articles to the same effect with regard to the Joplin, Missouri cleanup. This kind of success doesn’t just happen; it’s not just effort, though effort is involved. It’s about planning, and coordination, and learning from cleanups in the past. Look a bit, and you can find other examples.

Learning from experience? Very much in evidence. Look at the decisions made in Japan – and a world away in Germany – with regard to the maintenance and the future of nuclear power in those countries. You and I might agree or disagree with the outcomes. We might think that the Japanese didn’t go far enough – or that the Germans may have over-reacted. But the fact remains that in each case (and in other countries around the world, for that matter) there was a dialog, a national thought process. In the United States, sales in safe rooms, and tornado shelters, and smartphone weather apps, all spiked following the weeks of tornado outbreaks.  The flooding has produced a spate of coverage about the limitations in US flood policies, a forecast for hypoxia and a major dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, and much, much more. There’s thought, and there’s foresight. People are saying, “what happened there, to them, could happen here, to me.” People are asking, “What might lie ahead?”

Fact is, we could use a bit more thought, and an even greater measure of foresight. In the United States, for example, there’s been dialog aplenty about the $800M shortfall in NOAA funding in the FY 2011 budget that portends a gap in polar-orbiting weather satellite coverage over the United States (and the rest of the world as well) in a very few years. Such a gap would degrade future weather forecasts and warnings like those which have proved critical to public safety in recent months. But that conversation hasn’t yet been matched by vigorous action. And a recent article by Peter Harriman of the Argus Leader which appeared in USA Today lists a range of potential research topics suggested by the Missouri flooding that may go unaddressed because of federal budgetary problems.

The truth is such limitations are not forced on us from outside. They’re self-imposed. What analysis exists – and there should be more – suggests that every $1 invested in pre-event mitigation provides a 3-to-8-fold return, even allowing for the present-discounted value of that return. Unlike many renewable energy sources, no government subsidies are needed to produce this payback. That should imply a hearty appetite for better land use, safer building construction, investments in more resilient critical infrastructure, and Earth observations, forecasts, and warnings. And did I mention that these investments would produce jobs along the way?

We have, in our political discourse, and media coverage, talked ourselves into this funk. Somehow the United States and its people have to think ourselves out of these handcuffs we’ve put on. And the implications aren’t just domestic. They transcend our borders. The better we cope at home, the more we can market our successes abroad. And even if disaster managers have been (just barely) keeping up, there’s no reason for complacency, or resting on our oars. To stay even, we have to keep reinventing our disaster management strategies and tactics, year on year, and we have to execute.

So, this year’s World Conference on Disaster Management theme? Innovative Solutions for a Modern World. Sounds right on point.

Take a look at this year’s program. You’ll see all sorts of innovation proposed, on all phases of disaster management. Pre-event mitigation measures. Building community disaster resilience, through improving the resilience of critical infrastructure, public-private partnerships, even work-from home solutions to speed recovery from disasters. You’ll see expanding the notion of disaster from the flooding, storms, earthquakes and volcanoes mentioned earlier to include contingency planning for global shortages in food, water, and forms of energy; cyber-threats; pandemics; and industrial accidents. You’ll see contingency planning for the developed world, emerging economic powers, and even Antarctica. You’ll see integrated approaches to sustainability on a planet doing much of its business through extreme events.

Maybe it’s too late for you to make this meeting. There’s always next year. And for that matter, if you’re looking for a career where you can make the world a safer, happier, more appealing place for seven billion people, disaster management is a good place to start.

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