Two hands for beginners! Another disaster-reduction policy.

Want to bring down the cost of future disasters? As we tackle the problem, instead of showing off, let’s use that hand we’ve kept tied behind our back all these years. Specifically, instead of relying on public-sector leadership alone, we can team the public and private sector as full partners in the effort.

Isn’t this going on already? Yes and no. Let’s go over a little background, and then you decide. Before we dive in, here’s something to chew on – that ought to motivate us. These days, historians, social scientists and policy analysts sometimes ask the question: why have certain societies and cultures fared better than others over the past one hundred (or thousand) years? One explanation keeps cropping up. The societies that do the best tend to be those that draw most successfully on their full population, and not half of it – those who grant equal opportunity to women throughout their culture, but especially in the workplace. Now, when it comes to hazards, reflect that in the United States, we try to cope with the threat of natural hazards using not half the workforce, but only ten percent – the public sector, those employed by federal, state, and local governments (and obviously, only a minority of these; most government workers play roles quite distant from risk management).

Of course the private sector is already involved. Here’s a partial list of the ways:

Victim. Analysts tell us that 85% of the small businesses who close their doors during a disaster never reopen. In Katrina, half of the local businesses had to shut down. No wonder recovery has been so slow.

Vector. Just as mosquitoes are a vector for the spread of malaria, globalized private sector firms spread the effects of once-local disasters throughout entire regions and worldwide, through their effect on distant suppliers and customers.

Emergency responder. Wasn’t always this way, but nowadays private-sector contractors work in Emergency Operations Centers in cities, counties, and states around the country, as well as for federal emergency management agencies. Radio and television broadcasters are a primary means for getting emergency information to the public. Hospital emergency rooms are often in private hands.

Critical infrastructure provider. State and local governments may control most police and fire departments, most roads, schools, and sewage infrastructure. But the private sector controls much of the electrical power system, communications, gas pipelines, hospitals, the financial system…you get the idea.

Recovery partner. The private sector does much of the rebuilding and restoration of community function.

Pretty extensive list! So how can we possibly say the private sector is shut out? In what respect?

How about as strategic partner? Of course, there’s a logic for this. In the United States, government and private enterprise have for the most part profited from a fundamentally arm’s-length approach, in which the private sector is free to make a profit and the government uses regulation as a tool to ensure than when all parties act in self-interest, they also contribute to a common good. When they do work together, it is usually (excuse the legalese) as principal and agent (governments determine what’s to be done; the private sector provides the desired product or service as a means to that end).

But the United States could quite possibly enjoy much greater business continuity, and far less community disruption, if government put into place policies that would encourage public-private collaboration [and expanded the notion of private-sector to include non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) and faith-based organizations (FBO’s)) at the local and national levels].

This was tried, briefly, during the 1990’s, under the leadership of FEMA’s director, James Lee Witt, who established Project Impact. Under this program, the government gave selected communities small planning grants on a competitive basis, to stimulate strategic cooperation between local governments and businesses, and to focus that strategic-level cooperation on pre-event measures to reduce or mitigate community risks, as opposed to merely responding to and recovering from disasters. The program proved so popular that when the funding ran out, many communities asked to be included under the umbrella at no cost, providing the resources themselves. The program showed promise, but was viewed as politically motivated, and following the 2000 elections was discontinued.  

Whether under this or some other label, the concept deserves another chance.

Interestingly, the Department of Commerce might be able to play an important role here, building on its own ties to the corporate world, but also on an extensive suite of in-house capabilities to support business continuity. These include, but are not limited to:

NOAA, which provides many hazard outlooks and warnings, for weather, and also for tsunamis.

NIST, which supports extensive wind, fire, and seismic engineering research and development.

EDA.  Just as FEMA tries to maintain family life, by housing disaster survivors in a trailer, the Economic Development Administration helps rebuild the local economy.

Census, which keeps an inventory of vulnerable populations.

ITA, which could help U.S. consulting and engineering firms find international markets for their expertise in disaster reduction.

And, one additional note (that piece of good news that we saved for today), take a little time to acquaint yourself with the Business Civic Leadership Center (BCLC), embedded within the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. A number of major corporations have banded together to provide a wide range of help to businesses and communities worldwide struggling to prepare for or recover from disasters, working with Stephen Jordan, their very effective executive director, and his small but immensely talented staff. Or look at Business Executives for National Security (BENS), another NGO looking at a closely linked set of risks. These an similar organizations hint at the depth of private-sector interest and capabilities with respect to these matters.

To wrap up, the posts over the past several days have offered four principles or policies for substantially reducing disaster risk across the United States and abroad:

No adverse impact. Ensure that land use, business practices, and other societal activity don’t add unnecessarily to societal risk.

Learn from experience. Reduce repetitive loss.

Keep score of progress. Disaster costs are difficult to measure, and disaster statistics, based as they are on rare events, are noisy year-to-year. Just the same, the thought process associated with keeping score can be enormously valuable.

And today’s measure,

Bring to bear society’s full resources, public- and private-, for-profit- and not-for-profit.

If we take action on these four principles, if we convert them to policies, and let them play out over time, we can begin to turn around the tragic trends in the cost of disasters.

I’m off for a couple of days. When I return, we’ll talk about the mother of all recent extreme events: the extraordinary success of the human race over the past century or so. And we’ll start to look at the implications of that sudden success for our real-world future.

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