Bruce Brodoff Communications
Bruce Brodoff Communications
Are We Prepared for the Cost of Preparedness?
Co-written with Elizabeth A. Davis, JD, EdM; Published in the March 2006 issue of Homeland Security Magazine

For years the United States government and our own emergency management industry have repeated a simple yet critical mantra: Individuals and families must prepare themselves for emergencies and disasters. The American Red Cross (ARC), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), state and local governments and other disaster organizations have preached the importance of personal preparedness, assembling emergency "go kits" and planning for self-evacuation. The belief that people will pack up the car and head to Aunt Mildred's house or catch the next flight to a safer location whenever an emergency evacuation order is announced is a regularly accepted -- yet usually incorrect -- assumption.

Despite the increased focus on emergency preparedness awareness and education over the past few years, emergency management professionals have failed to collectively and vocally state a simple fact: there is a cost to preparedness that many of our citizens just cannot bear. This cost, and a weakening of the social service system in the United States, greatly impacts those financially vulnerable during emergencies and disasters and has resulted in an increased potential of death and a lasting, detrimental effect on the economy and on people's ability to rebuild their lives. The aftermath of the hurricanes that hit the Gulf Coast in the Summer of 2005 provides a grim illustration of this point. Hurricane Katrina affected the poorest states in the United States -- Louisiana alone has a poverty rate of 22%. -- and many of the 1,400 who were killed and the thousands who were left homeless and without adequate services due to this hurricane were elderly, black and poor citizens.

For those in Louisiana who had the means to evacuate and grab their gallons of water on the way out the door, leaving their homes may have been more an emotional burden than a financial one. As for those citizens who were hardly getting by financially and had to choose between buying baby food and diapers or stockpile supplies such as extra food and water, their decision not to evacuate should have been clear to us. As much as we and the government push for personal preparedness and individual responsibility, emergency preparedness in general and evacuation in particular is just not an option for some people due to economic considerations.

This inequitable situation places a terrible burden on the poor. While a basic level of safety should be available to all, those financially unable to prepare for or evacuate before an emergency or disaster are usually victimized twice; Not only due they suffer from the effects of the disaster, but they often get blamed for not preparing or evacuating in the first place. This criticism is particularly cruel, since in actuality we have priced lower-income individuals and families out of preparedness and ultimately their safety and security.

While individuals receiving public assistance or with low incomes cannot be expected to devote limited resources to preparing for emergencies, even people with middle-class incomes may not be able to afford basic preparedness measures. For a single mother raising three children making $40,000 a year, purchasing a preparedness kit for the family is most likely not at the top of the shopping list. Owning a car that would enable the family to evacuate may also be a luxury. According to Terrol Williams, a Katrina survivor who testified during the Senate hearings, the situation was "more of a socio-economic issue than race." Ms. Williams further stated that government failed to take into account that poor residents had no way to evacuate.

Poor residents were not the only population not able to evacuate. The Kaiser Family Foundation, Harvard School of Public Health, and The Washington Post conducted interviews of displaced survivors in Houston and found that over 40% of those who did not evacuate were either physically unable to leave or were caring for a disabled person. In addition, survey results found that 34% of Katrina victims were trapped in their homes and 50% of those who were trapped waited three or more days to be rescued.

In the aftermath of the Gulf Coast disaster, the public at large has been asking many questions about why there was such widespread death and human suffering: Was it lack of preparedness and response on the government side? Were people forgotten because of race, disability and age? Was there malfeasance from the administration on down the line? No matter the answers, what bridges these issues are socio-economic factors that continue to place a very significant number of our citizens at risk and need to be addressed and rectified before the next disaster hits our nation.

With an increase in the number of poor, uninsured or under-insured citizens nationwide and additional federal cuts to Medicare and Medicaid on the horizon, emergency management professionals and politicians have an obligation to better help individuals be prepared for the next disaster and assure the American people that there is a real, viable solution to the preparedness and evacuation problem.

In the six months since the Gulf Coast hurricanes struck, the Federal government has provided more than $6.3 billion directly to victims through FEMA's Individual and Households Assistance Program and has spent an additional half a billion dollars on temporary hotel rooms for evacuees.

As there is significant funding available for post-disaster assistance, perhaps the government should allocate significant funds to help its citizens PREPARE for disasters.

Perhaps money spent on individual or family preparedness products and efforts should be tax deductible. Perhaps corporations that manufacture the products found in preparedness kits (water, canned and packaged food, flashlights, blankets, etc.) be encouraged to donate their products in exchange for write-offs; Perhaps the Stafford Act should be amended to provide funding to help citizens evacuate and secure shelter prior to a major disaster.

Whatever the solutions, they must be implemented as soon as possible. In this day and age, it is completely unacceptable that American citizens remain in harm's way simply because they cannot afford to get out of the crosshairs.

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