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Think Tank Recommends Frank Discussion About Individual Responsibility During Disasters

05/20/2011 -

 The federal government has to have a "frank discussion" with the American people about what constitutes an acceptable amount of risk as it invests in resiliency strategies to recover from terrorist attacks and natural disasters,according to a report from The Homeland Security Policy Institute (HSPI) (.pdf).

And part of that tough talk, according to the think tank's Preparedness, Response, and Resilience Task Force, is the federal government admitting that Americans should plan to be self-reliant during an emergency in case public response agencies are overwhelmed or incapable of responding.

"After all, there is a limit to what even the most resilient governments can do in the face of catastrophe, and the more aware the public is of the gap between governmental capabilities and survivors' needs, the more likely people are to understand that they, too, have a responsibility to provide for themselves and their neighbors during emergencies," the report on resilence argues.

In thePresidential Policy Directive-8 (PPD-8) issued by the Obama administration in late March, resilience is "the ability to adapt to changing conditions and withstand and rapidly recover from disruption due to emergencies." But the task force argues resilience has become an abstract buzz word in Washington, D.C., and has no traction outside the nation's capital.

Either resilience gets "operationalized," the report states, or it will become "something that is ubiquitously mentioned in academic papers and Federal policy documents, but that is not sufficiently tangible to drive decisions on government priorities and resources, or meaningfully influence the behavior of the American public."

This can only happen, argues the report, if government officials and state and local disaster reponse stakeholders educate Americans about low probability, high cost events that could strike their area, which most communities are not prepared to deal with, much less recover from.

The task force believes the Department of Homeland Security has done just that with this week's National Level Exercise (NLE), conducted by FEMA, which simulated a massive earthquake along the Midwest's New Madrid fault line.

"By raising the possiblity of a catastrophic earthquake—something that is likely not on the minds of many Midwesterners—the NLE can have the dual positive effect of pushing responders beyond their traditional mindsets and alerting the public at-large of the risk," according to the task force, which hopes citizens will not only become aware of the risk, but make preparations themselves so they can survive a slow or nonexistent government response.

The task force also argues that communities must honestly evaluate where their acceptable risk threshold is and make the necessary investments based on that decision.

"If the risk is below that threshold, we accept the risk and move on," the report states. "If it is above the threshold, we invest in ways to mitigate that risk in an effort to prevent unacceptable loss of life and property, and ensure an effective response can be mounted and that core services are restored."

The ability to do this, however, will take political courage and a razor sharp communication strategy, the task force admits.

As one task force member quoted in the report put it: "No elected official is going to stand up and say that 1,000 lives lost is an acceptable level of risk."

The report's release comes in reaction to PPD-8 and recent disasters involving tornados and floods in the South and Midwest of the United States and the Japanese tsunami, said Daniel Kaniewski, task force co-chair and deputy director of HSPI.