TCS Daily

Preparing for the Worst

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - August 17, 2004 12:00 AM

Hurricane Charley has struck, and at least at this writing, it appears that an earlier warning of mine has turned out to be wrong. A few months ago, I wrote here:

Had a worrisome conversation the other day with a former administration official about homeland security. My complaint was that things remain futile and stupid, with airport security checks confiscating tweezers and engaging in other pointless but inconvenient measures, while real antiterrorism efforts remain weak. He agreed, but said that there was another problem: So much effort is being put into anti-terrorism efforts (futile or not) that the United States is now less prepared for major natural disasters than it was a few years ago. If we face a major natural disaster this year, he said, it's likely to turn out badly.

In fact, however, it looks as if the response to Hurricane Charley -- which clearly counts as a "major natural disaster" -- has been up to snuff.

The biggest problem wasn't in the response, but in the erroneous predictions about the storm's strength and track: "With so much media focus on Tampa and St. Petersburg, many residents in and around Punta Gorda were caught unprepared. The hurricane left at least 15 people dead in its wake - a wake that might not have been nearly as big if the storm had stuck to its original path and struck the big evacuated cities farther up the coast." Well, meteorology is an inexact science, and perhaps its biggest weakness today is that it's gotten reliable enough that people trust it more than they should.

Nonetheless, the storm's damage has caused me to think some more about disaster preparedness, and about people's attitudes toward preparing for disaster. And regular readers of this column will not be surprised to read that I think we could be doing more.

Since before 9/11 -- and especially afterward -- private relief agencies like the Red Cross, and government agencies like the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA, and many state and local governments have been encouraging people to stockpile supplies, make disaster preparations and plans, and be prepared to evacuate on short notice if necessary. A gratifyingly large number of people actually have taken steps to be prepared, but a lot more haven't.

That's no shock, I suppose, when a lot of people still don't wear seatbelts. But seatbelt-wearing rates are way up, and for a couple of reasons. One is that people have been hectored -- for generations -- to wear seatbelts., (Check out the documentary Hell's Highway to see just how vigorously). And schools have taught people driver's-ed, and car manufacturers -- with considerable prodding from the government and from insurance companies -- have made seatbelts (and other safety items) -- more widely available.

I wonder if there's a way to do the same kind of thing for disaster preparedness, to ensure that the materials, skills, and inclination to respond to diasters are widely distributed? Building on the driver's- ed example, we might see that sort of thing taught in high school. We might also see insurance companies offering discounts for disaster- preparedness on the part of policyholders. (That likely makes economic sense -- anyone careful enough to prepare for disasters is probably less prone to accidents, and better able to deal with them).

To some degree, existing programs like the Citizen Corps -- and programs like the Citizen Emergency Response Teams are already moving us in this direction. And, of course, the simple fact of living in a capitalist society, where resources are plentiful and skills are naturally diversified, helps too, as the unoffiicial response to 9/11 in New York demonstrated. But as we look at a 21st Century in which it has been made quite clear that disaster can strike the American mainland without warning, it may be worth thinking about what else we should be doing.


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