For elected leaders in the US, it is now an axiom of post-Katrina politics that they must either be prepared for a major storm or suffer voter wrath afterward.
Given all the smart preparations for hurricane Irene along the Eastern Seaboard, the axiom seems to have sunk in.
Among other steps, dams and bridges have been inspected, the homeless brought into shelters, water and food have been stocked. Sandbags, plywood, and chain saws are being distributed.
And a website – www.ready.gov – provides good tips on preparing for a hurricane’s wind, flooding, and ocean surge.
Public anger at government officials for a weak response after a calamity may be the norm, but voters in states from South Carolina to Maine – or the 1 in 5 Americans in Irene’s possible path – would do well to thank emergency workers who are on top of the latest ideas in disaster response.
Gratitude, like honey, can do more than the vinegar of complaints to make sure officials keep learning after each disaster. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, for example, was widely praised for its “leaning forward” response to the recent giant tornadoes in the South and Midwest. Still, FEMA seems daunted by Irene. “This is one of the largest populations that will be impacted by one storm at one time,” said director Craig Fugate.
Preparing for emergencies is never easy, but steady improvements in logistics, building codes, insurance rules, and digital communications all have reduced the potential damage from storms or floods. (Katrina set back the economy by $40 billion.)
Social media like Facebook is now almost as popular as radio and television to obtain disaster information, according to an American Red Cross survey. (Special consideration should be given to the elderly and others who don’t use the Internet or text messaging.)
Private efforts, too, have improved. Big suppliers like Wal-Mart are better stocked with emergency supplies and church groups more effectively gear up to offer helping hands.
In the states along Irene’s path, each governor took on a military style in preparing for this hurricane. They must, given their power to order mandatory evacuations and run emergency command centers.
Most of all, elected officials need to help the public avoid weather fright and instead assume a spirit of readiness and caution. They must choose their words of warning carefully and exude calm rather than fear.
Unity, charity, foresight, and gratitude are the best qualities to weather big storms.