Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Severe Tornado Outbreak Hits Illinois

Disasters are things you can plan for, but not predict. The truth is that a disaster WILL happen, but very rarely do we get to know when and how extensive. A tornado outbreak in late November in the US Midwest? Who would have thought it or predicted it? This is a natural event in the US that we typically worry about during the spring and summer. Still, its mid November and it happened and whole communities have been devastated, if not wiped off the map.

I am not a part of the clean up and recovery efforts currently going on in the Philippines or in the US Midwest- wish that I were. Still, I think this is a good time to mention how much disaster planning and testing really is one of those things that most organizations and people treat as “out of sight, out of mind”.

One of the interesting things that I learned during my tenure of working in New Orleans the year after Katrina was how much attention, and how it became critical to address the issues of health, safety, and communications right after a disaster, but take some time after the occurrence, when the media leaves, only to come back to do a “six months after” story, once the stench and debris of the event are placed somewhere that isn’t immediately seen or accessible, though the suffering might go on, though the ill planning and cracks in the system which caused the mismanagement to occur in the first place continue, things go back to “business as usual”. The funding might be there to improve systems and procedures for first responders (or at least it was after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina- the recent government funding woes may have deeply cut into grants for emergency management projects) but because it isn’t an immediate concern, the day to day running of business/government/systems takes precedence to what to do when all hell breaks loose. Though we were only months away from an event that would end up in the history books as a prime example of what not to do, trying to fix the situation holistically faded more each day- until there was a tropical storm in the gulf that may have caused the Emergency Operations Center in New Orleans to have to “stand up” again- without the promised technology and improved processes that was already funded due to Katrina, but not followed through due to bureaucracy and the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. Still, any time the media was making a visit, or there was the threat of a storm repeat, it became topic number one and then the questions were always asked “where are we with the new citywide evacuation system?”

To this day, I am not sure where New Orleans stands- our contract with the city was pulled before we could finish our work there, and we left, leaving the equipment, the technology, and the plans behind. I’d love to know what the city’s new plan ended up looking like. I’d like to think that a good chunk of the pieces that I put in it still exist. That being said, I also know that unless there was a “clear and present” danger, planning for the next disaster was less and less important the further and further away from August 29th, 2005 we were. Since then, there has been regime change in New Orleans and I’d like to think that the process we started there was completed, but we’ll never know until it happens again and this “once in a lifetime storm” happens, once in a lifetime, again. More recently, the Atlantic has been relatively mild these past few years and what storms that have hit are taking aim at the upper East Coast. There will be another “once in a lifetime” storm somewhere else, in our lifetime- several of them actually, just not likely in the same place. Still, disasters come in all forms, not just hurricanes (always remember 9/11), and planning responses for them is something that must be done from federal, municipal and corporate levels.

My point with all of this is though it is great if occurrences such as these make people take a moment to think about their disaster and crisis planning, it is more important to revisit these plans and make changes to them periodically. Technology changes. Best practices change. Taking advantage of new innovations in technology and planning can save not only dollars but lives while adding increased efficiency and getting the business of getting back to “business as usual” that much faster.

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