Managing the Unthinkable

Disasters do not simply overlap: they compound. Often exponentially.

The role of the emergency management function is to deal with the unexpected, unpredictable and often unthinkable. Pandemic planning has long been considered, but not in the context of a concurrent natural disaster.

As I write this, Hurricane Laura is set to bring a “catastrophic storm surge” to the Gulf Coast, and California is battling 370 wildfires, a heat wave and rolling blackouts – all while simultaneously managing a pandemic. As Jacob Stern points out in The Atlantic, these disasters do not simply overlap: they compound. Often exponentially.

In California for example, firefighting forces heavily rely on inmate labour to supplement their ranks. Polluted air has been shown to increase vulnerability to the coronavirus, which inmates may then spread into the close-quarters environment of a correctional institution. Choosing to limit firefighting efforts as a result unleashes a secondary cascade of events beyond the capacities of any one agency.

A civil engineering professor at Vanderbilt University, Mark Abkowitz likens emergency management capacity to a reservoir. Multiple ‘draws’ from the reservoir may lead to insufficient resources getting to where they are needed. In an article for the Vanderbilt Center for Transportation and Operational Resiliency, Mr. Abkowitz shares concepts needing clarity by emergency managers when managing multiple simultaneous disasters:

Effective Planning

While risk assessment is a basic tenet of emergency planning, it has not previously been considered for simultaneous disasters. In the event of a natural disaster, how does an organization ensure social distancing protocols are in place in an emergency shelter or in a reception centre? In the event of reduced stakeholder capacity, how are resources allocated? In the current climate, officials need to consider any possible scenario. Business continuity planning is a critical resource to ensure these risks can be effectively planned and managed. 

Logistical Challenges

Not managed effectively, lifesaving resources may be diverted to the wrong locations, and may inadvertently expose more people to harm. In establishing a unified command, consistent with ICS principles, effective coordination of a centralized supply chain can be ensured. As I wrote in a previous post about the Italian response to coronavirus, partial solutions are to be avoided like … well, you know. 

These questions, previously ‘unexpected and unthinkable’ are going to increasingly become commonplace as disasters become more complex and frequent, often overlapping. 

Does your organization have continuity planning in place to handle multiple simultaneous disasters? Let me know in the comments, or feel free to contact me here.

Author: Alison Poste

https://alisonposte.com/about-alison/

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