Disasters remind us to make reality checks
October 2, 2009
Personal evacuation plans are a new policy here at the College of William and Mary. The short, five-minute questionnaire is one small step toward being better prepared for disasters.
Yet there is griping and complaining about having to spend time on this exercise. Not only should we be spending time on this, but disaster preparedness needs to be emphasized on campus and in choosing who gets our vote in November.
Why? Let’s turn our attention across the globe for a moment. Tropical Storm Ketsana killed over 250 people when hit Manila, an island in the Philippines, Sept. 26. The tropical storm is yet another indication of the severe and far-reaching ramifications of climate change. Ketsana left 80 percent of the city underwater, and the infamously polluted capital was covered in sewage, trash and abandoned vehicles. Philippine politicians called it a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. But according to TIME magazine, much of the blame for the deaths can be placed on those very same politicians for poor civic planning and inadequate infrastructure investment.
Does this sound familiar? Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, a city built below sea level, in 2005 and killed over 2,000 residents while flooding huge portions of the city. The day before Katrina made landfall, Aug. 28, 2005. Mayor Ray Nagin said, “This is a once-in-a-lifetime event. The city of New Orleans has never seen a hurricane of this magnitude hit it directly.” It took longer to reach the conclusion that the government had failed in its responsibilities in the United States than it did in the Philippines. In 2006, The Independent Levee Investigation Team released a draft report on the failure of the New Orleans levees.
One analyst said, “The report is an indictment of the American political and social system … much of the damage and loss of life caused by the hurricane could have been prevented with better planning and more resources.” Although failing to adequately plan for disasters does not seem to be a uniquely American phenomenon, the point remains. Worse than failing to plan properly, Ray Seed of the University of California-Berkeley concluded: “People died because mistakes were made and because safety was exchanged for efficiency and reduced costs.”
Not only did the Philippines not learn from our mistakes from Katrina, we haven’t either. One post-Katrina poll asked residents within 50 miles of coastlines about preparedness: 52 percent have no disaster plan, and 90 percent have done nothing to make their homes stronger since Katrina. Hurricane Katrina has not been the only instance of infrastructure neglect and poor planning costing lives — we all remember the Iowa floods and the I-35W Bridge Collapse in Minnesota, and a new report says that 1,800 dams nationwide pose a significant risk to human life.
The failure here is personal and institutional. So complete your evacuation plans thoroughly — they’re better than nothing, and at the very least they make you contemplate what you would do in the event of catastrophe. On the institutional side, it’s clear that governments that ignore infrastructure spending do so at the peril of citizens. It is time we quiz our elected officials on where they stand on infrastructure spending. If we don’t like what we hear, we should vote them out before it costs more lives.
E-mail Harrison Roday at firstname.lastname@example.org.