Emergency Literacy: What to expect during a disaster response

I am studying the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill as a case study for leadership and the authors of one of my papers made the point that one of the jobs of leaders during an disaster is helping those who don’t have emergency management “literacy”.

Agencies calmly executing plans can appear to be methodical and in control or lacking urgency and intensity depending upon the lens used. (p. 11)

Courtesy giphy
Courtesy giphy

For the most part, Americans understand that an “out of control” fire does NOT mean that the response is “out of control”. But we’re used to what a fire looks like. We have a general understanding about what needs to happen to put out the fire and (in the case of wild fires) how nature thwarts those efforts. Just because the fire doesn’t go out right away doesn’t mean the fire fighters are incompetent. But “non-routine” disasters are different. By their very definition, there is a lot of unknown. It can look like responders don’t know what they’re doing, especially in the era after Hurricane Katrina–generally perceived to be a failure of leadership.

I’d like to think this blog is doing it’s tiny part to increase “emergency literacy”–to increase your confidence that responders know how to help. That isn’t to say that you should not be critical. We need people to encourage us to be transparent about the response. You have the right to be anxious. It’s our job to make sure you have the information you need to make good decisions and your job to make sure we do that.

But perhaps it helps to know what kinds of plans we have already. Did you know that the each agency has a plan for each kind of incident which carefully outlines their roles, responsibilities, and agreements with other agencies? Take a look at London’s plan. It’s long and boring, but skim the Contents page. It’s kind of comforting to know people have thought about all these things (there’s even a section specifically devoted to helicopters!)

It’s also our jobs as emergency managers to manage the public’s expectations. We’re supposed to explain what things we can control, what things we can’t, and what we’re doing about the things we can’t control. For instance, we cannot possibly make a plan for every disaster that could possibly happen in the world. We could not possibly anticipate every variation. In fact, the more detailed our plans are, the more rigid they become. Emergencies are fast and loose and we need the flexibility to respond to unexpected changes. Sometimes we have to abandon or adjust our response strategies as more information becomes available. We’re not working aimlessly or randomly, it’s just a chaotic environment and we have to make lots of adjustments. Like the kinds of adjustments your muscles have to make to keep your balance on a spinning log.

So what CAN I expect?

  • Surprise. It will always seem like no one expected these events to happen even when scientists have been screaming about potential disasters for years. The truth is, people habitually believe that disasters are something that happen to other people. You need to prepare yourself that when we talk about disasters, it’s not if, but when.
  • Lots of chaos. There’s a convergence of lots of people at a disaster site–each with their own agendas and realms of expertise. There’s a period of intense organizing and communicating as people work to gain “situational awareness” (understanding what’s happening, where, and who’s doing what). With the advent of modern media, you get to see the process unfold in real time and it looks messy. Remember: chaos is natural and not necessarily a sign of incompetence.
  • Lots of uncertainty and anxiety. Feeling out of control and dealing with the unknown makes people anxious. That’s ok. We’re going to work through those feelings, I promise. Bear with us. Listen for updates. Prepare yourself to deal with a little uncertainty. Now, it’s NOT ok for agencies to refuse to tell you how the disaster will affect your health or future livelihood, (like how the Japanese government kept the citizenry in the dark after Fukushima). If that happens, you have my permission to cause a ruckus.
  • Lots of drama. The media LOVE disasters because they make for good stories. They will intentionally seek out the most disgruntled person and the most pathetic, oil-covered animal. The media will sensationalize the disaster and prepare a scape-goat for you. Do your best to balance your consumption of pitiful images with fact-based, evidence-based reporting.
  • Lots of finger-pointing. Unfortunately, this happens. I’d like to say we’re all adults who accept responsibility for our part in the disaster and response, but that’s just not true. It’s extremely difficult not to feel defensive when the media and congressional hearings grill you on mistakes (whether perceived or actual). Remember, the media loves a good villain and will present a scape-goat to you–fairly or not. Do your best to not fuel the fires of hate.
  • A sense of abandonment is possible. Especially if you live in the area affected by the disaster, you will be overwhelmed by all the media attention and people volunteering to help you and send you money. But very shortly, the media will disappear and support will dry up. People will go home even before you feel back to normal. Prepare yourself to work hard on recovery without a lot of attention. This is the time for you to connect with your community.

Disasters are scary and always new. That’s ok. We’re going to get through it, together. (Although, it does help if you have a family preparedness plan.)

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2 thoughts on “Emergency Literacy: What to expect during a disaster response

  1. Arnold Bogis May 1, 2015 / 1:53 pm

    If it isn’t too late for your case study, you may also want to look for public comments and writing by Juliette Kayyem. She was the DHS Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs during the spill and has often commented on the event, her and others’ roles, etc.

    Like

    • emscholar May 1, 2015 / 2:05 pm

      Thanks so much! That might actually be useful for a different project I’m working on too, lol.

      Like

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