NSC: Myths and Mastery of Emergency Response

Marty Shaub, director of the Occupational Safety and Health Office for the University of Utah, knows a little bit about emergency response. It's not just her 400 hours of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) training, but the fact that she lives and works near a major faultline and that Utah experiences over 300 earthquakes a year.

"I'm not going to bad-mouth the response of the city of New Orleans," she told attendess at the National Safety Congress in Orlando this week. "because there but for the grace of god go I."

She noted that some 90 percent of the residents of Salt Lake City are living within 10 miles of a fault line, and that a 7.5 earthquake – a not impossible scenario – would devastate the city.

She offered her audience a list of the myths of emergency response, though she did note that the situation in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina was not your average emergency response and management scenario, and that the audience should not necessarily apply the myths to that city. The number of people living below the poverty line in New Orleans is greater than most (40 percent), meaning more people did not have the means to evacuate; it had one of the highest crime rates in the country, probably causing more criminal activity after the devastation of the hurricane became apparent; and many of the residents first thought the city had been spared much hurricane damage, so at first, they were celebrating, rather than mourning.

There are phases to disaster recovery, says Shaub:

  • Heroic – Ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
  • Honeymoon – Euphoria because the event was survived.
  • Inventory – Sudden realization, "This is really bad."
  • Disillusionment – Severe sadness over losses and intense outrage because the community was placed in harm's way.
  • Reconstruction – Acceptance, recovery, rebuilding.

There are also myths for emergency and disaster management, says Shaub, who offers these as examples:

  • Myth #1 – The affected local population is helplessly waiting for the outside world to save them. Not true, says Shaub. Most times after disasters, you see people helping each other to safety, sharing food and resources and providing first aid.
  • Myth #2 – Disasters b ring out the worst in people. Often, she says, disasters are followed by an onslaught of volunteerism and altruism.
  • Myth #3 – Media reports are always accurate.
  • Myth #4 – Price gouging is prevalent after a disaster. "Authorities crack down on that pretty quickly," says Shaub, noting the case of a man in Florida who was arrested trying to sell $3 bags of ice following Hurricane Andrew.
  • Myth #5 – Dead bodies are a major risk of disease. "Only if they are in contact with the water supply," says Shaub. In fact, bodies – while that is traumatic to see and for the families of the victims, are actually less of a burden on the immediate recovery efforts than the critically injured. It takes two people to move a body, but it takes six people to care for a critically injured person, says Shaub.
  • Myth #6 – Bodies represent a serious threat of epidemics if they are not immediately buried or burned. That is true only if the people died of diseases such as typhus or the plague, says Shaub. Proper identification and burial of the dead is important for the living and for the community, she adds.
  • Myth #7 – Any and all donations are necessary and appreciated. "Cash is needed," says Shaub. "But following a disaster, people do not need your yard sale clothes."
  • Myth #8 - Citizens will willingly evacuate their homes "just to be on the safe side." Not true, as we saw in New Orleans, says Shaub. Some people, for medical reasons or because they are elderly or frail, cannot leave. Others do not want to leave pets behind, as a number of shelters do not allow pets. Others "do not have a single resource to leave on their own," says Shaub. "Knowing your community's composition – number of elderly, number of poor – can help you plan an evacuation."
  • Myth #9 – Citizens will panic during an emergency or during the early hours of an evacuation. "That makes for great movies, but it generally doesn't happen," says Shaub.
  • Myth # 10 – There are seldom enough shelters in emergency or disaster situations. In most cases, she says, shelters are underutilized, because most people would rather do just about anything rather than go to a public shelter with a group of strangers.
  • Myth #11 – Things will go back to normal in a few weeks. In most cases, the structural devastation takes months or even years to rebuild, and the financial burden on a community can last for years. Investing in infrastructure now, before disaster strikes, is much less costly in terms of the human and financial costs, says Shaub.
  • Myth #12 – FEMA will fix it. "Disasters are primarily a local event," says Shaub. "FEMA is there to provide emergency resources." It is up to the local government to get the ball rolling and take care of its citizens, she says, so you'd better be ready.
  • Myth #13 – Fault-finding is harmful. "We need to know why didn't the plan work," says Shaub, so the next time disaster strikes, the community, state and federal responders are ready for it and the cost in human and financial terms is minimized as much as possible.

She suggested emergency response managers understand these things about their community:

  • What hazards or risks threaten this community?
  • What segments of the population are potentially at risk?
  • Does our emergency response operation plan determine the policies and procedures that should be carried out in case of emergency?
  • Preparing for mass casualties and fatalities is important to the recovery of the community following disaster.
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