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Managing Life-and-Death Situations

When a disaster strikes, skilled management can save lives and political futures.

With an emergency management plan in place, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack was prepared when tornadoes hit in 1999.
When former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack was about to take office in 1999, he went to the National Governors Association’s New Governor’s School, and sat next to then-Gov. Zell Miller of Georgia. Vilsack had one big question to ask his seatmate: “What are the one or two things I should focus on? Should it be health care? Jobs? Education?” 

As Vilsack recalls, “Gov. Miller said, ‘Son, emergency management. I guarantee you that within six months something is going to happen in your state and if you don’t handle it well, it won’t make any damn difference what you do in health care or jobs or education.” Vilsack took Miller’s advice, and when the state was hit with a huge tornado three months later, its leaders handled the situation in a coordinated, capable way that saved lives and property.

What was true then is still true now. Whether it’s a natural disaster or a terrorist incident, the importance of emergency management hasn’t lessened. 

Consider the blizzard in New York in 2010 that virtually shut down the city for days, largely due to hitches in the deployment of plows and other equipment. When Hurricane Sandy approached in 2012, there were delays in calling for evacuations. And in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, there may have been a shortage of water and food, but there was definitely no shortage of blame about who had mismanaged the response to the storm.

Fortunately, the developing field of emergency management offers some hope for cities and states. In order to coordinate and provide support for people in the field during a disaster, the job position of “emergency manager” is showing up in more and more places. According to Robie Robinson, president of the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM), the role is not to dictate the actions of any of the responders, but rather to provide coordination among them and to make sure that they have ready access to the equipment they need. 

Communicating in real time with citizens in harm’s way is also key to proficient management. Social media can provide lifesaving information. In late April as a tornado was approaching Oklahoma City, Twitter was chock-full of information, ranging from detailed weather maps to concrete advisories that included, “The airport is not a public shelter,” and, “Parking garages are filled to capacity.” 

The use of social media requires a change in philosophy from the traditional means of communication with which many public officials are comfortable. “Historically,” says Jeannette Sutton, a communications professor at the University of Kentucky, “officials have wanted to control communication processes as an event is unfolding with twice-a-day briefings that will be of value to the public. The problem with trying to control information flow is that it assumes that information can be controlled.”

Ideally, much of the information provided online should come from the authorities who are coordinating the disaster response. “Rumor management is a big concern,” says Tom Birkland, professor of public policy at North Carolina State University. The more cities, counties, states and federal authorities utilize social media, the more likely it is that people will get accurate, helpful information. “When people can’t get information from official sources,” says Sutton, “they look for it elsewhere. Sometimes those sources are valuable and reputable, and sometimes they’re not.” 

In the aftermath of an event, it’s important for governments to provide clear messages about what’s needed and what would help victims. “In many cases, we see an outpouring of clothes after a disaster,” says Tricia Wachtendorf, co-director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware. “That can be a huge logistical problem. It’s expensive to transport the clothes and often there are stores nearby where you could purchase that clothing at much lower costs.” As a result, encouraging people to send cash can be much more effective.  

Beyond commodities, there can be a surfeit of volunteers. “If planning is not done properly, you can be inundated by volunteers and end up clogging up roadways or parking lots,” IAEM’s Robinson explains. The solution is to set up staging areas for volunteers to show up, sign in and get assigned roles. “You don’t want people volunteering for things that are not safe,” he says. “You don’t want incidents where people are injured or lost.”

When people talk about disaster response, they frequently focus on preparedness. And while planning for disasters is essential, the appropriate response to a host of problems simply can’t be rehearsed. “Planning is subject to many pressures, obstacles and constraints,” writes professor Eric Stern of the SUNY Albany College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity.

As Stern, a well-known expert on crisis management, points out, a willingness to improvise while dealing with a disaster is as critical as creative problem solving. “The key is to identify the capabilities and resources that can be deployed in novel and creative ways,” he writes. This is “much like children’s Lego pieces that can be combined in a wide variety of constellations for different purposes.”

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