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In the eye of the storm.

Once disaster strikes, it's way too late to plan countermeasures. Only a few states have carefully prepared emergency plans.

The list of natural disasters in the United States in the last several years is staggering. Since 1989, hurricanes have devastated parts of South Carolina, Florida, Louisiana and Hawaii; the Loma Prieta earthquake caused major damage in Oakland and San Francisco; massive wildfires burned extensive areas of California in 1991 and again in 1993; Guam was devastated by a typhoon; flooding and mudslides in California following years of drought resulted in major property losses; the "blizzard of the century" affected states along the entire East Coast; and the great flood of 1993 wreaked havoc in nine states along the Mississippi River.

The costs associated with cleanup of natural disasters are equally staggering. Losses average more than $20 billion annually, a figure that doesn't include losses to local economies.

The list doesn't take into account the hundreds of smaller natural disasters that fail to grab the national headlines or man-made disasters such as train wrecks, plane crashes, civil disturbances or acts of terrorism that also cause major damage and economic losses, as well as personal trauma.

Every State Needs a Plan

Every state is at risk for disasters and needs a comprehensive and up-to-date emergency management plan. Disasters usually happen with little or no warning. Even for those that can be predicted with some accuracy, the time available to react is very short. Moving out of harm's way often just isn't possible.

High-risk states such as California have passed emergency services laws to ensure a coordinated federal, state and local response to disasters. California is most often thought of as earthquake territory, but it is also subject to floods, mudslides, fires and man-made disasters. After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which caused an estimated $5 billion in damage, killed 62, injured 3,000 and displaced more than 13,000 people, the California Legislature was called into extraordinary session and passed more than a dozen bills to help those affected by the disaster and upgrade the state's ability to respond quickly to future emergencies.

Similarly, after Hurricane Andrew flattened 300 square miles of Florida, the Legislature approved the Emergency Management, Preparedness and Assistance Trust Fund, which places a surcharge on all property insurance policies in the state, with 60 percent of the revenue to be used for state and local emergency management programs. Twenty percent covers emergencies not declared disasters by the federal government. The remaining 20 percent provides grants or loans for projects that advance emergency planning.

The Hawaii Legislature was also quick to react to the devastation of Hurricane Iniki, establishing the Hawaii Hurricane Relief Fund--a state-sponsored insurance fund to supplement the inadequate private insurance market and guarantee availability of hurricane insurance for residential and commercial property owners.

Predicting the Future

In developing preparedness plans, policymakers need to anticipate the types of natural and man-made disasters that could affect the state. Some states naturally come to mind when thinking about a particular type of disaster, but others aren't so obvious. Everyone knows about the San Andreas fault in California and its susceptibility to earthquakes. Far fewer know that the New Madrid fault runs through Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee; a major quake in the area could affect up to 19 states. In 1811 and 1812, quakes along the New Madrid fault were felt as far away as Boston. Based on its history, seismologists theorize that the region could be hit by a significant earthquake in the 7.0 range on the Richter scale within the next 20 years. It is largely unprepared for such a catastrophe. States should also consider the systems and services that an emergency will affect. The personal losses are often the stories that make the news. The pictures of homeowners standing in the ashes of their burned-out houses after the 1993 California fires were a vivid reminder of the tragedy of natural disasters, but they don't convey the need for a comprehensive plan that will respond in an emergency to ensure the continuation of vital public services.

In any emergency, but especially in widespread disasters such as hurricanes or earthquakes, state and local governments need a coordinated plan that will provide for the continuation or restoration of public services, such as law enforcement and fire protection, transportation systems, medical services, utilities, shelters, food supplies, fresh water and--possibly the most important--communication systems.

Communications Vital

Lack of communications within a disaster area often slows the response, especially in the earliest hours of an emergency, and may delay help from the outside. Following the massive evacuations needed after the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979, Pennsylvania was the first to develop a statewide emergency satellite network that would permit communication within a disaster area as well as with outside help.

It became apparent during Hurricane Hugo and the Loma Prieta earthquake that states can't rely on the federal Emergency Broadcast System (EBS). In South Carolina, the system was never activated. Even if it had been, the primary EBS station in Charleston was without power and inoperative because of the storm. Designated EBS stations should have emergency generators to keep them on the air in disasters. In California during the earthquake, EBS was activated but many stations weren't aware of it, and, besides, nobody was issuing instructions over the system. States need to develop their own emergency communications plans for disasters.

The federal government, particularly the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), was severely criticized after some of the recent natural disasters, especially for its achingly slow response to aid Florida after Hurricane Andrew. While there's been lots of finger pointing, the lessons of Hurricane Andrew were learned: FEMA was totally reorganized in 1993 with a new director, streamlined bureaucracy and less reliance on formal requests for help. The agency now has five major program areas: mitigation; preparedness, training and exercises; response and recovery; federal insurance administration; and U.S. fire administration.

Getting Ready

Since it's not a matter of it, but when, disaster will strike, what can states do to get ready for the next one?

Strengthen building codes to limit or reduce the effects of known local hazards. In earthquake-prone San Francisco, 90 percent of structures meet codes designed to withstand moderate to severe earthquakes. But in the Midwest area surrounding the New Madrid fault, most building codes don't even consider the danger from earthquakes. Florida officials learned after Hurricane Andrew that 40 percent of homes in the affected area did not meet existing building codes and that, in any case, the codes were inadequate to ensure protection against hurricane force winds. And in California, the recent fires were another reminder that building materials are critical in reducing losses. Wood shingle roofs and natural siding for homes provided great tinder for the wildfires. The picture of one house left standing amidst blocks of devastation said it all; it was built by an engineer with local hazards in mind. In the words of a fire official, it "was defensible, and we defended it."

Reduce the impact of disaster by limiting or prohibiting building or redevelopment in high-risk areas. Floodplains, coastal areas, seismic zones and mountainous terrain are beautiful and popular building sites--but they are also natural disasters waiting to happen. States need to develop wise land-use plans and work with professionals who understand natural hazards to reduce potential losses in high-risk areas.

Enact comprehensive statewide disaster preparedness plans. Disaster plans should coordinate state, local and federal agencies and include those who will be participating in emergency response, such as community leaders, law enforcement and fire protection agencies, public service personnel, volunteer groups, medical services providers and local media representatives. Plans should provide for communication among those participating in the disaster response and with the public during emergencies.

Require training in disaster response and mitigation. State and local emergency officials, law enforcement agencies, community leaders, public service personnel and volunteer groups should be trained with complete field exercises of the state's emergency response plan. Those who responded to the 1989 Sioux City airline crash that killed 113 and injured 184 were literally re-enacting a disaster drill they had staged on the same runway two years before the accident. Work with the insurance industry to offer comprehensive affordable protection for residential and commercial property. Most of the uninsured or underinsured are renters or small businesses that can't afford insurance. In California, only 30 percent of homeowners carry earthquake insurance--probably because of the cost, which runs from $500 to $2,000 annually. Hawaii's hurricane insurance fund provides a model for states that want to encourage protection for their citizens, either through private insurance markets or through state funded programs.

Support research in the reduction of natural hazards and hazard prediction. States with known potential for natural disasters particularly should support research in disaster reduction and prediction, work with other states with similar risks and maintain ties to the scientific community to reduce losses.

Learn from past disasters. We're quick to study a disaster and its aftermath, but policy recommendations often aren't implemented. 1991 wasn't the first time that the city of Oakland burned from wildfires; the area was similarly devastated in 1923, and more than a hundred recommendations were made following that fire. Sadly, most of them weren't adopted.

A Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction

The United Nations General Assembly has designated the 1990s as the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction. Disasters of unparalleled proportions have prompted nations to band together to reduce the toll of destruction from earthquakes, tsunamis (tidal waves), floods, landslides, wildfires, volcanic eruptions, insect infestations and windstorms such as hurricanes, typhoons, cyclones and tornadoes. As populations continue to grow and people migrate to major urban centers, the consequences of natural disasters will intensify unless concentrated efforts are made to reduce vulnerability to such catastrophes.

The United States is part of the international effort and has also declared the 1990s as the United States Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction. Research and professional groups and government agencies have joined to improve the response to emergencies and reduce the consequences of natural disasters. For more information, contact:

International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction

United Nations Palais de Nations CH-1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland (41-22) 798-5850


U.S. National Committee for the Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction

National Research Council 2101 Constitution Avenue, N.W. Washington, D.C. 20418 (202) 334-1964 or (202) 334-1977

Jeanne Mejeur tracks natural disaster issues for NCSL.
COPYRIGHT 1994 National Conference of State Legislatures
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:emergency plans natural disasters
Author:Mejeur, Jeanne
Publication:State Legislatures
Date:Feb 1, 1994
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