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Nov. 5, 2012, Winnipeg – Watching CNN, it seems that everything I’ve learned about disasters is coming true; in my case I’ve learned from reading and writing papers on Haiti, Afghanistan, and Africa.

November 6, 2012
By Jay Shaw

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Nov. 5, 2012, Winnipeg – Watching CNN, it seems that everything I’ve learned about disasters is coming true; in my case I’ve learned from reading and writing papers on Haiti, Afghanistan, and Africa.

How is it that the aftermath of Katrina is happening again? As of Monday afternoon, thousands of people in the eastern United States were still without power – the result of Hurricane Sandy – and we’re long past the 72-hour mark, the post-disaster benchmark for self-sufficiency chosen by government and responders.

The problem is that Sandy struck a week ago, yet many are still without shelter, food, and sanitation. And there is another storm coming that will drop rain, wind and snow in the region: talk about a slap when you’re down.

The United States, along with many G20 nations, Canada included, are failing to master these 72 hours of post-disaster self sufficiency, and the proof lies on the New Jersey shores, and the New York borough of Staten Island. Although Canada has not experienced disaster as great at Katrina or Sandy, floods in Manitoba and Quebec and the response to them gives a clear indication that ordinary citizens are not hearing the 72-hour message, and responders can not always muster the resources to help those affected within that time frame.

This goal of 72 hours is too lofty. Weather and other events have proven that this benchmark is unattainable in a superpower country; officials need to take a long, hard look at their preparedness message and how they sell it, and work to change it. Responders just couldn’t get to the numbers of people affected by Hurricane Sandy in 72 hours. We need to look at sustaining ourselves for a week or longer with no assistance from government.

In the affected areas of the United States, things are turning now to secondary disaster compounding; in other words, the failures of preparedness are multiplied by the severity of the event. All the bad stuff that has happened in the last week is a result of the actions or inactions of governments and citizens who have not prepared. Now, the disaster that started as construct of weather will end as a failure of policy. Recovery will take years. The economic impact will be well over the estimates of $50 billion.

Recovery is not a simple ideology, under which we just build back what was there before. Recovery needs to be strategic, holistic and community driven. Recovery needs to have short, medium and long-term goals. Recovery has to listen more and talk less, and be empathetic to real people. But recovery has been none of this lately. It has not progressed in the United States or Canada to a point at which I am confident that we can recover from, for example, a catastrophic earthquake on the west coast. We have taken the human factor out of recovery and tried to put it on a spreadsheet and measure it quantitatively. The same pattern of human behavior is happening to people of extreme wealth in the affluent beachfront communities of New Jersey and New York, as it did in Haiti. This should not be a surprise, as we are all reduced to the lowest common denominator when faced with severe adversity. Ask yourself what you would do to feed a starving loved one? Rich or poor, humans are humans.

I can only hope that Canadians evaluate what is going wrong in the United States, emulate what works well, and think about the future and our expectations for self-preparedness and what recovery really means. In third-world countries, and right here at home, 72 hours has proven to be too much.

If you think I’m preaching that the sky is falling, chew on this: Canada was more than half an hour behind the United States to warn of a potential tsunami when the 7.7 quake hit on Oct. 27 in an extremely isolated location off the coast of British Columbia. A smaller, 6.3-magnitude quake hit Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2011, and caused 185 deaths and billions in damages. The B.C. quake was 14 times stronger than that in Christchurch. Amuse me: close your eyes and imagine what it would be like if that earthquake had hit Victoria or Greater Vancouver in the middle of the night. How much time do you need to process the damage? I’ll give you 72 hours to think about it, but you might need a lot longer.

Jay Shaw is a 10-year member of the Winnipeg Fire Department and is completing graduate studies in disaster and emergency management at Royal Roads University. Jay also works at the University of Manitoba as a research assistant in the Disaster Research Institute. E-mail Jay at jjrg@mymts.net and follow Jay on Twitter at @911writer.


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