Disaster Preparedness and Governments Being ‘Closer’ to the People

At the time of writing, “frankenstorm” Sandy is about to hit the North East coast of the USA with storm surges and gale force winds already hitting the cities of New York, Philly, DC, etc. Meanwhile, mini-cyclonic conditions are also hitting the North and East coast of Sri Lanka, with heavy rains and winds lashing Jaffna, Batticaloa, Trinco, and Mullaitivu. Certainly the former is set to be much much more brutal and dangerous than the latter, with greater potential for disaster, and any comparisons would be unfair. But I can’t help but be utterly impressed with America’s disaster preparedness

Maybe the US authorities learnt bitter lessons from the hurricane Katrina fiasco and now know how not to deal with disasters. Nevertheless, the pre-storm preparations and precautions are comprehensive, thorough, coordinated, and impressive. Politicians are doing what they are elected to do – look after their citizens, instill confidence, and make sure government services are ready to serve them. Authorities and being ‘close’ to the people. In New York, for instance, since the storm prep began, there have been press conferences by Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Cuomo, explaining to the people of New York all the preparations that are being made, all the precautions that should be taken, and all the services the state and federal authorities are gearing up to provide. They even go to the extent of explaining the rationale for closing down certain underpasses and tunnels. (Of course, it goes without saying that the entire press conference had simultaneous sign language interpretation, in the true spirit of inclusivity). The Mayor of Alexandria (Virginia) came on TV explaining to the citizens that he’s had multiple meetings with utility providers (gas and electricity) in the last couple of days to ensure that all precautions have been taken and rapid response is in place in the event of power outages. The US President himself chaired multiple meetings with disaster management officials, and made a statement to the general public on TV. Unlike in Sri Lanka, much of these measures are proactive, not reactive, and no matter how hard the storm will hit, at least people feel that their elected officials are doing everything in their power to help ease the difficulty and help prepare the cities and states to deal with any eventuality.

Meanwhile the websites of the two countries’ disaster authorities also tell a similar story. Take the www.ready.gov website of the US government’s disaster management body, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the Sri Lankan Disaster Management Centre (DMC) website of the Ministry of Disaster Management. The most notable difference between the two websites? One (ready.gov) tells citizens what they need to know and gives them the information they’d like to have (how to build an emergency kit, how to stay informed, how to prepare for an emergency/disaster, etc). The other (dmc.gov.lk) pushes information that the government wants to give out, what it thinks citizens ought to know (press releases on events and meetings, trainings conducted, and glorious government plans, “road maps”, and other documents of officialdom). The DMC website has just one tiny para at the top indicating the current cyclonic conditions in the North and East, and the rest is just full of officialdom. The tiny para simply reads “People are advised not to remain on the coasts in Jaffna, Trinco Mulllativu & Batticaloa due to cyclonic conditions”. Both the ready.gov and FEMA websites prominently provide all the hurricane related information and preparedness advice.

Even for the mini-cyclone in Sri Lanka’s North and East, the response has been reactive. As always. Once the storm surge started off the coast there, and once rain and winds started lashing homes, that’s when the news message comes informing people of the “depression in the Bay of Bengal”. These disasters have a human cost and an economic cost. Smarter disaster preparedness and better communication by authorities to citizens can save lives and save money, and prevent the loss of human and economic assets.

The Sri Lanka Red Cross has an excellent Twitter feed providing real time update and cyclone-related advice (@SLRedCross), but this is only in English. In a country with hundreds of talented app developers and mobile phone content producers, why doesn’t Sri Lanka have an disaster emergency app? Why can’t DMC develop one with a private party?. The only updates (and that too sporadically) people are getting via mobile phone are the ones from Ada Derana or Daily Mirror. Why can’t DMC directly send alerts and advice to the citizens of the country without having to depend on private news wires? It’s all about taking government closer to the people, and being relevant to their needs.

Some may argue that we can’t expect to have systems in place as advanced as the US. I’m not saying that’s how it should be. LirneAsia has been the local civil society leader in furthering the debate on how to better communicate (mainly using ICTs) during emergency situations, through their work following the 2004 tsunami (National Early Warning System – NEWS) and their recent session on Disaster Risk Reduction. But Sri Lanka doesn’t need to be “advanced” to do these things better. Simple things like having clear communications channels between the authorities and the citizenry (and not leaving it just up to social media speculation on whether there’s been an evacuation order for the North-East coast or not), having frequent press conferences, instilling confidence among the people that social services will be provided uninterrupted, providing advice on how to prepare and hunker down, or where to go to receive free and secure shelter. This is where the investment in disaster management needs to go to. Not just the brand-spanking new white SUVs and pick-up trucks kitted out with siren lights on the top and the DMC emblem on the side. International aid agencies like UNDP that are supporting the DMC financially, ought to take note.

image source: (1) http://www.marketwatch.com/story/sandy-upends-campaign-schedules-2012-10-29?link=MW_latest_news; (2) http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/articles/398896/20121027/hurricane-sandy-warning-frankenstorm-superstorm-new-york.htm [accessed on 30/10/2012]

(Update: 0024h, 30/10/2012)

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