Preparedness is Everybody's Business

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<p>Internally Displaced Persons Intake Center, Atlantic Promise Simulation, Forage Center, March 2017, Fellsmere, FL</p>

Internally Displaced Persons Intake Center, Atlantic Promise Simulation, Forage Center, March 2017, Fellsmere, FL

Ashley Penn

The past couple of weeks have drawn our attention to the exposure we face because of man-made, as well as naturally created crises: from fires in the west, to the devastation of Hurricanes Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida. And disasters are not confined to the U.S., with reports of 1,200 dying in South Asia because of record setting floods, and a magnitude 8.1 earthquake in Mexico. For man-made catastrophes, we can’t forget the humanitarian crisis ongoing in Myanmar because of the forced migration of nearly 370,000 Rohingya people.

Parsing out what is man-made versus naturally caused is increasingly difficult to do. Though there has been no direct evidence that global warming brought about Irma and Harvey, there is some evidence that global warming exacerbates conditions that allow hurricanes to thrive. While Irma and Harvey were characterized in terms “nuclear” environmental catastrophes, we still need to focus on actual nuclear threats that are man-made. Hawaii is now taking precautions in the event of a nuclear attack by North Korea. It is overwhelming and exhausting to keep up with it all. If you are living in a place that is immediately impacted, it is nearly impossible for you to think about anything else. And the rest of us are mesmerized because of compassion, curiosity (some of it bordering on morbid), or because there is nothing else on television.

As the crises in Texas and Florida unfolded, much of the focus of the media and government was on preparedness. The message was one of staying safe. If you can, flee to safety and if you can’t, make sure you are prepared for a loss of power, curfews, property damage, and being stranded. As a crisis looms, preparedness consists of heeding advice based on common sense, and emergency management and public safety expertise. Like many children, I spent much time on the phone before Irma with my mother in south Florida encouraging her to evacuate to a shelter, secure her valuables, make sure she had 30 days supply of medicine, and find copies of her important documents including insurance policies. In times like this, loved ones become important members of the emergency preparedness system.

A few years ago, my wife, who is a nursing educator, and I participated in CERT – Community Emergency Response Team - training. The experience heightened our awareness of our surroundings during a crisis, as well as the realization that basic preparedness – sometimes shockingly obvious like checking flash light batteries – is critical in an emergency. The need for emergency response efforts can arise without much warning: for a hurricane a few days might be available, but earthquakes and acts of terrorism arrive without notice.

As our attention to Irma and Harvey shift from preparedness to recovery and rebuilding, the focus will be on the aftermath with pleas from groups such as the American Red Cross and local aid organizations. Good intentions are not enough and can even make matters worse. Well meaning individuals donating goods, food, and even clothing after a crisis is increasingly considered unwise. Though it might feel impersonal, money is actually the best way you can help from afar. And if you are in a position to physically help out, doing it thoughtfully through a reputable organization is critical. To do otherwise, risks your getting in the way of more experienced workers, and possibly becoming a burden yourself.

Training individuals in the best practices of assisting in man-made and natural crises will continue to be needed. The sheer number of events we need to respond to will only increase. Be it a local natural disaster like a hurricane, or the more distant need to assist those fleeing famine or war, workers (often volunteers) who are skilled, compassionate, and resilient are essential to effective humanitarian responses. I would argue that preparedness and humanitarian based skills should be acquired by all, and even incorporated in school-based curriculum.

In my own work with those interested in humanitarian work as a career, I stress the transferability of the skills acquired in one setting and how they can be applied elsewhere. Engaging compassionately and professionally with a refugee fleeing violence requires similar aptitudes as helping an elderly person who is frightened and needs to leave their home because their life is in danger due to a category 5 hurricane.

The recent catastrophic events that Americans have faced should motivate us all to recognize that preparedness is not just a matter of taking good advice from family members and experts. It is about developing the skills we all need to respond to the uncertainty that is the reality of today.

David J. Smith is the president of the Forage Center for Peacebuilding and Humanitarian Education, which trains individuals in humanitarian responses to crises. He is based in Rockville, MD. He can be reached at

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