Saturday, March 12, 2011

Responding to Cascading Disasters

Cascading disasters occur when one disaster triggers another. Japan is poised on the brink of a series of cascading disasters in Fukushima prefecture.

Cascading disasters are especially challenging because they quickly reduce a country's capacity to respond. Infrastructure systems are necessarily interdependent. The earthquake and tsunami destroyed much of Japan's electrical and transportation infrastructure in the space of an hour. See Coordination in Rapidly Evolving Disaster Response Systems: the Role of Information (2004) by Louis K. Comfort et al. for more on the challenges of responding to cascading disasters.

The breadth of the destruction in Japan will necessarily lead to a series of public health emergencies. The immediate concerns are to take care of survivors and rescue those trapped in the rubble or stranded by flooding, but sanitation will be a significant challenge in the near future as well.

The Japanese have excellent emergency management professionals and I'm sure they are doing everything they can to prevent these emergencies from becoming full-fledged disasters.

Another example of a cascading disaster was Hurricane Katrina. The hurricane was a natural disaster which caused the levies around New Orleans to fail, that was a technological disaster.

Then the government response to Katrina was poorly handled at the local, state and federal levels (putting it as mildly as possible), which led to a breakdown in the provision of relief services as well as law and order at times. This is covered in some detail in Disaster Law and Policy (2009) |Amazon| which is the textbook I've been using in my Disaster Law class.

In the government's defense, everyone make mistakes. To err is human, especially under duress, and it doesn't get much worse than facing a series of cascading disasters. But we expect more from disaster response professionals and emergency managers. Congress passed a law after Katrina that (among other things) required the head of FEMA to be a professional experienced in disaster mitigation and response.

But everyone can play a role in preparing for a disaster. Ready.gov helps citizens prepare for local emergencies. A few simple steps can help you and your loved ones weather the storm.

FEMA offers free online classes in emergency management through FEMA's Independent Study Program as well as classroom training through the Emergency Management Institute if you'd like to learn more about disaster prevention, mitigation and response.