It’s better to prepare than complain

There could hardly be a worse time to complain about disaster response and recovery operations than when those activities are under way.

Nevertheless, it is as certain as sunrise in the morning that some people will almost immediately begin to claim that the response is inadequate, clumsy, or even intentionally botched.

The devastation caused by hurricane Katrina appears to be unprecedented, but the carping and occasionally hysterical ranting of critics during the past two weeks are neither new phenomena nor unusual.

For some reason, people seem to pay little attention to what is planned or anticipated by their government in response to a disaster.

Unfortunately, this means that many people who have no official responsibilities have little or no idea what is expected of them in the immediate aftermath of a catastrophe – or what to expect from their government.

We in Kitsap County are vulnerable to natural disasters of more than one sort. For example, severe storms, wildfires, earthquakes and even tsunamis could at some time in the future affect us.

So, what does our government plan to do in response to disaster?

It apparently would surprise many people to find out that our government plans to do pretty much the same as virtually all governments.

Here’s an important statement in the county’s comprehensive emergency management plan: “It is the policy of Kitsap County that citizens are encouraged to be self-sufficient for at least three (3) days should an emergency or disaster occur.”

That’s right. If the storm hits on Monday morning, don’t start complaining if no one has been able to reach you before Thursday. Be prepared for “at least” three days to pass before help arrives.

Kitsap County isn’t the only one making this assumption. It is standard fare throughout the nation at the local, state, and federal levels.

Since the criticisms now being made about the response to hurricane Katrina typically center around the timeliness of the response, it seems that either the critics don’t know what is expected or don’t think their intended audience knows.

If you wonder why you should be expected to be self-sufficient for at least three days, consider what priorities have been set in our county’s plans, much like those of all such plans.

First priority goes to life-saving and injury-reduction activities. 

Take as an illustrative example the need for water. If you’re dying of thirst soon after the water stops coming out of the faucet simply because you didn’t set aside any bottled water for such an emergency, then you need help. 

But there would often be an overwhelming number of people who set aside emergency supplies of water and cannot get to those supplies after the disaster hits.

Your predicament was avoidable, but theirs wasn’t; yet the available resources for assisting victims of the disaster would have to be stretched to include you, if possible.

Available personnel, supplies and equipment rarely are sufficient in the first few days to do immediately everything that needs to be done, so the county’s plan expresses the underlying concept of setting priorities as simply “to do the most good for the most people.”

The fewer people there are who need immediate assistance, the better for us all — especially for those in dire need of help.

Critics also often complain about what they call “bureaucratic red tape” that supposedly hinders response to a disaster, but their complaints demonstrate their own ignorance – assuming they are being honest in stating their criticisms.

The concept is to do the most good for the most people, not to run pell-mell from one place to another, offering aid to each person encountered as though he or she were the only person in need.

As the county’s plan notes, an important part of the response effort is to assess the situation and report the important circumstances to the coordinating center, so that choices can be made and action can be as effective as practicable.

While it may seem crass at first glance, another important part is to account for resources used, so subsequent reimbursement from the state and federal governments can be obtained.

Figuring out what has to be done, coordinating the best use of available resources, and accounting for expenditures make up the “red tape” that infuriates critics; but these steps are indispensable.

Our local governments don’t set aside funds to pay for whatever we need in the response and recovery operations after a major disaster. The ordinary expenses of governing constitute the items in the budget.

The money for personnel and material needed to respond to a disaster has to come from somewhere, and it doesn’t arrive without an accounting that demonstrates the need.

If these sorts of policies and practices seem inappropriate for Kitsap County, please speak up now – not when the attention of people responding to a disaster should be focused on helping those in need.

Once disaster strikes, save complaints and criticism for later, when there is time for a conversation.

Robert Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.

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