Nationally, we suck at protection, prevention, and mitigation, and we make up for it with response and recovery.
This weekend dozens of my friends — fellow firefighters and Search and Rescue technicians from Virginia — are working in West Virginia to rescue people from severe flooding. At least 23 people have died as a direct result of the flooding. One of our Virginia responders is fighting for his life after near-drowning during a swift-water rescue. Even in rural, poor West Virginia, the property damage will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Why? Because it rained a lot.
This wasn’t some unthinkable terror plot, or impossible-to-understand chain of technological disasters, or a new drug-resistant disease. It rained a lot.
To be sure, it rained A LOT. Over eight inches of rain fell in some parts of the state in under 24 hours. But we know what happens when it rains a lot in the Appalachians. It flows downhill. Rivers and streams overflow their banks. Bridges wash away.
Homes and businesses get flooded. Utilities are compromised.
We know these things because heavy rain occurs frequently in this type of topography. The biggest natural disasters in the mid-Atlantic tend to be heavy rain, often associated with tropical storms. Camille, Floyd, Fran, Isobel, and their cousins have drenched Virginia in the last 50 years, killing dozens, rearranging our natural landscape, and flooding the low-lying areas.
The National Incident Management System (NIMS) teaches us five phases of incident management: prevention of, protection from, mitigation against, response to, and recovery from natural and man-caused disasters. Yet we seem to be putting all of our efforts into response and recovery.
I’ve been a responder for over 40 years. I enjoy responding to crises. It’s a reflection of my psyche, if not my soul. Virtually all of my best friends are responders: cops, firefighters, EMTs, nurses, warriors and the like. When the fertilizer hits the ventilator, we drop what we’re doing and rush toward the cries for help. We need people like that, and we need to continue to celebrate their dedication, training, and heroism. But that’s not a sound national incident management policy.
We need prevention (someone who’ll keep the fertilizer away from the upwind side of the ventilator), protection (automatic, fertilizer-activated fan shut-off switches), and mitigation (handing out ponchos to those downwind). We can’t wait around for the shit to fly, then send brave people in to pull their neighbors out of the shit, and then spend billions washing those people and their property. Nationally, we suck at protection, prevention, and mitigation, and we make up for it with response and recovery.
Ben Franklin would be appalled. He’s the one who, understanding NIMS centuries before we systematized it, said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
This rain was an Act of God, you say? Agreed, so prevention is not something we can employ against rain. We’re no better at preventing rain today than we were at causing rain over drought areas with dances during the 1930’s.
But we can protect and mitigate. I wonder how many local emergency operations centers are (were) located in the basement of government buildings, safe(er) from the 1960’s threat of nuclear Armageddon, but vulnerable to flooding and resultant power loss? I wonder how well municipal storm drain systems were designed, constructed, and maintained. Weather forecasting is a science that has improved greatly in my lifetime. But forecasting must be combined with an alerting system like we have for tornadoes in the Midwest, and a response system (evacuation to higher ground). Our current National Weather Service use of the Emergency Alert System combines too-frequent alerts with mono-tonal data that isn’t actionable. As our mobile phone network increases in ubiquity and capability, surely we can use them to alert people based on exact location and give them really usable information. Imagine a flashing screen that says “Heavy rain and lightning are coming your way! Get off the little league field and go to the picnic shelter indicated on the map we just sent you! Confirm now!”
There are some places we just have to avoid. After nine major floods in Grundy, Virginia between 1929 and 1977, they moved most of the town above a flood wall. (I learned about this after I responded to a flood in the upstream town of Hurley in 2002).
Living on the water’s edge was important in centuries gone by, but there’s no need to live in high-flood-risk areas with today’s technology and transportation options.
We shouldn’t have to keep relying on our heroes to respond. We’re smarter than that. We can empower a new cadre of scientific, engineering, and governmental heroes, who will prevent, protect, and mitigate.