Why Community Resilience Matters

On January 13th, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency issued an errant statewide alert warning of an inbound ballistic missile and urging recipients to seek immediate shelter. In the harrowing minutes that followed, more than a million island residents and visitors discovered that emergency messaging without citizen empowerment is pointless.

Like many other Hawaii residents, I was startled from bed on an otherwise beautiful Saturday morning. As a disaster management professional who has spent decades assisting communities, businesses, and governments in preparing for emergencies and disasters, and has personally drafted and facilitated disaster exercises, I understood the weight of this missive’s concluding words: This is not a drill. And like my friends, my neighbors, hotel managers, store clerks, and even the Governor by his own account, I believed this to be legitimate and jumped into action.

I wish I could claim to have pushed several steps through some rock-solid family nuclear preparedness plan before the warning was rescinded, because “knowing this kind of thing” is my livelihood. To the contrary, that moment exposed futility in even the most sensible-sounding actions. It didn’t take my emergency management background to recognize that unlike an impending tsunami or cyclone, our choices in that moment would have little impact on our outcome. Survival was dictated not by our own actions but by an adversary’s choice of targets.

In a cruel yet effective way, this incident illustrated just how fast the twelve minutes between warning and impact pass. Moving quickly, that’s just enough time to jump out of bed, throw on jeans and a t-shirt, verify the warning, wake and dress the kids, gather together, and ponder one’s fate.

What does matter and would have helped had this been an actual attack, were the preparations we’d taken in the weeks and months prior to address all of our hazards. And I’m not just talking about obvious things like maintaining food and water stockpiles and documenting family emergency plans. What really made us strong that day were the relationships and networks we’d established with our friends, our neighbors, our colleagues, and our community. During and immediately after this incident, we called and visited, we met on the street or waved in acknowledgement, and most importantly, we checked on each other. Though it wasn’t often verbalized, nearly everyone recognized that if this had been an actual attack and we’d been lucky enough to survive the blast, these friends, neighbors, and colleagues are the same people we’d depend on for rescue and survival. History has shown that we are our own first responders in major disasters. And for the most part, we are winging it.

I won’t harp on the officials in charge for this grave mistake because I know the emergency management community to be one that struggles in the face of ever-decreasing budgets to move towards an unattainable perfection. And I won’t say that actions taken in pursuit of citizen preparedness for nuclear events are senseless. Compared to a tsunami, cyclone, fire, pandemic influenza, or even a food shortage, the likelihood of such an attack is nearly negligible, but the severity of its consequences mandates action.

I will however say that we’d be foolish if we failed to recognize this incident’s most important lesson, which is that an empowered public is the cornerstone of community resilience. No matter what the cause, when disaster strikes we are every community’s single greatest response and recovery asset. FEMA and Congress must expand funding to support individual, neighborhood, business, and community preparedness programs that go beyond promoting kits and plans. Businesses, NGOs, religious organizations, and even schools need help in their efforts to assist their employees, customers, and members in becoming a powerful, organized, and life-saving force.

This idea isn’t novel, nor is it unproven. It is just unfunded and under-resourced.

January 13th was a wake-up call. It made us angry, but gave each of us a clarity of purpose no drill or exercise could. It forced us to face our own mortality, but proved we could do so without descending into chaos. And most importantly, it showed that even if crises and disasters exceed the capabilities of our police, fire, emergency services’ best efforts, we will still be resilient when we are all first responders.

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