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Preparedness vs. Poverty - Bridging the Gap

by Jim Sharp

EMA Emergency Management, EMS Emergency Medical Services, FD Fire Departments, Law Enforcement, badges article logo label

We've heard it for years, and from multiple sources: In the event of a disaster, you should be prepared to be self-sufficient for three days. That 72-hour mark was once thought to be the upper end of the scale – meaning that you'd probably have to wait no longer than 72 hours before help arrived. More recent experiences have shown, however, that instead of it being the maximum time period, we should treat it as the minimum. In other words, be prepared to spend at least three days on your own. Longer would be better.

That's all well and good for the people and families who have the resources to make that happen, because those resources all have price tags attached. Think about what a three-day supply of food, water, prescription medication, infant formula or baby food, basic first aid supplies, and other necessities might cost for a family of four, then put that cost into the context of a family that is perhaps having a hard time providing even the most basic necessities from one day to the next. One of the school districts with which I consult on a regular basis estimates that 70% of the students in some of their schools live at or below the poverty line, with some other local districts placing that estimation at 90% and sometimes even higher. The most recent census showed that more than 45 million Americans, or about 15% of our country's population, live in poverty. Roughly one in every five American adults is receiving some type of government assistance.

   •   If a family is relying on the free breakfast and lunch provided by their child's school, or if the groceries run out on Tuesday but payday isn't until Friday, do you really think they have three days' worth of meals hidden away?
   •   What do you do when the 40 miles' worth of gas left in your tank until next payday won't get you out of the disaster impact zone, or even to the nearest gas station that still has electricity?
   •   Are you really going to buy flashlights, batteries, and a weather radio when you're having trouble keeping the heat and lights turned on?
   •   Ever try to convince your health insurance company (or Medicaid) to pay for an extra week's worth of heart medication, or diabetes medication, or mental health medication "just in case?"
   •   Something like renters insurance is not even an option.

The civil unrest in and around the city of Ferguson, Missouri in the last half of 2014 drove the point home. The first riots erupted right about the time the new school year was about to start, and to try to ensure the safety of their students and staff, several of those districts delayed opening day. Almost immediately, several charities and grass-roots organizations stepped in to provide free lunches to the children whose parents had been relying on their kids being fed at school.

And let's face facts – if you're having trouble keeping a roof over your head, food on the table, and basic utilities turned on, you wouldn't need a severe weather event, earthquake, or hazardous material spill to put you in a condition of urgent need. Every day probably feels like a disaster or crisis. You'd be so consumed with meeting the exigencies of day-to-day survival that, even if you had some resources to spare, you wouldn't have the time for planning.

Think about "the little things" that aren't so little to those at the lower end of the income chart. A sick child still goes to school because that's where he or she will be fed, and maybe because if Mom or Dad misses a day's work to stay home, something doesn't get paid. Or both parents in the family work two jobs just to pay for the necessities, leaving a pre-teen child home to care for his or her younger siblings. If you are vulnerable to those situations day in and day out, how vulnerable would you be during a disaster? In a word, very. Poverty increases vulnerability. It means an individual or family has fewer resources to invest in preparedness, prevention, or mitigation, and it also means fewer resources for response and recovery.

During the fall and winter of 2005 I had the opportunity to speak with several Hurricane Katrina evacuees who had, for whatever reason, left their homes with little more than the clothes they were wearing at the time. During our conversations each of those people agreed that, yes, they could have taken more with them when they evacuated their homes, but each of them also said that whatever additional items they might have gathered would have been mementos or keepsakes such as photographs or items handed down in their family from one generation to the next. When I asked specifically about emergency supplies or preparations, each person stated that they did not have those things because they simply could not afford them.

So, with all that being said, the million-dollar question remains: How do we fix it?

I ask that question a lot, in focus groups and seminars and professional interaction with my emergency management colleagues, and you can probably guess the most common response – "the government." Make no mistake, there are multitudes of Federal and state disaster recovery programs available, and even though there has been marked improvement in those programs, "the government" does things slowly. The old adage still applies that the bigger the organization, the harder it is to get it in motion. Second most popular answer? Insurance. Sure, insurance works wonders (if you are in fact insured), but again there is a time element. Regardless of what the TV commercials show, an insurance agent will probably not be wading through flooded streets in hip boots to come to your door and hand you a check, and if they did, there's still the matter of actually having the necessary work performed.

But the fix doesn't have to come from the top down.

You and I – each person reading this – can be part of the solution. You might have just read that and said to yourself, "This guy's either delusional, an idealist, or both. How am I supposed to solve this problem? What difference in the big picture can I make?" OK, I'll admit to being somewhat of an idealist, at least as it pertains to this particular topic, and I'll also concede the fact that you and I cannot by ourselves make a difference in the big picture. In fact, very few people have the clout to, by themselves, change the overall outcome of a disaster. But what if you could change the small picture? What if you could do something, something simple, something that had the potential to perhaps help even one family have a better outcome if they faced an emergency or disaster? Would you be interested? Would it be worth the effort? I hope you answered yes to both those questions.

I'm a consultant and educator, and while my firm is not retail-oriented we do offer emergency kits for sale. I have donated far more than I've sold. That's obviously not the best business model from the standpoint of profitability, but I do sleep a little better at night knowing that many of the families in my neighborhood are at least a little better prepared than they would have been otherwise. I've donated services to several local schools and school districts, developing or up-dating their emergency, contingency, and continuity plans at no charge and speaking in their classrooms about topics like severe weather preparedness and earthquake safety. Many of the schools in the region have some type of in-school store; children earn points based on attendance and behavior and can then "spend" those points in the store on items like clothing, food, school supplies, books and toys. We donate flashlights, emergency kits, smoke alarms and weather alert radios to the stores – things that are necessary but that a struggling family would probably not purchase for themselves – and they always sell out quickly. Yes, I'm fortunate to be in a position to do those things, but my point is almost all of us are in a position to do, if not that, to do something.

If you're an employer it could be something as simple as providing your employees with emergency planning and response information, or the resources for that information. An employee better prepared at home is more likely to come to work. Or you could (i.e. should) have continuity plans in place so that, should your business be impacted by an emergency or disaster, you stay in business and your employees can continue to earn a living and support their families. Maybe you are able to donate supplies, or equipment, or your expertise, or your time. You'll probably never know whether or not you've actually helped someone, but that shouldn't keep any of us from making the effort. I speak in front of thousands of people every year, and if even one of those people goes home that evening, sits down with his or her family, and starts a conversation that results in them being even a little better prepared that they would otherwise have been, that's a win.

Jim Sharp, Vice President and Chief Training Officer with Aegis Emergency Management, is a 30-year veteran of the emergency response and emergency management professions and a highly-sought trainer and presenter. An experienced Incident Commander and Emergency Operations Center Manager, Jim is a certified Professional Continuity Practitioner and Respiratory Protection Program Manager for incidents involving weapons of mass destruction. Prior to starting his own firm in 2010, he spent the immediately previous 10 years with an Illinois jurisdiction as their Emergency Management Agency's Field Training Officer, Public Information Officer, and Assistant Coordinator (equivalent to Deputy Chief), and has trained literally thousands of people – civilians and first responders - on topics that include severe weather safety, continuity of operations, CERT, pandemic preparedness, incident command, and many more.

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