First Order of Political Business

Citizens who are hard at work, raising children, going to school and raising social capital might assume that there’s a good division of labour in the community.  They’d be right to assume that the first duty of politicians is to keep citizens safe and thus political leaders have lead the police, fire, EMS, and other first responders to make effective emergency plans.

 

But this isn’t always the case.

 

Many world cities are in danger from their own emergency plans which sometimes feature pages of jargon, acronyms, missing appendices, irrelevant lists of contributors, and wishful thinking.

 

Researchers in the field call them “fantasy plans,” relying on public transit, private cars, and even expertise and help that often doesn’t really exist. Up to 56% of urbanites don’t have cars, and often the remedies listed in crisis plans turn out not to exist. In fact, some evacuation orders have killed more people than the emergency did.

 

Where does Auckland, New Zealand fit in? Auckland’s Emergency Management Group Plan 2010-2015 is a wake up call for the rest of the world. In a study that I conducted of 100 urban emergency plans from the top English-speaking cities in the world, none face up to lack of preparedness the way Auckland does. Auckland’s plan notes that only about 7% of its residents are prepared for an emergency. This means go bags, first aid kits, stiffening up homes for high winds, preparing for floods and so forth. For a city built in a volcanic field, this may seem alarmingly low, but it’s the truth.  Some Ontario response officials claim that 50% of the population is prepared, and I don’t believe it.

 

Knowing the impact of a disaster can be a good first step to preparing for it. So Auckland’s plan also notes the economic consequences of disasters. The estimate is that a severe natural event such as a volcano could have a catastrophic economic impact. Page 8 of the plan notes that there could be a reduction in GDP of 47% in the city of Auckland and 14% nationally. This is double the impact of the Great Depression.

 

Compare this to San Francisco’s plan, for instance, and you’ll see what an improvement Auckland’s plan is. San Francisco’s Hazard Mitigation Plan includes a section on “seismic hazards.” Surprisingly this is mostly about distinguishing among earthquakes, landslides, and tsunamis. A brief history of those events on San Francisco follows. But I could find no procedures describing specifically what to do in the event of those emergencies, nor any assessment of the effect that they might have.

 

Why don’t cities in California note the potential negative impact of an earthquake? How about American cities in Tornado Alley? What about the impact of climate change on cities everywhere?

No plan will ever be able to foresee every form disaster can take. Auckland’s plan rightly notes that “it is not possible to completely remove risk.” It’s important to be flexible and realistic.  Too few cities use pictures to show the risk the way Auckland does, and I don’t recall one that speaks of the “emotional, social, economic and physical well being of individuals and communities.”  There might be one other city that notes the danger from solar winds.  The right kind of storm can knock out power to 131 million Americans, but I don’t see Americans particularly worried about this.

There’s always room for improvement in evacuation, shelter in place, emergency kits, and so on.  But Auckland is on a better track than the vast majority of plans I’ve seen.

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