31 October 2012

States of Emergency; Not States of Panic

I’ve expressed my thanks to friends in Florida for sending Hurricanes Sandy our way. If I had any friends in Cuba, I would think them, too.

Illogical? Of course. Since when does humankind regard weather events with logic?

We give hurricanes names.  We talk about how “he” or “she” moves here or there at his or her whim.  We ascribe evil motives to the spirits of the whirling wind. Sometimes, we might as well be tossing the runes, too.

Oh, I almost forgot – let me also extend a hearty “thank you” to my Canadian friends for sending the cold front which froze Hurricane Sandy’s copious tears.

States of emergency have been declared in much of West Virginia secondary to blizzard conditions and flooding. The Governor has suspended campaigning. I have not heard about his opponent, but I’m betting that he has either suspended campaigning or toned it down.

Other states have declared States of Emergency, including the entire East Coast from North Carolina northwards. The president has declared parts of New York and New Jersey federal disaster areas. This morning, we have been treated to fairly heavy video of damage on the coast and in New York City.

Weather events which disrupt normal services, make an area unsafe or unlivable or present specific threats to life or health deserve lots of attention. That’s part of the proper task of Government, securing “the common defense.”

States of Emergency facilitate that.

States of Emergency change work/overtime rules and make no-bid purchasing by government agencies much easier. They change loan/grant rules. They shorten the chain of command and grant increased short-term powers to emergency managers.

Also, States of Emergency help to focus citizens’ attention on widespread problems.


States of Emergency are not States of Panic. Certainly, they are not declarations that the individual citizen is helpless or dependent upon a benevolent Government to save his/her ass from every bad thing.

Neither do States of Emergency eliminate or limit the citizen’s practical responsibility to make reasonable preparation for short-term self-reliance.

If a water system fails, a citizen should not need immediate access to some public emergency supply. If the food distribution network is temporarily disrupted, the citizen should be able to get along for just a few days.

The whole notion of disaster preparedness and rugged individualism/self-reliance has become something of a cartoon. Lots of responsible American citizens forecast a social/economic Ragnarok just around the corner where the entire system of distribution, law enforcement and public order collapses. This is, they postulate, the time of “every man for himself.”

These uber-disaster preppers lay in large supplies of arms and ammunition, food, water, medication, and fuel. They fix getaway bunkers, fashion ultra flex fuel vehicles, all with the idea they will be among the very few who survive.

Indeed, there are a number of unlikely yet possible national disruption scenarios which could adversely impact the entire or nearly the entire population for a long time. If the nationwide systems of distributing goods and energy collapsed, we would find very quickly that the remaining resources would not support a 300 million person population. This is especially so where that population is concentrated into urban, non-productive areas.

So I can hardly brand the energetic disaster preppers as foolish. For all I know, they may be right.

However, self-reliance and good citizenship is not an extreme-or-nothing thing.

Many resources discuss what citizens can and should be doing physically to prepare for short-term interruptions in goods and services. It’s easy to find quick and dirty lists of what you should have in terms of water, nutrition, radios, batteries, etc. I’ll not waste space here to reprise any of that here.

The message for today is that we seem to be coming to a cusp in the future of American civilization. We are going to have to decide if we are going to award “Government” an identity separate from the citizenry in the minds of the majority of the citizens.

Is the government “Us,” it is it “Them”?

When/if the government becomes “Them,” we will have surrendered our national soul some plastic neo-corporate icon. We would not just be admitting, we would be bragging that “we’re not good enough, smart enough or strong enough" to depend on ourselves. Or, for that matter, to depend on each other. And so, “Worshipful Daddy in Washington, help us, help us.”

As an emergency manager, there were a couple of instances where I used States of Emergency for our own jurisdiction (a County). There were good practical reasons involving obtaining resources more readily.

I also remember another occasion where everyone around us was declaring States of Emergency, but we didn’t deem it necessary or appropriate.

It was mid-January. One day there was a three-foot fall of heavy, wet snow. That is unusual in this area, although not unheard of, It did put some strain on resources responsible to get things moving. The next day, our friends from Ottawa sent an arctic air mass, and temperatures with down below negative 20 deg. F. That is also rather unusual in West Virginia. The combination of the two was extremely unusual. That combination created lots of issues.

But we still did not do an emergency declaration because that would not change management issues. Oh, we did staff up the Com Center to be ready to pursue ad hoc resources as necessary such as people way out in the sticks with snowmobiles. But that didn’t require a declaration. Other than that, over the next couple of days our job consisted of issuing informational/philosophical public statements, some of which were quirky enough to be picked up some distance away.

The informational part was things like not using unvented flames for heat. The philosophical things were reminders of who we are. We’re the kind of people who care about our neighbors and check on them. We’re the kind of people who don’t get a case of the willies just because we can’t drive down to the store. We’re the kind of people who maintain and endure. We’re the kind of people who know that, in the broad scheme of things, little things like bad weather will pass.

Managers of the Hurricane Sandy situation needed to declare States of Emergency for good, sound reasons. Citizens should not misread those reasons or feel diminished in their personal power or responsibility. Times of stress and even times of disaster are times to renew our unique dedication to a cultural ethic of taking control and being the ones at the tillers of our own lives.

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