Friday, February 26, 2010

Earthquakes--an epidemic of biblical proportions

Someone tipped me off to this chart about historical major earthquake activity. I was thinking about blogging about it when a 6.9 earthquake hit Japan with tsunami warnings. I can't vouch for the accuracy of that chart but it is surprising, even earth shaking.

As Haiti all too clearly demonstrates, earthquakes are one of the hardest events to prepare for, particularly in poverty stricken areas without solid infrastructure and building standards. If there is some kind of epidemic underway, it makes one think about what can or should be done to prepare. Since I live in the Pacific Northwest and the last shaker I was in is still relatively fresh in my mind (Nisqually quake, 2001) there is some urgency to this question.

What does it mean to be resilient in regard to threats from earthquakes? I don't have the technical expertise to deal with predictions, resistance, mitigation, resource management and all the myriad issues involved in emergency response planning. But looking at public communication, there are a number of things that are important in preparing. A few comments and suggestions:

- understand the importance of public information in an earthquake--as in any event, one of the things people will be most desperate for is information. Am I still in danger? How do I find my family? Is everyone alright? Where can I get help? Where do I get food, shelter, water, protection. Where can I get medical help? Who can help with rescues? Etc. Haiti was ill-prepared in this regard as well, but stories coming out of Haiti regarding the lone radio station still operating and the use of social media to share messages heightens the extreme need to take public information into consideration in planning.

- assume everything is gone--operations centers, IT infrastructure, cell towers, people, transportation, everything--but you still have to communicate. Katrina taught us (not well it seems based on the incredible investment in very expensive EOCs) that we can't assume our operations centers and technology will be there when we most need it. To plan based on losing everything you count on is not an exercise in apocalypse but one of practicality. The fact is, if you are there left standing, there are ways to maintain communication. External hosting of communication systems is critical. Geographic redundancy of hosting is critical. Access to people outside of the earthquake area who can use your communication system is critical. Communicating with them--ultimately with satellite phones--is critical. Building a team beyond those you would normally call in is essential. The truth is major events show that things do go on in worst case scenarios, but they can be implemented much quicker and easier if there is planning that assumes far more catastrophic losses than we dare contemplate.

- understand that resilience starts with character and training. I mentioned The Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley in an earlier post. How you respond in an event depends largely on two things--who are really are in terms of character, personality, strengths, etc. Some people are capable of operating in the worst of all possible situations, and some simply are not. You can find that out in part by extreme training--that is very realistic drills and scenarios. These do two things in my mind: help you understand better how you will react and perform, and build mental muscle memory so that certain critical actions become automatic. And this can be lifesaving in a major event.

Effective response even in earthquakes comes down to the people caught in them and the people helping those caught in them. Resilience means building that strength to endure, respond and recover one precious soul at a time, starting with ourselves.

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