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Anatomy of a Natural Disaster

Anatomy of a Natural Disaster

The first step in preparing for a natural disaster is to define what is meant by the term “natural disaster.” We usually think of wildfires, floods, earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, volcanos, tsunamis, and blizzards as similar crises.

However, each has its own distinct characteristics, and must be managed according to the emergency preparedness requirements it demands. Consider the differences:

  • Hurricanes develop in the ocean over time and move relatively slowly. Torrential rains and flooding can equal or exceed the damage from high winds, with salt water from tidal surges causing substantial damage to fields, landscaping, and critical infrastructure. The affected geography can be very wide, and extend for hundreds of miles along coastal regions. With days of advanced warning, officials usually have the time to put large-scale response plans into effect.
  • Tornados typically develop over land, far from oceans, and are spawned from fast-moving storm fronts. There is little warning between the time when dangerous conditions develop and a tornado funnel hits the ground. Flash flooding threats can occur in regions where drought or climate prevents the land from absorbing large amounts of water and rain. The runoff can cause death and property damage. Frequently, flash flooding can also cause mud or landslides. The strongest measured hurricane was Hurricane Patricia in October 2015 with winds over 200 mph. Tornadoes can easily equal and exceed that velocity. The El Reno Tornado, which struck Moore, Oklahoma on May 3, 1999, was clocked at 301 miles per hour. All weather events creating excessive wind speeds are potentially deadly. Heeding early warnings is imperative.
  • Seasonality: Hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean typically form between June 1 and November 30. Tornados occur most often between March and June, but can happen throughout the year. Other disasters also have varying degrees of predictability. Blizzards occur in wintertime. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions happen unexpectedly when pressure is released deep underground, often with subsequent aftershocks.
  • Scale: Broad-ranging situations, such as hurricanes and blizzards, require tight coordination between local, state, regional, federal, and international agencies. Responders pre-position resources to help with event preparation, evacuation, active incident management, and post-event recovery.
  • Earthquakes can be geographically isolated and require the same level of coordinated response as blizzards and hurricanes – but without the lead-time to move essential services into place. Incident management and recovery are complicated by higher levels of damage to roads, buildings, electrical systems, and other essential infrastructure.
  • Tornados represent an entirely different situation from earthquakes. The speed of these storms and focused locations of extreme damage create scenarios in which storm tracking efforts across multiple jurisdictions must be coordinated with local resources to issue alerts within short timeframes. After the storm has safely passed, local, state, and federal resources can enter the affected areas to begin recovery efforts.
  • Surge Capacity of Impacted Areas: A rural county with limited resources and small first responder staff will be more severely strained by most natural disasters than an urban setting with multiple agencies acting in concert. Remote areas are harder to reach and support by state, regional, federal, and external agencies.

Effective emergency preparedness means recognizing that there is no “one-size-fits-all” natural disaster plan. Consequently, there should be a separate process for each hazard that may occur, built to the scale and capabilities of the agency responsible for the planning.

This may sound complicated, but it does not have to be.

Almost every possible scenario has played out in the past, and both FEMA and Emergency Preparedness Canada publish standards and guidance to accelerate the planning process. For example, hurricane plans generally start with “H minus120” – that is, 120 hours before estimated landfall. Certain preparedness elements must be put into play at this point. Additional action items and emergency communications continue at other predefined hourly markers until the hurricane passes, and the initial recovery process is complete.

Typical scenarios exist for any natural disaster, and agencies of all sizes can use them to tailor their own response plans to fit their needs and resources. Networked crisis communications and collaboration systems like AtHoc can help. AtHoc has broad experience building automated crisis and emergency communications systems, and can help every organization dramatically reduce the time needed to automate many elements of existing plans that interface cleanly and immediately with both internal and external resources.

Coming Next: Emergency Preparedness and the Internet of Things (IoT)

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