Americans still unprepared for threat of natural disaster, terror

What happens when the lights go out? It depends.

On Nov. 9, 1965, an electrical power failure plunged Northeast America into darkness. The entire city of New York went black. Despite the inconvenience, New Yorkers passed the night quietly. The most notable fallout from the evening was a spike in births nine months later.

Contrast that with July 13, 1977, when two lightning strikes overloaded some Con Edison substations. The cascading power failure produced a blackout that lasted only one day. Yet it unleashed a night of terror and looting unseen in New York since the Civil War riots.

In America’s most recent brush with disaster, millions lost power due to Hurricane Irene. Most seemed to bear the difficulties with a stiff upper lip, patiently waiting for the lights to come back.

Overall, the East Coast weathered this storm rather well. That’s due, in large part, to the upfront work of state and local officials, who took the threat seriously. Evacuation orders were issued in a timely fashion. Precautions were taken.

But will we react as prudently and with such discipline next time?  Each nation has a unique culture of preparedness that colors how it views the challenges of public safety and disaster preparations and response.

Japanese preparedness culture, for example, differs significantly from that in the United States. Japan is geographically a much smaller country. When large disasters strike, they tend to impact the nation as a whole. The country has frequent similar disasters.

This uniformity makes establishing a common preparedness culture less challenging than it is in the U.S. Here, diversity reigns — not just in terms of the makeup of the population, but also in terms of the geography affected and the scope and nature of the disasters experienced.

Perhaps because of these wide variations, Americans are more prone to “mood swings” when it comes to preparedness. How we respond reflects how we feel at the time.

Research by emergency preparedness experts shows that in the United States, individuals prepare for natural or man-made technological disasters only if they have some experience that makes them believe such disasters might actually affect them. Thus, people in Oklahoma take the threat of tornadoes seriously, and people in Florida prepare for hurricane season. Yet as the event recedes in memory, preparedness levels decline. For example, in California, as time between major earthquakes lengthens, preparedness levels drop off commensurately.

The experience of 9/11 did little to change this dynamic. The vast majority of Americans still pay little attention to preparedness for a terrorist attack.

James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at The Heritage Foundation.

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