Sunday, August 23, 2009

Victims or survivors?

Sometime in the last two years (I can't remember exactly when) Craig Fugate, the current Administrator of FEMA and the former Florida Director of Emergency Management, had an epiphany. I never asked him where his blinding flash of the obvious came from, but I suspect that examining the preliminary results of our catastrophic planning project had something to do with it.

Florida's catastrophic planning project, some of the best money that FEMA has ever spent on disaster preparedness, forced everyone in the emergency management community in Florida to look at how we would deal with a truly catastrophic emergency. The planning project was scenario based, and the scenario they picked was truly terrifying: an enormous Category Five hurricane impact in southeast Florida. They called the storm Hurricane Ono, as in Oh, No!

We quickly realized that as good as we are (and we're pretty good) this scenario would leave us beyond overwhelmed. The bottom line is that there are too many people (6.5 million) sandwiched into a narrow strip of land between the Everglades and the Atlantic Ocean. From the first time that I received a briefing on this scenario I realized that there was no way that we could feed and shelter all these people under the conditions specified in this scenario. Almost immediately I began a campaign, over the objections of a number of people, including Craig, that we had to evacuate a large number of these people because we couldn't take care of all of them where they were. After eighteen months I won the argument.

The big lesson from this argument, and from others in other emergency management disciplines, was that we couldn't overcome the multiple, complex problems that arise in a catastrophic event without the help of the public. That was when I started hearing people use the word survivor where they normally would say victim. I found out that Craig had banned the word victim from all written and oral communication in the Division of Emergency Management. I am sure that he did the same thing when he took over at FEMA.

The concept that Craig was trying to promote was simple and obvious. In this case, as in many others, words do matter. The word "victim" conjures up the image of someone beset by disaster, helpless to respond. The word "survivor" implies the person in question has been dealt a severe blow, but is doing his/her best to pick up their life, and maybe even help out a neighbor.

Craig has been been talking about survivors at every opportunity since he took over FEMA. The man knows what he is talking about. Don't talk about victims of a disaster unless they are deceased. If everyone else is not a survivor, they at least need to act like one. If the Big One ever comes to south Florida the emergency management community will need a lot of survivors to help us out. We can't do it all.

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