Disaster Preparedness, Response, and Recovery: A Family Affair

In my career, I have had the pleasure of supporting numerous U.S. Government disaster preparedness, response, and recovery efforts. For the most part, I have observed that these three types of efforts are categorized as separate yet chronological missions – without much overlap in terms of how they are managed or resourced.

You prepare for a disaster. When it occurs, you respond to it. And then after everything settles down, you begin to preform longer-term recovery efforts. In other words, all three mission phases are conducted as standalone efforts. However, I have experienced that this is not necessarily the most effective approach toward successfully managing a disaster.

Each disaster – whether it be a hypothetical one or a real one – is as one of a kind and diverse as the individual personalities of the federal, state, and local representatives responsible for working these three aspects of an incident. Although the incidents and individuals themselves are always unique, there seems to be a theme that transcends these differences: the interconnectedness between preparedness, response, and long-term recovery efforts, and a reasonable necessity for blurred boundaries between these mission areas.

I have observed that effectively managing a disaster depends on establishing a community with a culture of cooperation, regardless of where one mission starts and another mission begins. At an individual level, this often means that, during these three phases of an incident, a proactively collaborative philosophy is put ahead of individual personalities and even mission “swim lanes.”

This collaborative approach requires that those focused on disaster preparedness communicate with and support the response mission, those working on response efforts collaborate and talk to those who will work toward long-term recovery, and both response and recovery representatives help inform future preparedness efforts. The most successful disaster management efforts are not seen exclusively in a preparedness phase, in an effective immediate response mission, or in a well-implemented recovery process – the most effective approach comprises a blended activation of all three phases.

This lesson became clear to me during the 2011 Japanese tsunami and the associated Fukushima nuclear plant disaster. When I was working out of the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo as part of the U.S. response mission following the incident, the Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) clearly understood that the circumstances demanded a holistic and comprehensive level of support for our foreign partners. Each morning, he held an all hands on deck coordination meeting with a diverse audience of embassy officials and U.S. interagency representatives in the embassy’s first floor auditorium. He started each meeting by asking those with a preparedness mission, those with a response mission, and those with a long-term recovery mission what they were doing to support each other.

A long time has passed since Fukushima, but I still think about the Embassy DCM’s approach toward disaster management. These days, I spend a lot of my time dealing with the daily disasters that occur on a much smaller scale in my own house, and it has taken everything I have learned about disaster response to navigate the risks associated with a life shared with both a one and three year old.

Now that my one year old daughter has developed the ability to swiftly stagger around the house on her own, she has adopted parading over to the dog’s water dish and sadistically flipping it over as her new favorite pastime. After this occurred a few times in a row, my wife started preparing for future incidents by laying large towels on the floor. (Why we didn’t just move the water dish somewhere else is a conversation for another time.) My three year old son, who is currently going through a well-intentioned “I must help” phase, typically responds by running over to the incident and frantically throwing paper towels, napkins, clean diapers, or his socks on the spill. Then I come in and finish where my son left off and restore the floor back to its original non-dog-water flooded condition.

Although not a true disaster, the dog dish being flipped over onto the floor is a type of incident that must be taken seriously. Thus, I realized that the threat of future dog-dish upheaval was one that our household would benefit from learning to cooperatively respond to. I called a family meeting to outline some of the lessons I’ve learned throughout my career about how the three of us – or four if you count the dog – can work more collaboratively together in navigating how we prepare for, respond to, and recover from the inevitable situation. An all hands on deck approach in our family response would make everyone’s job easier, and begin to teach my son the principles of teamwork and effective response from a young age.

I started telling my wife and son about how, back in 2011 in Tokyo, the DCM would specifically ask USAID representatives what they needed in the response phase to be successful in their recovery mission. I described to my family how he would then turn to those supporting the immediate response and ask what preparedness activities and points of contracts were needed to help support them in their immediate near-term mission, and how he would ask those who are responsible for preparedness what lessons could be learned from this crisis that can better help the U.S. and its partners prepare for future incidents.

I explained to my wife and oldest child that, in any form of crisis management, the missions of preparedness, response, and recovery are really part of one larger mission and must strategically overlap to maximize their individual mission efforts.

After I used the Fukushima story to illustrate how everyone in the family can work with each other in the face of this new water dish threat, my wife handed me my daughter and a clean diaper and asked me to respectfully respond to her newest disaster, restore her butt to its previous clean form, and prepare for follow on incidents as she had eaten mashed-up prunes and some playdough for breakfast. I think that was my wife’s way of telling me she appreciates me drawing parallels between a nuclear disaster and my daughter’s habits of making a mess. Meanwhile, my son had stopped listening about halfway through my pontification and began to smash goldfish crackers into the living room carpet, probably as a way to give the family more practice working as a team in managing disasters.

At one point back in 2011, I got a chance to talk one-on-one with the DCM. He took the opportunity to complain about how his March Madness bracket had undergone its own tsunami thanks to an unnamed ACC team out of Tallahassee. However, I used the opportunity to ask him about his approach with disaster management. Although he did not have a lot of disaster management experience, he felt that – with as much capability available to support our allies and as terrible as the disaster was – he simply didn’t want to see the three individual efforts of response, recovery, and future preparedness efforts start and stop independently without allowing for a meaningful transition to take place.

He said that they needed each other to be the best at their respective roles. It was a simple and intuitive answer. I doubt he realized that the experience had help shape the way I think about disaster management. However, still to this day, I believe that holding these relatively intuitional principles ahead of mission introversion and the default human disposition of prioritizing one’s own objectives ahead of another yields an opportunity for larger success.

Written by Randy Thur randolph.thur@globalsyseng.com

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