Let Thy People Help: Grassroots participation crucial for disaster recovery

Commentary, Climate, Meredith Lilly

Many participants at the Conference on Climate Change in Durban, South Africa, have been announcing imminent extreme weather and natural disasters. Such talk should prompt us to think about disaster response cognizant that  bureaucratic, centralized disaster responses have a history of failure.

2011 was a record-setting year for natural disasters in North America. Over the past nine months, the United States was hit by ten natural disasters each costing $1 billion or more. Canada had its fair share of natural disasters, with widespread flooding prompting premiers to call for the establishment of a nation-wide disaster mitigation program. The uncertainty created by extreme weather makes tightly-managed centralized planning an attractive option, but is this the best approach?

Centralized planning has long dominated the dialogue surrounding disaster recovery; yet large, public disaster responses have been notoriously ineffective. The reason these centralized initiatives fail is not unique to a particular agency or crisis. The failure reflects institutional inefficiencies. The rules and procedures of large, centralized agencies that keep them running efficiently in the best of times, cripple them in the worst.

One notable example of failed public disaster response is the US Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. FEMA, a big, sophisticated organization created to respond to national emergencies, thoroughly bungled the job. They had access to an enormous amount of money and the finest personnel. They spared no expense; they allocated $94.8-billion to Katrina recovery, and sent hundreds of volunteers to the affected region, yet thousands of people were left unaided.

What went wrong? The problem certainly was not a lack of funds. In the words of Cool Hand Luke, it was a failure to communicate. FEMA’s approach was typical of highly centralized government agencies. They tightly controlled volunteers and relied on a hierarchical communication strategy to glean information from the trenches. They assumed that they could bottle and distribute all the necessary information in a concentrated form.

The result? Underutilized volunteers and squandered resources. Fire fighters were put to work handing out fliers instead of relieving exhausted local crews, unanticipated donations were turned away, while 15 per cent of Katrina-specific resources failed to be dispersed.

Similar instances of miscommunication are found in the reoccurring Red River flooding in Manitoba. Flood management is dispersed over several public agencies that in times of crisis must communicate with the general public and with each other. When applied to crisis situations, their watertight operating procedures create bureaucratic tunnel vision slowing their responses.

These communication issues can be anticipated in large, public, bureaucratic agencies. In the absence of profit incentives, formalized procedures and networks are necessary to keep employees on task.  While these regulations help to ensure that daily operations run smoothly, in crisis situations they significantly slow response time.

Excessive regulation creates “yellow tape” around affected regions and prevents local people from giving and receiving help. While centralized agencies await official determination that there is a disaster, smaller organizations have the flexibility to dive-in as soon as they see signs of distress.

Ultimately, rebuilding is an individual enterprise. Individuals and grassroots community organizations such as churches and neighbourhood associations know better than anyone else what is needed to help their neighbours. They understand the social conventions that facilitate communication, and they are spurred on by the powerful motive of self-preservation and the intimate connections to the people they serve.

Canadian disaster policy ought to emphasize working with affected populations to ensure that known risks are communicated, and that volunteers are accommodated and encouraged. Clear lines of command can help increase institutional responsiveness, while smaller institutions such as religious and community associations can provide convenient points of contact to ease communication.

The information needed to aid those affected by natural disasters will never be held by one person or agency. Circumstances vary, need is unevenly dispersed, and populations are diverse. History tells us that in crisis situations, the worst-case scenario is not too-little government involvement, but too much of it. In disaster response, the slow, involved coordination and decision-making process of centralized agencies produce many hurdles and often create many of the problems they intend to remedy.