Disaster Preparedness Is Good for Democracy

The blizzard that pounded the Northeast on Friday was no Hurricane Sandy, but it has left thousands of people without power throughout the region. For some households, losing power may be no big deal. But if you're old or disabled, this can be a dangerous situation.

The problem is that it's hard in most communities to know which residents may badly need help. After Sandy, hastily organized volunteers knocked on doors in buildings in Rockaway and other places to identify the old and frail.

It's also hard, if you want to volunteer to help others in a disaster, to know where to go or what to do. In badly hit Hoboken, large numbers of volunteers were needed to help evacuate people from flooded parts of time. The city recruited these helpers, in part, by Twitter and posters around town.

With major storms likely to increase, it's time to get more serious about better disaster planning. One obvious idea is to step up efforts to organize citizens to prepare for emergencies by joining volunteer corps that stand at the ready.

Of course, much is already being done in this area. First and foremost is the Community Emergency Response Team Program, which has existed since the 1980s and has helped train and coordinate local CERTs all over the country. New Jersey has 173 such teams; New York has 29. These CERTs played a crucial role during Sandy, helping mobilize over 1,000 volunteers in New York. Hoboken's CERT also swung into action helping with evacuations and medical care.

After 9/11, the federal government sought to rachet up emergency preparedness by creating the Citizen Corps, which is coordinated through FEMA to help prepare large-scale terrorist attacks or other disasters. 

Citizen Corps has built a pretty impressive infrastructure—with Citizen Corps Councils in every state and another 1,000 Councils at local levels. Among other things, these Councils have done a strong job of engaging youth organizations, with over half the Councils working with such groups.

All these Councils train volunteers to prepare for emergencies. And many are doing exactly what I suggested above: identifying disabled and frail people in their communities who will need extra assistance if a disaster strikes.

The amount of human effort mobilized has been impressive, according to a 2012 report: "Citizen Corps Councils reported more than three million hours were contributed by the 176,699 volunteers in council supported activities in calendar year 2010."

Still, the Citizen Corps is not nearly as strong or far-reaching as it needs to be. Large parts of the country are not covered at all by local Councils, including the hurricane prone panhandle of Florida. Vermont—which was devastated by Hurricane Irene—didn't have a single local Council in place when the storm hit in 2011. Mississippi doesn't have any local Councils either, despite it's vulnerability to hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes. Show me a recent disaster, and I'll show you a relief effort which was woefully under-resourced.

Clearly we have to do better. 

The federal government needs to bump up attention to the CERT Program and the Citizens Corps. Perhaps that means boosting existing programs. Or perhaps there is the need to consolidate these efforts into a new well-funded national program called something like the Emergency Volunteer Corps. States need to step up, as well. One good example comes from California, which created the CaliforniaVolunteer Disaster Corps in 2008—a statewide initiative that has trained and coordinates over 1,000 volunteers state-wide. The Corps has also created an IT network—the Disaster Volunteer Network—that would allow localities to more easily train and coordinate volunteers in an emergency.

Involving more ordinary citizens in disaster planning makes a lot of practical sense. But there is a larger point here about the role of government and democracy. Disaster preparedness is a great example of how government can make a huge difference by steering, not rowing. These efforts require some government funding and direction, but mainly they rely on citizens. Many also involve a range of partnerships with the private and nonprofit sectors. In an age of tight budgets, we need to think imaginatively about other ways government can catalyze large-scale action by civil society.

Disaster preparedness is also good for democracy. Having citizens vote and contact their legislators is not the only prerequisite for a strong democracy. We also need a range of voluntary institutions that bring together citizens for common purposes, and then have positive spillover effects. (As Theda Skocpol has written about.) That's hard to do these days when both parents are often working and people are more isolated thanks to suburbanization and opiate-like media.

The beauty of disaster preparedness efforts is that they accomplish something that is both very tangible and important—while possibly reviving what Skocpol has called our "diminished democracy."

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