Ventura County Star – January 7, 2008

Ventura County Star

During a disaster, become part of the solution

By Terry Paulson, January 7, 2008

Happiness is the absence of a disaster and a short memory. Unfortunately, whether it’s the “devil wind,” fires or rain-driven mudslides, the disaster coverage cycle remains much the same. Most soon tire of the impressive visual disaster images and human-interest stories and return to life as usual — no better prepared for future disasters.

It’s important to prepare as a family, but as we start this year, we need the collective resolve to unleash our resourcefulness in creating plans, processes and preparedness that can truly make a difference when the major disasters strike. We need to become what experts call, “a resilient community.”

Ed Beakley,, working with civic leaders and public experts to help create a new disaster-planning model, isolates the challenge:

“Survival, the necessary defining concept of a resilient community, will require that the remnants of the first responder/emergency personnel AND the community — in a nonvictim manner — come together to regain situational awareness and act in concert. For this to be possible, pre-event learning and thinking about the unthinkable’ is required.”

After the recent fires, at the hint of renewed Santa Anas, our firefighters and their heavy equipment were in place and the planes on call. But such a show of readiness soon proves too costly to maintain, and we become lulled back into old habits. We fail to turn disasters into improved processes that would consistently make a difference.

So far, we’ve been fortunate. Local disasters have been contained. What would happen if a major disaster brought wider devastation? What if a terrorist attack or a major earthquake hit Southern California? In major metropolitan disasters, transportation systems, food supplies and community infrastructure can be seriously compromised.

A major disaster in Los Angeles would kill thousands; survivors could be coming into our communities hungry and desperate. Who would maintain order? Would you know how to help those in need find shelter and treatment? Would your family have the recommended emergency supplies they need? Would you be part of the problem or part of the solution?
Whether disasters come from Mother Nature or a terrorist attack, major disasters occur. Hurricane Katrina dashed all illusions that the cavalry will quickly show up to save the day. Our area has some of the best trained disaster responders in the country, but, in an overwhelming disaster, the public must become part of the solution — become a resilient community!

After Hurricane Andrew devastated many Florida communities, citizens realized that no single authority can prepare for or respond as effectively as a mega-community can. With support from then Gov. Jeb Bush and in cooperation with state, county and local agencies, citizens successfully prepared to act.

No matter what the disaster, people first need actionable disaster intelligence to respond. In a major disaster, we need more than human- interest stories and impressive disaster images from the media. We need help in finding community-specific information to help people make decisions. “Going tactical” is not just a military or police/fire thing; it’s a citizen thing.

This can be done. During the recent Day fire, Tyler Suchman’s Web site,, provided a simple and useful site for people in the Ojai Valley to quickly locate the fire’s progress, the evacuation centers and roads that were closed. While most of us were forced to watch repeated fire footage and interviews with victims, Tyler was manually checking and assimilating information from about 40 sites to keep citizens informed. His blog proved a real-time public forum to give and receive information.

With roughly 10,000 homes in the area, Tyler’s Web site was getting 8,000 unique hits a day. Ojai Valley citizens had a place to go to for the best collected information available, and they obviously used it.

In the absence of information, citizens are left with rumors and inaction. By using available technology to aggregate and automate the dissemination of highly time-sensitive information to cell phones, Web sites and the media, coordinated community action is possible. We must support our county agencies in providing such tools for our communities.

Beakley asserts: “A resilient community is directly tied to how decisions are made and how risk is managed in high-order disasters. By definition, a resilient community sets the stage for our exceptional professional responders to make key tactical and operational decisions based on the knowledge that citizens have the information they need to respond. When citizens are able to make informed decisions — to observe, orient, decide and act—they can help limit the damage and minimize added casualties.”

More than columns are needed to keep our county focused on becoming a resilient community. For now, I’m thankful for the agencies and diverse experts who refuse to let past disasters remain lost opportunities for progress.

For now, learn more; demand more. After all, the biggest difference between a vision and a hallucination are the number of people who can see it. Do your part to create a resilient community!

— Terry Paulson, of Agoura Hills, is a psychologist, speaker, author and host to the blog.

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