Election Section

Commentary: Avian Flu, Katrina and 9/11: Planning for Disaster Response By KEN STANTON

Tuesday October 18, 2005

The recent discussions on planning for an avian flu pandemic highlight a critical problem in disaster planning—our inability to predict the future. Even if, as with Hurricane Katrina and the 9/11 terrorist attack, a few people may have anticipated and forewarned of potential disaster, these events appeared to have a low probability of occurring in the near future. As a result, few people in public policy-making positions were prepared to spend the time, money and political capital necessary to prepare for them. So how do we plan for an appropriate disaster response without wasting limited resources chasing after every potential disaster? 

The next big epidemic may not be avian flu, but rather some other disease. It may be a disease with which we are familiar, such as anthrax or smallpox, spread by terrorists; or a disease we have never heard of that suddenly mutates and jumps from another species to our own, such as HIV or SARS. The next big natural disaster may well be one that we anticipate in theory; fires, floods and earthquakes have been with us since the beginning of human history. However, the timing, location and impact of these events are equally unpredictable. 

The most efficient and effective approach to disaster planning would be to focus our efforts on planning for the predictable human needs resulting from potential disasters. Disasters have been thoroughly studied and well described. We can be prepared to respond to their logistical demands, such as evacuating large communities immediately prior to an impending disaster, or sheltering and resettling displaced populations immediately afterwards. We can plan for a rapid epidemiological investigation, as well as for systematic treatment, immunization and quarantine at the first appearance of an epidemic. We can plan for rapid deployment of first responder teams from outside a disaster zone in the event that local first responders are overwhelmed by a disaster, or are too preoccupied with their own families‚ needs to report for duty. 

The essence of this approach to disaster planning would be to prepare the logistical infrastructure that would be needed for a wide variety of circumstances. If there is an appropriate role for the new Department of Homeland Security, it surely includes identifying the logistical problems common to many types of disasters, and development of the infrastructure necessary to address these problems. Our country is spread over a large geographic area, and relies on many layers of government, a wide variety of private sector businesses, and multiple nonprofit organizations for all aspects of disaster response. Therefore, planning for interagency coordination and communication should be a major component of building a logistical infrastructure for disaster response. 

When we criticize our political leaders and government administrators for failing to anticipate disasters, we encourage them to demonstrate that they are “doing something.” This results in wasted effort, such as initiating color-coded terror alerts after a major terrorist attack, and a national program to provide smallpox vaccinations for healthcare providers that was never fully implemented. Instead, we should hold our governmental leaders accountable for preparing the logistical infrastructure necessary to respond to disasters effectively and efficiently. 

This approach does not preclude planning for the prevention of specific events, such as an avian flu epidemic or particular types of terrorist threats; or for mitigation of known impacts, such as strengthening levees and building earthquake resistant structures. However, if we do a good job of preparing the disaster response infrastructure, we will be less likely to waste time and money trying to prepare for unpredictable potential disasters or, worse, trying to prepare for the next disaster by planning for the last one. 


El Cerrito resident Ken Stanton works in Berkeley as a registered nurse.