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Neighbor helping neighbor is best practice in large disaster

Neighbors help push a stranded motorist through flood waters. Photo: Brant Kelly, Wikimedia Commons

By RACHEL STERN

Published August 31, 2017

“The more we prepare in advance and are prepared to help others, the less successful the disaster will be at creating problems that jam 911 lines.”
Natalie Simpson, chair
Department of Operations Management and Strategy

The images and videos have been all over the news for days. Volunteers in rescue boats, jet skis and airboats, plucking people out of flooding homes. Reporters putting microphones down to help people into boats.

But what appears to be a figuring-it-out-on-the-fly response is, actually, best practice.

Natalie Simpson, chair of the Department of Operations Management and Strategy in the School of Management, says there really is no good evacuation plan when it comes to major disasters in densely populated areas. Simpson, who studies on-the-ground first-response and disaster preparedness, says the reality is that when a disaster gets beyond a certain size, there will never be enough professional help. It will take everybody.

“Under most conditions, emergency planning and response is the responsibility of professionals,” Simpson says. “But when a disaster gets beyond a certain size, there will never be enough professionals — ever — not at the very moment that they are needed. The response effort will take everybody helping everybody.”

As we watch the many rescues taking place in Texas, some have asked if a mandatory evacuation before Hurricane Harvey could have mitigated the need for civilians helping civilians.

Ironically, evacuation is not always a good option, Simpson says. In many densely populated cities like Houston, for example, total evacuation within the time required often isn’t even feasible, as Hurricane Rita in 2005 demonstrated. The reality is, there is not enough time to get all residents out over the roadways.

“But if evacuation won’t work, then what? We don’t like to discuss ‘shelter in place’ as a solution because it sounds like that means ‘do nothing.’ But we must understand that shelter in place isn’t necessarily a passive strategy,” Simpson says. “These plans can be as simple as deciding how your family will contact one another after a disaster, and who in your neighborhood might need extra help afterwards.

“Sometimes we think that creating a home disaster kit is something you do because you are paranoid about bad things, but a better way to think about it is that you are pitching in to support your own corner of a much larger emergency plan,” she says. “The more we prepare in advance and are prepared to help others, the less successful the disaster will be at creating problems that jam 911 lines. There is a domino effect.”

In fact, Simpson says, research after large-scale disasters such as the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 shows that 80 to 90 percent of life-saving rescues are provided by neighbors. If you need to be rescued in the aftermath of a large disaster, chances are, she says, a neighbor or onlooker is going to be the only person available to save your life.

This concept is something that is finally seeping into emergency planning, but it is taking time, Simpson says.

Traditionally, unaffiliated volunteers at disaster sites were not considered resources in disaster planning, she says, because it was difficult to get them organized and coordinate everyone spontaneously. But as Hurricane Harvey has shown, things are getting better.

“We’ve already gotten remarkably stronger at channeling people’s individual efforts to support the larger response,” Simpson says. “This is very evident right now as we watch fleets of boats continue to save people in Houston.

“When it comes to disaster preparedness, we are experiencing a dawning of awareness. Everyone must solve large problems together. The key is motivating and empowering everybody to feel confident enough to start solving what little part of this big, messy thing they can on their own.”