Commentary

Natural Hazards and Homeland Security: An Expectation to Protect?

in Program

By Rebecca Bornstein and Peter Roman – In the summer of 2007, the United Kingdom suffered the heaviest rains since national records began over two hundred years ago.  From May through July, torrential downpours inundated the nation with over 31,000 million cubic meters of rain, more than four times the amount of water in all the lakes in England and Wales combined.  The heavy rains left grounds and riverbanks fully saturated, leading to river and surface flooding across the UK.  

The flooding and its aftermath killed thirteen people and destroyed or damaged approximately 48,000 homes and 7,000 businesses.  It also caused major damage to critical infrastructure such as power and water treatment facilities, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without power and clean drinking water.  Damaged and submerged railway lines and roads effectively cut off movement between multiple counties.  Indeed, the floods resulted in the greatest loss of essential services in the UK since the Second World War.  Emergency personnel struggled to respond to this catastrophic and prolonged incident.  In many respects, the floods can be considered the UK’s “Hurricane Katrina moment.”

In August 2007, the UK Cabinet Office appointed Sir Michael Pitt to lead the independent review of the government’s response to the floods.  Several months later, the Pitt Review issued an Interim Report identifying 15 urgent recommendations and 72 interim conclusions.  With the Pitt Review scheduled to issue its final report next month, the Interim Report demonstrates the common challenges that governments face as they prepare for and respond to catastrophic natural disasters.

The report focuses on five major areas:

  • Flood forecasts and warnings;
  • Flood mitigation programs;
  • Incident command and emergency response;
  • Protection of critical infrastructure; and
  • Communications with the public prior to and during a disaster.

It frames its recommendations within the larger context of global climate change.  While not directly linked to climate change, the floods “provide a clear indication of the scale and nature of the severe weather events we may experience as a result.”  The Interim Report stresses the need for the government to exert strong leadership to undertake the necessary preparedness and mitigation programs.

The Interim Report’s analysis and recommendations will resonate with anyone familiar with the response to Hurricane Katrina as well as to the recent natural disasters in China and Myanmar.  In fact, it mirrors the Congressional and White House reports on Hurricane Katrina in a number of respects.  Together, these reports illustrate how the US and the UK need to improve their preparedness for and response to catastrophic natural hazards.  Warning, situational awareness, information sharing and management, critical infrastructure continuity, and public communications are some of the common issues the US, UK and other countries face for improving preparedness for natural hazards.  These reports demonstrate that a greater trans-Atlantic dialogue on natural hazards policies and preparedness would benefit all involved.

The Pitt Review’s Interim Report and the Hurricane Katrina reports indicate how the relationship between security and the role of the state is in flux.   Both the US and the UK have developed emergency preparedness and response structures that are designed to be “all-hazards.”  However, in both the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the 2007 floods, some in each country asserted that natural hazards had not received the same attention as anti-terrorism efforts.  For example, in an interview with BBC, Sir Pitt responded to the notion that the government might begin to treat flooding on a par with terrorism.  “We’re having to respond to the fact that flooding is now such a major issue,” he said.  When asked if it is as serious as terrorism, he responded “I think it is.  It’s obviously very different but we want the same levels of performance and reaction that we have with terrorism events.”[1]  Balancing government policies and programs across all hazards, and accepting levels of risk, will force difficult choices upon government officials.

One can argue that a norm of “expectation to protect”[2] has arisen among many citizens of developed countries.  Regardless of the policies government officials choose to balance risks, it is clear that the public in many countries expect that government will protect them from all hazards-and perhaps even compensate them for their losses.  Any failure to protect citizens during an incident would likely draw the ire of both the public and media, weakening support for the government.  Thus, government leaders will likely continue to expand the concept of security to include all hazards.  The Pitt Review’s Interim Report, along with the US Hurricane Katrina reports, helps to illuminate the way forward. 

Footnotes:

[1] Sir Michael Pitt, in an interview with the BBC: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/7147637.stm

[2] In some respects, this is a permutation of the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine which has been promoted for conflict and post-conflict environments, mostly in the developing world.  It should be noted that some have recently stated that it should apply to the Myanmar junta’s unwillingness to promptly accept offers of assistance after the cyclone.

photo credit:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/maggiejones/859455437/in/[email protected] 


Rebecca Y. Bornstein is a Scoville Fellow with the Homeland Security program and Peter J. Roman directs the Homeland Security project at the Stimson Center. 

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