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April 22, 2013

Are we prepared? Disasters prove more costly as people move into storm-prone areas

(Continued)

NEWBURY, Mass. —

Preparation in America depends on two things: local dedication and regional cooperation. The strength of the relationships between state and local officials helps communities respond when a natural disaster has wiped out the cell phone network and power grid.

But storms are brazen trespassers, sneering Hulk-like at puny human boundaries. So a lot of relationships are needed.

Plum Island’s Merrimack River Beach Alliance isn’t unique but offers a good model for preparedness. It brings together representatives from three communities, three private citizens groups, state politicians, and at least seven state agencies, plus the Army Corps of Engineers. The National Guard, the Coast Guard and FEMA are not typically at such meetings.

The beach alliance has no formal authority, but given the breadth of its representation, it has clout, and has had some successes. “The level of communication has gone exponentially upwards,” says Bruce Tarr, a Massachusetts state senator who is its co-chairman.

Better communication is key for smaller communities, which by themselves don’t have the resources to respond effectively to disasters.

Laws have been changed to allow FEMA to bring in personnel and equipment ahead of major storms, which helps speed response, notes Timothy W. Manning, deputy administrator for protection and national preparedness at FEMA. But he says centralized command otherwise does not make response faster.

“The most important thing is being prepared yourself, having your family ready,” said Manning.

The United States’ start-local approach can lead to scattershot results, as Sandy showed, with some New Jersey communities suffering major damage while neighboring towns with better preparation did better.

That raises the question of whether the country should centralize disaster planning, a la the Netherlands, which responded to the catastrophic North Sea Flood of 1953 with the Delta Works, a massive waterworks project.

Arjen Boin, a governance expert from the Netherlands who holds appointments at Utrecht University and Louisiana State University, scoffs at the idea that the Netherlands works as a model for the vastly larger United States.

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