Resilience After 9/11

At a conference last week, FEMA administrator Craig Fugate cited research suggesting that people don’t respond well to being asked to create personal preparedness plans for “all hazards.” Rather, he said, people plan best when there is a specific hazard in mind, one that makes preparedness both tangible and urgent.

On the 12th anniversary of the tragic events of 9/11 we can look back at how it changed us. In the aftermath of those attacks, what continues to be important is spurring New Yorkers to think about personal preparedness and resilience. After the attacks, when I was based at the New York City Office of Emergency Management, we developed and launched the Ready New York campaign, the first of its kind, to help New Yorkers to prepare for emergencies. The Federal Government too launched its Ready campaign.

During the following decade the city witnessed several large-scale disasters – the blackout of 2003, the transit strike of 2005, the massive midtown steam explosion in 2007, and of course Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The tools and tactics suggested by those campaigns – to put together a communication and reunification plan with family and stockpile some simple supplies – surely paid off for the people that heeded that advice. Millions of brochures, guides, trainings, and public service announcements later New Yorkers are undoubtedly better prepared–and more resilient–than they were 12 years ago, and an improved awareness of the importance of preparedness is certainly one of the legacies of the 9/11 attacks.

But have we done enough to improve our preparedness and resilience? The data is spotty, but anecdotally it feels that while we have made strides to a more resilient posture, we have also missed opportunities: for example, too few people still don’t take preparedness and resilience seriously, even though history shows that they should.

One reason is that talking to people, organizations and governments about vulnerability, preparedness and resilience is not an easy task – nobody wants to think about it – so  striking the right balance can be tricky. In this respect we have a lot to learn from our public health colleagues, who have spent decades focused on individual behavior change based on understanding risks related to smoking, poor diet,  lack of exercise, among others.

The risk communication expert Peter Sandman talks about precaution advocacy – the art of motivating people to take a particular risk more seriously by presenting the stark truth – both through facts and sometimes also shocking photographs – to your audience so that they will recognize and prioritize personal risk reduction. Just think of the black and diseased lung now featured as part of an anti-smoking campaign. This makes sense to me, but I appreciate (as he does) the balancing act that a public figure must walk – spending too much time frightening constituents about the dangers of storm surge  is not a great re-election strategy!

It may be tough, but for the sake of the next catastrophic event, we owe it to ourselves – and to the legacy of 9/11 – to think about this balance and get it right.

Photo: UpstateNYer