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Disaster recovery, derechos and heat waves

When a powerful and wide swath of violent thunderstorms known as a derecho swept across the Midwest and mid-Atlantic recently, it left a path of devastation in its wake, cutting power to millions and proving fatal to at least 22 people. Although many Americans have never heard of a derecho, the weather system is not uncommon in the Midwest, though such storms rarely make it all the way to the East coast. Also unusual was the derecho’s speed and power, making it the most damaging and deadly in North American history.

Close on the heels of the derecho, before citizens could gather themselves and begin cleanup, and before many of them had power restored, a scorching heat wave arrived, causing further death and destruction. The record-breaking hot spell lasted ten days and claimed more than 50 lives. In other parts of the country, deadly wildfires continue to rage, threatening a greater loss of life and property, and heat waves again are threatening.

The past few years have brought unprecedented catastrophes like the tragic Japanese earthquake and tsunami, the massive and destructive Hurricane Irene and now this deadly derecho and heat wave. As always when disasters of this magnitude take place, the question comes up: Are public officials doing all they can to warn and prepare citizens in such cases?

Most towns and cities have some means to notify citizens, from tsunami and tornado sirens to reverse-911-type automated notification systems. Sadly though, as this recent spate of disaster shows, these methods aren’t always as effective as they could be. Reasons may include limited message delivery options, technical malfunctions (sometimes caused by the very storm citizens need to be warned about) and insufficient or outdated citizen contact information.

To remedy this situation, people need to be alerted and informed early and often. How? Here are some ideas below:

  • Automate alerts and deliver them by every means possible, like phone, fax, email, cell phone, text, etc.
  • Provide reminders with updates and preventative tips, reminding citizens to prepare shelter and lay in supplies ahead of time
  • Educate people on health issues caused by heat waves, falling debris, smoke inhalation, etc., and tell them how to render first aid and when to alert responders
  • Most important, encourage citizens to update their contact information often, especially cell phone numbers, all year long, so when severe weather and other dangers threaten, everyone can be notified wherever they may be

Every disaster requires we take a look back and reflect on what we could have done better. These latest tragedies are no exception.