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Apr 18

Take Off the Blinders

Posted by: Annie Searle in DRJ Blogs

Annie Searle

It’s been an extraordinary month, with scenarios that include missing planes; another round of deaths at Fort Hood just as the report on lessons learned in the Washington Shipyard was released; a Supreme Court decision that makes us wonder if the justices believe that free speech is the same as money; and, right in our backyard, a devastating mudslide from which all the bodies still have not been removed.

The month also included the first meeting of the mayor’s City of Seattle Disaster Recovery Plan Executive Advisory Group, of which I am a member.    This group is charge with imagining how recovery efforts, not the response itself, might proceed, and to consider how some planning now might make decisions easier to make after a catastrophic event such as an earthquake:  “what policy changes, planning or other strategies should be acted on now?  How will we ensure we have the necessary resources (staff, equipment, facilities, etc.) to get back to acceptable levels of service and to meet our legal mandates?”

We considered everything from post-disaster land use, including rezoning to move buildings, infrastructure or whole neighborhoods from liquefaction zones, floodplains or other hazards areas.

In the area of economic recovery, we looked at support and incentives to retain businesses after a disaster, small businesses in particular; and we discussed expediting permits, inspections and licenses.

In addition to these two areas, we looked and health and social services, housing, infrastructure systems, natural and cultural resources, and overall effectiveness and stability.

Drought in California, the early return of wildfires, and the Oso mudslide should be enough for us to sit down and have a serious conversation on how to begin now, to take off the blinders, and to begin the unpleasant work of rezoning areas that are unsafe to live in; to consider, like the City of Joplin did under the direst of circumstances that followed a devastating tornado,  to what standards we wish to rebuild – to see such terrible events as the opportunity to ask,  “how can we build back better?”  And that was only our first meeting.  We will meet again in six months or so to review the work of a committee of experts who will do the in depth work here.

As far as I know, Seattle is the only city to begin to ask these questions, under the guidance of the mayor and the city council.  But the initiative itself comes from the City of Seattle’s director of emergency management, Barb Graff, who has the vision to move this important program forward.  With her leadership, I believe that the private sector is going to have to drive this effort forward. Agencies like FEMA, so intertwined now with state and local emergency response efforts, can only assist victims of hurricanes, mudslides and other natural disasters, under the terms of their authority, which comes through the Stafford Act and other post-Katrina legislation.

The private sector can think out of the box, perhaps joined by academic, to determine just how laws can be changed now so that state and local governments have more power to prohibit building homes where it is unsafe; and to buy back land and homes if necessary when hazard risk is too high.  Insurance companies need to sit down in this conversation and rethink how and where they categorize the risk and increase the premiums as another incentive for citizens to build in safe areas.   And to this list we can add the need to consider, without blinders, just how many more wildfires and droughts and even earthquakes from fracking we are looking at in the face of what is undeniably climate change.