EIIP Virtual Forum Presentation – November 2, 2005

Hazards or Vulnerability?
Rethinking Theory and Policy

David A. McEntire, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Department of Public Administration
University of North Texas (UNT)

Amy Sebring
EIIP Moderator

The following version of the transcript has been edited for easier reading and comprehension. A raw, unedited transcript is available from our archives. See our home page at http://www.emforum.org

[Welcome / Introduction]

Amy Sebring: On behalf of Avagene Moore and myself, welcome to the EIIP Virtual Forum! Our topic today is Hazards or Vulnerability? Rethinking Theory and Policy.

This session follows on two recent sessions on similar themes with Richard Sylves from the University of Delaware, and our last session with Art Lerner-Lam from Columbia University. If you missed those sessions, please see the transcripts.

Today we will be discussing the theoretical underpinnings of public policy for disaster reduction. The current proposal is to form a separate Preparedness Directorate within DHS and to return FEMA to stand alone status focused on response and recovery but notably absent in the present proposals is any increased emphasis on mitigation which is somewhat surprising given the nature of the New Orleans catastrophe.

Now it is my pleasure to introduce today's speaker, Dr. David McEntire, Associate Professor with the University of North Texas, Department of Public Administration. For those who may not be aware, UNT was a pioneer in establishing a degree program for emergency management, the Emergency Administration and Planning program. In addition to his teaching duties, Dr. McEntire's academic interests include emergency management theory, international disasters, community preparedness, response coordination, and vulnerability reduction. He has conducted several research projects and has just signed a contract to write a book on disaster resilience with Wiley Publishers. Please see the Background Page for further biographical information and links to topic-related material.

Welcome to the Forum, David, and thank you very much for being with us today. I now turn the floor over to you to start us off, please.


David McEntire: Good morning. It is a privilege to be with you today and share a few thoughts about the study and practice of emergency management.

At the outset, I must add that it is a little intimidating to discuss disasters with you as the subject is very broad and as each of you have great knowledge of your respective disciplines and professions. I am more of a generalist, which means I know nothing about everything! Regardless, I hope that my comments might be of some benefit and cause some much needed reflection on our important field.

As you are well aware, disasters appear to be increasing in frequency and intensity. The recent terrorist attacks, tsunami, hurricanes, earthquake and potential for disease outbreaks reveal significant loss of life, economic stress and social disruption among other negative consequences.

If we are to reverse this trend, or at least hold the line, we must do more to prevent disasters and be better prepared for response and recovery operations. This, in turn, suggests that we should view disasters differently than we have in the past. Whether we recognize it or not, theory guides policy. Theory likewise determines the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of plans, regulations and their associated activities.

Since the birth of emergency management, scholars and public officials have been very concerned about hazards. It is obvious that these threats or events have the potential to create a great deal of destruction so there is justification in concentrating on them.

Focusing too much on hazards may create several unexpected problems however:

- First, humans have little or no control over the occurrence of a tornado or a thunderstorm that produces copious amounts of rain.

- Second, giving too much attention to hazards often leads to dramatic fluctuations in policy (e.g., over the past 40 or 50 years, the US has moved from civil defense, to hazmat issues, to natural hazards, to Y2K and now to terrorism). As a result, patterns common to most disasters are overlooked.

- Finally, and most importantly, attention on hazards relegates human culpability for disasters to a neglected or unrecognized position.

Some might argue that the term hazards includes or incorporates vulnerability. If we examine the initial definitions of hazards we see that there was no mention of the role people play in disasters (the volcano was the hazard). Today, more scholars do define hazards in reference to people, but the literature still discusses hazards as they relate to frequency, areal extent, magnitude, speed of onset -- the physical characteristics.

In addition, hazards are categorized according to their origins. Again, human responsibility for the causes and consequences of disasters is downplayed, especially pertaining to those triggered by the physical environment.

What I am suggesting is that we need to complete a paradigm shift toward the concept of vulnerability and give attention to how we might reduce it. Many others have made similar arguments in the past.

- Wisner et. al. state in At Risk that too much attention is given to the hazards and not enough to the human element of the disaster equation.

- In a prior online discussion, Sylves asserted that giving an inordinate amount of attention on hazards can be "too limiting or a digression."

- Last week, Dr. Lerner-Lam asserted "it is imperative to reduce the vulnerability of developing countries to natural hazards."

- And Bender boldly declares "It is the vulnerability, stupid!"

I agree with these statements and I would ask us as Salter does to consider shifting attention from hazards to vulnerability if we really want to address the disaster problem.

So, what is vulnerability? Vulnerability, in my mind, suggests a proneness to disasters as well as an inability to react in an effective manner. I concur fully with my sociologist friends that vulnerability is related to many factors such as poverty, ethnicity, disability, age and gender. I would also agree with geographers that our location for development may also have bearing on vulnerability.

Engineers explain that poor construction practices may influence the degree of vulnerability. One could argue that the poor planning and a lack of follow through by public officials in New Orleans or at the state and federal levels was one of the reasons why the impact of Katrina was so severe.

A host of other variables could be listed as determinants of vulnerability including culture, politics, familiarity with technology, a failure to purchase insurance, education, legislation, urbanization, industrialization, code enforcement, health status, business practices, lack of personal responsibility, etc.

The whole point of this discussion is that humans are augmenting vulnerability (and therefore disasters), but we can also take steps to limit vulnerability (and therefore disasters as well). In other words, our policies and activities should reduce liabilities from the physical and social environments (e.g., risk and susceptibility). We must build capabilities (e.g., resistance and resilience) in those same arenas as well.

Such determinants of vulnerability are not mutually exclusive. Risk may be augmented by susceptibility, and a low degree of resistance may jeopardize resilience. Other complex relations are also possible and need to be understood. A major benefit of the concept of vulnerability is that it may allow us to reach holistic, integrated and interdisciplinary approaches to the disaster problem. A good argument can be made that this concept is related to all hazards, phases, actors involved in emergency management.

To sum things up, I would assert the need to rethink the relative merit of the hazards and vulnerability concepts. In addition, I encourage increased interdisciplinary research in reference to disaster vulnerability. I also invite public servants and others in the private and non-profit sectors to consider the benefit of modifying our language in our discussions about disasters. For instance, would decision makers and the public be more willing to invest money and resources on something we have influence over (i.e., our vulnerability to the hazards) versus on something we cannot control (i.e., hazards)?

Lastly, I recommend that each of us do our part to reduce vulnerability as the means to minimize the probability and impact of disasters. After all, if disasters are rising and hazards are remaining constant as some declare, vulnerability must be to blame!

That being said, I’ll be pleased to address your questions and comments and turn the session back over to our Moderator.

Amy Sebring: Thank you very much David. Now, we will proceed to your questions.

[Audience Questions & Answers]

Isabel McCurdy: David, what suggestions do you have to reduce our vulnerabilities?

David McEntire: Thanks, Isabel. I think there are many, many things that need to be done. We might want to better understand our vulnerabilities first. We then need to conduct regular assessments of our liabilities and capabilities. In addition, we need to better educate citizens and politicians. We need to strengthen prevention and preparedness institutions, harness technology, protect the environment, reduce poverty, improve coordination, and focus on those who are most vulnerable.

Tim Newman: I would agree that vulnerability is what we should focus on, but that is so much harder to get our arms around. We have special needs populations that cover such a wide range of "special needs". And that is not even half of what is considered "vulnerability". Where do we start?

David McEntire: Yes, I agree Tim. It is a very difficult concept that is related to so many variables. It is related to politics, land use planning, and economics. It is also related to culture and engineering. We might want to note that it is related to several other important concepts being discussed today such as risk, resistance, resilience and susceptibility.

Ronda Oberlin: Emergency management has always focused on resistance – get insurance, make a plan – and not resiliency. Do you have any success stories about resiliency planning? Any examples of communities who have approached vulnerability holistically?

David McEntire: That is a good question. We are often more likely to hear about what went wrong, rather than what was done well. New Orleans comes to mind as an example of the first. Perhaps we should focus our studies on the success stories in order to improve the field.

Shawn Smith: Can you give us your thoughts on the Private Sector's role in vulnerability reduction? Critical Infrastructure Protection comes to mind.

David McEntire: I think you are right, Shawn. The private sector is critical to the reduction of vulnerability. They can help in building construction and insurance. They are also able to assist in reducing hazmat issues. Without the private sector on board, we will only be working on three cylinders!

Paul Jensen: Michael Chertoff and Jeb Bush have both recently stated that it is up to the individual to be prepared for disasters, even going as far as to say that preparation is a virtue. Do you think that focusing on vulnerabilities rather than hazards sets up a victimhood? "I can't be prepared for (insert reason)."

David McEntire: I think it is vitally important that everyone take responsibility and that responsibility can be manifest in many ways. Evacuating when warned. Taking care of your own sheltering needs. Having food and water and a 72 hour kit. Of course, we must also look out for others – the elderly, children, the disabled, etc. I should also add that we need to look after those without transportation!

Burt Wallrich: Would you support telling people who have homes in ultra-vulnerable but beautiful locations like Malibu or the barrier islands that if they are wiped out they will have to bear the loss, not the taxpayers?

David McEntire: Absolutely. I think we need to shift responsibility to those who take on risk voluntarily.

Amy Sebring: David, a recent article I saw highlights how at the federal level, the various hazards are stove-piped into different agencies, i.e. EPA and hazmat, USGS and volcanoes, DHS and terrorism and so on, in response to past crises. Do we need some kind of interagency effort to comprehensively assess vulnerability?

David McEntire: That would be an important recommendation Amy. For instance, we need to understand vulnerabilities related to transportation systems, housing stock, infrastructure, computer systems and networks, food supply, and many other issue areas. Right now, of course, we are worried about Avian Flu.

Avagene Moore: David, in light of the billions that will go to rebuild New Orleans when a fraction of that amount invested beforehand might have prevented the levee failures to begin with, it would seem obvious that it is in the public interest to invest more in pre-disaster mitigation, yet this program is ridiculously underfunded. What needs to be done to keep the focus on this issue in the policymaking arena?

David McEntire: You are correct Avagene. And this is really disappointing. We need to better inform the public that we are wasting tax dollars and we need to be much more vocal to the politicians that we cannot keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

Amy Sebring: David, how exactly does theory inform or influence policy? I do not see any really good examples of this.

David McEntire: While we are waiting, we have some difficult choice to make in terms of vulnerability. I should clarify what I mean by this. I believe people's perspectives (whether academic or not) inform or influence policy. For instance, leaders believe our greatest threat is from terrorism and so this perspective has dramatically changed the direction of emergency management. So, while academic theories may not have bearing on policy like we would like all policies are driven by some sort of theory.

Gilbert Gibbs: It seems that we're keeping up a band-aid form of alerts and answers, but no real means to get real education to the people who need the information. Is there a better way to mitigate all this than the past traditional ways that are not working so well?

David McEntire: Good point, Gil. Yes, I think we need to reach the children in schools. When I was young, everyone threw paper in the garbage can. Today, kids have been taught to recycle. Why don't we have mandatory classes on disasters in schools?

Avagene Moore: Follow up to your comments, David - Is it really true that theory guides policy? Claire Rubin has demonstrated in her popular Timelines that policy appears to be reactive to crises, (and possibly the media coverage of those events).

David McEntire: Yes, I believe theory guides policy. But, again, that might be the politician’s theory about what to do versus what scholars think is most successful.

Barry Drogin: Certainly, with all the focus on reducing government, we're not advocating a return to the days of privatized fire departments, for example? I'm not sure I'm okay with policy shifts that just assume that we should be getting government out of everything.

David McEntire: No, absolutely not. The government plays a vital role in reducing disasters and vulnerability. In fact, they play the lead role and should take their responsibility more seriously than in the past.

Ronda Oberlin: Forgetting the politicians for a moment, we need to get people to understand their role in their own vulnerability. The public education we have been doing for the past 50+ years apparently hasn't done that. Do you think this is an issue that emergency management can tackle, or is it much bigger?

David McEntire: That is really something to think about. It is something that emergency managers must take the lead on. But we need to include churches, businesses, social groups, the Boy Scouts, and non-profit groups. And we need to make sure we are saying the same types of things – that disasters are on the rise and we must take action now.

Tom Harnsberger: The public education we have been doing for the last 50 years has done exactly what it was designed top do ...make people dependent upon others. If that was not the case, people would have gone when first offered a way out of Katrina.

David McEntire: You're right, Tom. We need to teach personal responsibility for ourselves.

Lloyd Bokman: Dave, as you point out, vulnerability takes in so many factors from socio-economic, technical (examples: data back-up and toxicology in hazmat), insurance coverage (traditional risk management), preparedness (public and response agencies) and so many more. Somebody pointed out it's hard to get your arm around it all. Some say emergency management is part of a larger concept that some call Enterprise Risk Management and some have other terminologies. How to you see emergency management fitting into all this as a concept?

David McEntire: Risk is another difficult concept to define. Some see it as probabilities. Others also include consequences. Different scholars assert that risk is a product of hazard and vulnerability. Others state that risk=H+V [-mitigation]. I would also add the importance of preparedness. In a nutshell, I believe risk is similar to vulnerability in that we cannot control hazards but our vulnerability to the hazards (looking at the above formulas).

Tom Harnsberger: Responsibility is the key to preparedness. One must take the time to assess their needs for the potential disasters they may be faced with. Power companies need to look at better ways to provide power than overhead lines. More expensive, but underground lines would be less susceptible to damage from hurricane winds. That is just one example.

David McEntire: Yes, you are right. And we need to support our emergency managers in their duties right now. They are charged with all phases of emergency management including more effort on mitigation, and they are overwhelmed with grant administration and do not have adequate staffing or financial support. Terrorism has only added to their plate.

William Wilson: NFPA has been successful in reducing the vulnerability to fires through codes and public education. Do you see a group that can do the same for Emergency Management?

David McEntire: Yes, I think IAEM, NEMA and others can make a big difference but we will need individuals at all levels of government and in all sectors to participate and support the program.

Dan Robeson: David, what resources (programs, research, case studies, etc.) would you suggest for practitioners who are interested in focusing local efforts on vulnerability issues?

David McEntire: Well, in some ways we are just starting to scratch the issues but there are some great resources out there, including Disasters by Design, At Risk, and several journals such as Disasters, Journal of Emergency Management, and others. There are also some well-known scholars such as Cutter, Mitchell, Quarantelli, and Salter that have tackled the issue directly or indirectly.

Amy Sebring: David, I think that for the most part local emergency managers feel they have a lot on their plates as it is and that tackling poverty issues is not their expertise. However, do you see a need for more research on this issue to clarify better how Emergency Managers can use poverty statistics, e.g. in their planning? Not just for response, but also for preparedness (education) and recovery? Do you know of any research efforts planned on this topic? Do you think you will address in your book perhaps?

David McEntire: I think you are right and many of them do not understand the importance of political and economic issues in disasters and they may fail to appreciate how this might impact the success of emergency management. Yes, I think demographic information and other stats can inform planning efforts especially if we use GIS to help identify vulnerable areas and people.


Barry Drogin: Well, the media, which can be the government's strongest ally in educating the public, is too often seen by government itself as an adversary. We can talk and talk about public education, but government has to accept that the media is both the way to get the message out, and is also entrusted to criticize that message if it is insufficient. I don't know how to resolve that conundrum.

David McEntire: Good point, Barry. The media may be friend or foe. It really depends on how we engage and educate them.

Avagene Moore: For years now, we have been talking about the gap between researchers and practitioners. How can we close that gap so both groups are sharing and benefiting from each other? I am of the opinion that unless that is done, we are going to rock on down the same old road we have been on for years at federal, state and local levels.

David McEntire: This gap is real but I think it is closing. One way to resolve the conflict is through educational programs. At UNT, we require our students to do internships. The students obviously gain a great deal from the knowledge and insights and professional emergency managers. Hopefully, some of the theory the students hold will rub off too.

Amy Sebring: David, what I see coming down the pike for the next couple of years at the local level is the requirements for HSPD#8, the National Preparedness Goals, etc., that do not even address mitigation unfortunately. I feel this is going to keep local Emergency Managers very busy with paperwork, which is tied to grants and therefore is set as a priority. How can we get vulnerability issues to be a priority in this environment?

David McEntire: We are faced with difficult choices and limited budgets. I do think we have to address our vulnerability to terrorism but that should not discount our efforts needed in natural disaster reduction. Therefore, I think the only option is to fund additional emergency managers to complete all of the additional tasks being given to them. Unfortunately, I do not see any way around this. We can also pressure our representatives, and I have done this many times with Congressman Burgess.

Isabel McCurdy: David, any date yet set for book release? Any snippets you can share?

David McEntire: I have two books coming out shortly. One looks at the issue of disasters from the perspective of different disciplines and it is on line in draft from on the FEMA website [ http://www.training.fema.gov/emiweb/edu/ddemtextbook.asp ]. The other is on resilience (response and recovery operations) – the draft should be out in January (hopefully!).


Amy Sebring: Very good. We shall look forward to that and on that note, I think we will wrap it up for today. Thank you very much, David, for an excellent job. We hope you enjoyed the experience.

David McEntire: Thank you, Amy, and the EIIP for this opportunity. I appreciate the questions and comments also!

Amy Sebring: Please stand by a moment while we make a couple of quick announcements. Again, the formatted transcript will be available later today. If you are not on our mailing list and would like to get notices of future sessions and availability of transcripts, just go to our home page and click on Subscribe.

Thanks to everyone for participating today. We stand adjourned but before you go, please help me show our appreciation to David for a fine job.