Japan’s Cascading Incidents and Overlapping Crises: A Case for All-Hazards and Multi-Partner Planning

March 22nd, 2011 by Clark Lee

The unprecedented scale of the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan, frankly speaking, were among many things that happened that had not been anticipated under our disaster management contingency plans. In hindsight, we could have moved a little quicker in assessing the situation and coordinating all that information and provided it faster.

Yukio Edano, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary (March 18, 2011)

By all accounts, it was a week of worsts for Japan:

The Japanese Government has had to deal with these “worst” scenarios since the March 11, 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. In the meantime, the Japanese public has become increasingly frustrated with its government’s poor performance in public communication and information dissemination and in providing disaster relief services to its citizens.

The cascading incidents and overlapping crises that Japan has been experiencing over the last several days should remind everyone in the emergency preparedness and response community that crises frequently beget other crises, and that no single disaster or emergency response plan can take into account every contingency on its own. Furthermore, as Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano alluded to in his statement, even a set of plans providing for various contingencies may not suffice. This is particularly true if individual plans for a particular jurisdiction are developed separately and in isolation from one another.

Emergency planners around the world can employ a two-part strategy to avoid (or, at the very least, mitigate) the sort of preparedness shortcomings that Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano described:

  1. Adopt an all-hazards approach for all planning and preparedness activities in a jurisdiction.
  2. Engage key partners from the public and private sectors by ensuring that they play a valued part in the all-hazards emergency response planning and preparedness process.

Developing planning and preparedness activities targeted at specific types of incidents or events in conjunction with other planning and preparedness activities with key partners and with all-hazards principles in mind optimizes the effectiveness of responses to cascading incidents and overlapping crises (should they ever occur). Such a strategy also alleviates a significant source of stress and uncertainty during times characterized by great stress and uncertainty for everyone.

The Montgomery County (Maryland) Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Program (PHEP&R) has pursued such a strategy for Montgomery County’s public health emergency planning efforts. CHHS has been able to play a part in facilitating this process through its work with PHEP&R in updating Montgomery County’s anthrax response planning efforts under the CDC’s Cities Readiness Initiative. With CHHS’ assistance, PHEP&R has secured buy-in for its anthrax planning efforts from key response partners from local and state governments, as well as planning collaborations with partners from the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. region and academia.

As an organization straddling emergency preparedness practice and academia, CHHS and its diversely-experienced professional staff are well-positioned to assist its clients (such as the Montgomery County PHEP&R) in developing and executing strategies and activities that feature an all-hazards and multi-sector partner-building approach to emergency planning and preparedness.

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