Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

National Preparedness Planning: The Historical Context and Current State of the U.S. Public's Readiness, 1940-2005

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

National Preparedness Planning: The Historical Context and Current State of the U.S. Public's Readiness, 1940-2005

Article excerpt

In the United States, national public preparedness efforts meant to ready individuals and families for disasters have been driven primarily by international threats, actual or anticipated. These include terrorism, war and the potential for global instability such as the millennium Y2K computer error. The national dialogue on public preparedness following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the fall of 2005 is a notable departure from the more typical focus of public preparedness, which is oriented toward terrorism and international threats. However, the response to the hurricanes was largely viewed as an unanticipated test of the public's readiness for a disaster and the penetration of the public preparedness messages that have been actively promulgated since 11 September 2001. As such, we argue that the poor state of public readiness that was found in the U.S. Gulf Coast region after the hurricanes actually reflects a national state of unpreparedness for emergency events despite the post-September 11th calls from all levels of government for the U.S. public to be prepared. (1)

Since 11 September 200l, a renewed national focus on the U.S. public's readiness for international aggression emerged. This focus was heightened by the anthrax mailings shortly after September 11th and the alleged threat of an Iraqi attack using unconventional weapons, specifically smallpox, on the U.S. homeland. The post-September 11th focus on national public preparedness came almost two years after calls had ended for the public to prepare for the millennium Y2K computer error and its potential to disrupt everything from alarm clocks to the power supply. Prior to the millennium, the national public had engaged in a preparedness dialogue born during the Second World War amid calls for the public to engage in air raid and naval watches that continued throughout the Cold War and its threat of nuclear attacks. The post-September 11th national public preparedness dialogue reignited a theme in government-public communications that has existed since the years leading up to the Second World War: government calls for the public to prepare for doomsday scenarios arising from an international threat.

It is important to distinguish between nationally led calls to prepare centered on international threats versus regional preparedness endeavors based on local natural or emergency weather events, such as earthquake drills in California or tornado shelter constructions in the Midwest. Taken as a whole, the period of 1940 to the present represents what can be viewed as a federal government-public preparedness dialogue born out of national security. This is unique from natural disaster preparedness efforts, which are typically led by state and local governments. Such efforts lack the heightened importance of a national call framed around an international threat in which the American way of life is perceived to be at stake if the nation--including the public--is insufficiently prepared. During this nearly continuous sixty-five year period--with a notable gap from the early 1980s, through the collapse of the Soviet Union, until the mid-1990s prior to the focus on the millennium Y2K threat--the dialogue has been led by federal agencies--some now defunct, like the Department of War--the succession of White House administrations, and a host of non-governmental organizations, most notably the American Red Cross. We find that regardless of the administration or context of the threat, the U.S. public has regarded itself as unprepared when called on by the federal government to take measures in response to or in anticipation of international threats. In other words, the failure of the U.S. public to be prepared for terrorism in 2005 bears little difference to the state of public preparedness during other periods in which national calls were issued. The same holds true, as it turns out, for public preparedness with respect to natural disasters.

We present data from our 2005 annual national survey, and the follow-up survey after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, of the U. …

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