Barry Eck makes clear what at first may seem counterintuitive — that getting people interested in preparing for disasters is much more difficult before anything actually bad happens.
“Right after (Superstorm) Sandy, I could’ve gotten anything I wanted — people were eager to offer any resource required,” he said. “As time goes on, that all fades into a distant memory.”
Eck is the president at New Jersey Emergency Management Association, which pushes for better support of emergency communications and planning for disaster situations on a local level. The current state of affairs for an organization such as his isn’t great.
“We aren’t getting what we feel is adequate support at all,” he said. “Unfortunately, the longer it has been since something has gone bad, the less visibility you have.”
Just about four years after Superstorm Sandy, and with no high-profile local disasters in the interim, visibility has become a problem for agencies focused on preparedness. It has led some to have second thoughts about the entire disaster preparedness enterprise.
Joyce Sagi, who appeared in headlines after Sandy with the moniker Jersey Joyce, was just a few years ago one of the most vocal preparedness proponents in the state. But she said an in-built “it will never happen to me” attitude has shaken her faith in that approach.
New Jersey did recently undergo a large-scale exercise to prepare a response to a potential nuclear explosion scenario in the region.
The four-day drill, referred to as Gotham Shield, was organized by FEMA and conducted during the last week of April. A number of local emergency services agencies participated in the exercise, which was centered at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford.
FEMA officials were not immediately available to provide additional comment on the drill.
Political plum no more
Prior to last year, New Jersey’s emergency manager title was what Barry Eck of the New Jersey Emergency Management Association called a “political plum.”
“It was something elected officials gave to be friendly to individuals that could help them,” Eck said. “On the surface, these assignments weren’t being done with the best interests of the state in mind.”
But the organization, in partnership with the New Jersey County Coordinators Association, has since established a professional New Jersey Certified Emergency Manager credential. The new credential requires people to demonstrate real proficiency in disaster preparedness.
“We encountered some resistance to this (from current emergency managers concerned about additional scrutiny) early on,” Eck said. “But they’ve since seen it’s to their benefit, and we’re getting a tremendous amount of support for it.”
“We’re just not going to be able to change that mentality,” she said. “So, my focus now is working with communities to bring them together for the recovery aspect. And I think there has been an overall paradigm shift from preparedness to recovery.”
Sagi, who spearheaded a disaster preparedness campaign through Disaster and Risk Associates LLC, will bluntly tell you that she doesn’t believe it’s possible to get enough people to care enough in advance about the potential of disaster to prepare adequately for the next one.
She’s worn down by optimism bias. The notion of another potential Sandy-like storm or any other disaster is simply not as potent as the real thing.
That doesn’t mean she’s out of the fight.
“I just think people will come to the table more quickly, especially businesses, if the focus is on recovery instead,” she said. “And if you’re bringing more businesses to the table, it will also change the paradigm in this area from being all about nonprofits.”
This has come to the fore in what she advocates for today. She sees the private sector as having the most skin in the game when it comes to disaster recovery.
She also sees local businesses as being connected to their respective communities and capable of interacting with disaster survivors in a way not all large nonprofits or federal organizations are.
“Nothing against these agencies, they’re really still the foundation,” she said. “But, for example, in Newark recently, there was a recovery plan with FEMA (boasting that) it’s available in Spanish. That’s great, but they’re speaking mostly Portuguese there.”
Eck agrees that the private sector can be an asset in alleviating the impact of disasters.
“I recall asking for pallet jacks for moving cases of water (during the Sandy recovery) and having local industries bring us brand new ones within a week,” he said. “The local private sector can be tremendously helpful, but they’re also somewhat limited in what they can do.”
The infusion of funding into preparing for emergency situations that Eck is calling for is something that would require more of an investment from the public sector — even if attention in this area lessens with each day that passes since the last major event.
“Preparedness can’t be an afterthought,” he said. “We need to pressure elected officials all the way from the top to the local level in order to get support we need.
“We need to hold our officials accountable for public safety being more than lip service.”