National Disaster Response

 While some minor issues have been experienced, overall the United States has a fairly good disaster response. However, in recent years a major flaw in the system has been exposed. It is this flaw that can actually put you and your loved ones at increased risk, if you are not prepared.

The Major Flaw of Our Nation's Disaster Response

Our country’s emergency response system is primarily designed with the consideration that only one region is struck by a major natural disaster at a time, leaving other regions available to respond. For decades this has worked moderately well. After all, what is the likelihood that more than one area or region would suffer major disasters at the same time or even in rapid succession?

The 2017 hurricane season revealed the weakness of this planning when multiple hurricanes threatened and struck. While the damage could’ve been worse had the storms tracked differently into the mainland, it was still the costliest season on record.

Hurricane Harvey struck near the Houston area in late August, with record rainfall flooding the area.

In early September, Hurricane Irma struck several locations in the Caribbean, including Cuba, and then moved on to hit Florida.

Satellite image of Hurricane Harvey. Image is public domain from NASA Earth Observatory, retrieved from

Less than a month after Harvey, Hurricane Maria become the worst natural disaster to affect Puerto Rico and Dominica.

While not a part of the United States, Costa Rica was struck by Hurricane Nate in early October and became that nation’s most costly natural disaster.

The morning after Hurricane Maria. Image retrieved from Roosevelt Skerrit from Vieille Case, Dominica / Public domain

If we continue to expand into neighboring regions, on September 7, a magnitude 8.2 earthquake, with a Mercalli intensity of IX, struck off the coast of southern Mexico.

Less than two weeks later, on September 19, a magnitude 7.1 struck near the Mexico City area.

Aftermath of the 2017 Chiapas, Mexico, earthquake. Image from, Presidencia de la Rep├║blica Mexicana / CC BY (

In just over a month’s worth of time, four major hurricanes and two earthquakes struck in and around a geographical area that is smaller than the size of the United States. This doesn’t even include several smaller hurricanes that affected Central America and the Caribbean. And, it doesn’t take into account the likelihood of smaller disasters, like local floods, wildfires, and storms that can also affect the area.

When more than one natural disaster severely affects multiple regions of the country the flaw of expecting other areas in the country to be able to help becomes exposed.

Multiple Disasters = Delayed Response

What happens if multiple major natural disasters strike more than one region of the United States? 

While local and state emergency response time within the disaster zone is severely limited, it can take three or more days for emergency relief efforts from outside the affected area to get in and render assistance. This is a big reason 72-hour kits are not enough, and why you’ll be seeing more of push for 96-hour kits (or longer).

With each successive disaster, response time from outside of the affected area will increase. Available resources will diminish because the country’s plan is based on other areas being available to provide assistance.

One region cannot provide much assistance to another if it is also experiencing a major natural disaster. And, with much of the manufacturing, warehouse, and retail companies running just-in-time operations there is little extra to spare when interstate transportation is affected

Without going into any hypothetical sequence of events, just understand that if no other major disasters have happened, outside help will likely arrive within three to four days. However, if the disaster in your area happens after others, the response time will increase and the resources that are available will be much less

As a real-life example, in February 2011 a magnitude 6.1 earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand. Many of the buildings in the business district were unreinforced masonry, and, as a result of the quake damage, many were red-tagged and off-limits. It took six days before portable toilets were able to be distributed throughout the disaster zone, and there was still a shortage. A year later, many households still didn’t have functional plumbing, particularly for wastewater.

Disaster Response Begins with You

Certainly a 72-hour kit will help you initially. But, that’s only a drop of preparedness when you consider the possibility of recovery taking weeks, months or even years.

A related issue is the lack of preparedness of others. In the first few days following a disaster, most people are willing to help. Most of those who are prepared for an emergency are rarely actually prepared for anything lasting more than two or three days. Very few are prepared for anything that extends past three days.

After the stress of a few days of post-disaster recovery, those who aren’t prepared will really start to panic when they realize help hasn’t come, or isn’t as helpful as they expected. The norms and expectations of civil society start breaking down after about three days, and, without adequate law enforcement and government prevention, things can go from bad to worse.

Here's something that isn't well known, if you're lucky outside help will come within three days. Usually external help, like from FEMA or the Red Cross, will take more than three days to get into the worst hit areas. If you're not in the hardest hit zone, or if access to the area has been severely restricted, help might arrive for several days...or longer.

The last thing you need is to expose yourself and your family to those who are not prepared, and who are looking for those who are. The idea of “fair” is gone. Even though they had their chance before the disaster to choose to become prepared, they choose not to. Maybe they spent their money on TVs, game systems, ATVs, or other fun things instead of getting a little better prepared first.

Now, in the aftermath of the disaster, they will see your preparedness as being unfair, and that you should share.

The problem is, too often their idea of sharing may mean taking everything from you and your family. To them it's not fair that you are prepared and they aren't. It's not fair that you have food and supplies and they don't. If the unprepared know what you have, they will come for it, demand it, and take it if necessary.

Many believe you should be able to defend your supplies. While I am not discounting that possibility, a better strategy would be to avoid possible confrontations by either being out of the situation—where you’ve evacuated to a bug out location—or keeping on the low-down, by not apprising others of your preparedness.

The best option in the latter case is to limit exposure to others. Even if you have self-defense options, you will not be able to hold out against an undoubtedly larger force that may come after your supplies if it’s discovered you have what they don’t.

The short of it is, you need to be able to respond to a disaster, and you are responsible for the preparedness of you and your family. If you rely on the government or other group to help, it’s almost guaranteed you, and your family, will end up in a shelter, waiting in lines for a small amount of food and water, with only the clothes on your back and wishing you had done something to become better prepared.

And, what happens if, in that shelter, you and/or your family become exposed to some illness? Not only have you failed to provide and protect for those who count on you by not being prepared, your failure may threaten the well-being of others.

Best to get prepared.

Like many posts from this blog, the above was adapted from my book, Earthquake! What, Where, and How to Prepare (this link is an Amazon affiliate link and I may earn, at no cost to you, a commission from qualifying purchases).


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