This transcript was compiled using automated software — spelling and punctuation errors are possible.
Jason: Welcome to another episode of the Crisis Response Podcast. Today I am joined by Jeff Schlegelmilch, the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University and the author of Rethinking Readiness: A Brief Guide to 21st Century Mega Disasters. Thank you for joining me, Jeff, it’s a real pleasure to have you.
Jeff: Thanks for having me, Jason. Always great to catch up and talk to you.
Jason: Let’s start off with your work with the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University. What does the NCDP do and what is your role entail?
Jeff: Well, it’s a very encompassing title. Being based in academia, of course, one of the first things that comes to mind is research, which is a component of what we do that has been around since the beginning. Then in the post 9/11 days there was a need for translation of research into policy and practice.
So the center was originally founded before my time, founded by Dr. Irwin Red Leonard, a pediatrician and children’s advocate, and was founded at the School of Public Health with some of the bioterrorism curriculum development funding in the Centers for Public Health Preparedness. So it really had this focus on all of these medical questions and public health questions.
One of the ones that our center famously worked on back then was pediatric doses for exposure to weaponized anthrax. Here’s something that has a very operational need to be informed. At the time, we were worried about anthrax attacks anywhere in the country. There’s not a lot of good data on, you know, infants exposed to weaponized inhalational anthrax in the proper dose of antibiotics. It’s a good thing we don’t have that data, but something that emergency departments were wrestling with. So we would do things like hold consensus conferences, bring physicians, bring scientists into a room, and say, look, we don’t have the answer, but we have the pieces of the answer. We know things like what antibiotics you would give an infant, what antibiotics anthrax is generally susceptible to, and so we can piece together interim recommendations until the unlikely event that there’s more data available and we can augment from there.
So I think that’s a really shining example of the impact orientation from the very origins of the center. Over the years, the portfolio grew and the balance of research policy and practice sort of ebbs and flows depending on the scope of the portfolio we’re working on.
Years later, again, before I joined, it moved over to the Earth Institute, which is now part of the Columbia Climate School. There are a variety of reasons for that move, most of what the center was looking at was in some way linked to climate change, looking at an all-hazards environment.
I came to the center and started as a managing director and then deputy director, and then took over about two and a half years ago. Irwin is still a senior research scholar and doing some great work with the center, but there was a leadership transition, and I formally took over and the center continues to follow in the enormous footsteps that he left of creating and contributing to the evidence base as much as possible.
But no matter where the research comes from, making sure that the end state is not in a journal on the shelf, but is actually working its way into the contemporary issues of policy and practice. We do that through training, we do it through advisory roles, we do it through consultative roles, and now through developing new collegiate courses and executive education courses and things through the newly formed climate school at Columbia University.
Jason: Wow. So you start in the post 9/11 period focused on anthrax and the impact on children, which is a very specific area of research, though like you said very practical at the time. Where have you gone since then? Because obviously that’s not the top of people’s concern list anymore. Where did you go from there?
Jeff: It’s a good question, and the example of anthrax is just one of many sorts of health and medical type of questions like that that we were addressing.
But over the years we sort of grew as we expanded into community, with a number of landmark research projects the center did looking at cohorts of children and families exposed to some of the disasters that followed Hurricane Katrina, the Gulf Oil spill, Hurricane Sandy. Looking at what the long term and short-term health and mental health effects those had.
Then as we sort of grew, we expanded further and further into the community, we inevitably started looking at, well, okay, we’ve observed these trends, now how do we actually work with the whole community? If we know children are connected to all these parts of the community, how do we start to engineer solutions? And maybe solutions aren’t the right word, but bring the community assets and community members that have these capacities and help in the processes to build coalitions that are oriented towards meeting the needs of children in disasters.
A grant we had from GSK was very instrumental through our Resilient Children and Resilient Communities initiative to sort of take all these observations and all this research on the connectedness of children with their communities and then look at who are the institutions that serve children every day, who are the institutions responsible for responding to disasters, and how can we help connect and translate the evidence base into tools and resources that are usable.
That’s evolved too into more and more work with the private sector. We’ve worked with utilities, we’ve worked with financial firms, all of which have similar questions on, okay, if there are grid outages in different neighborhoods, what’s the impact. If there are investments that could be made to help offset losses in the future to things like flooding or increased rainfall or increased wildfire risk, what is it that we need to know.
So it’s a very challenging time with the disasters that we face, but it’s also, I would say, a more engaged base across different sectors trying to work together and seek out answers than ever before.
It’s funny, you look back on the work of the center in the portfolio, and it’s like looking back at photos in the family photo book, right. You’ve like, oh, where did all the time go? But as you’re going through it, it’s a very sort of logical progression, sort of expanding the work that you’re doing and reaching out with other folks and just trying to connect the dots and for us to learn just as much as we are contributing.
We can contribute what we know from the science and what we know from our experiences, but we also have a tremendous opportunity to learn. If a company in the private sector is trying to sell within their company, more investments in resilience, more investments in climate mitigation and climate adaptation, what’s the kind of data that’s more useful in their world and in their context.
And the same goes for individuals if we want individuals to be more prepared, if we want communities to be more resilient, it’s not going to come from a spreadsheet likely, or it’s not going to come from something in an academic journal. How do we take the information out of that and turn it into something that can be integrated into the way people make decisions every day, whether at home, whether at work, whether in their groups, in the community.
Jason: About connecting the dots and looking back on your portfolio and clearly one way that you connected all the dots was in your book, Rethinking Readiness: A Brief Guide to Twenty-First Century Mega Disasters. How did this book come about, what was it that inspired you to write this, and what were you trying to achieve?
Jeff: You know, I’d love to say it came to me in a moment of brilliance or it came to me in a dream, but really it came to me in a conversation Irwin and, you know, we were talking about different ideas and some different things of looking at the future. It was actually originally from Irwin, the specific sort of categories that were outlined in the book. So we were both talking about the fact we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but we know there are certain trends, there are certain disasters where human activity is driving both the threat, the bad thing that you know is trying to happen and the underlying vulnerability. Climate change as an example, you know, pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
We wanted to look at the different categories, and Irwin had this enumeration of things, and chose the topics that are covered, which are bio threats, climate change, infrastructure failure, cyber threats, and nuclear conflict.
So as we sort of talk through the book and talk through what each of these topics was it became an incredible sort of framing of if somebody comes to you and says, what do I need to know about disasters and what we face in the 21st century, that this would be a starting point to be able to say, well look, here are the kinds of threats we face. Here are some different dynamics. Then from there you can dep dive into different areas and read additional books and articles and things. But if someone wants to wrap their head around what we are facing and what we can do, that was sort of the intent of the book, to put that all together in one place.
And I’m certainly indebted to Irwin for the idea and the framing elements that the book is shaped in.
Jason: The timing of it, it was published in mid-2020, but it takes a while to go from idea to draft to publication. I’m interested, how did your perspective on pandemics change? Once Covid started, I mean, were you reading your own book about to be released thinking this is exactly what we predicted or were there a lot of things that you didn’t foresee happening?
Jeff: Yeah, so the book was done and was submitted in final draft I believe in December of 2019. So we were going through the final production process when Covid emerged as something suspicious and then ultimately into what we now know as the Covid-19 pandemic.
So we had this conversation with the editors at Columbia University Press, they took it back and we had some conversations and really it was sort of an inflection point of, what do we do with a book like this at a time like this? Do we rush it, or do we hold off and revise it after the pandemic?
We had no telling how long the pandemic was going to go, and as I was rereading the pandemic chapters and what the experts had to say, I was like, this is actually important for the pandemic and important for how we frame it and how we look at recovery from it. So in consultation with Columbia University Press and really through their support we rushed publication and actually had it available in various forms in June of 2020.
To get to your question more precisely though, what we ended up doing was putting a preface at the beginning of the book talking about the pandemic and acknowledging it and looking at sort of how the book plays into this and these overarching themes.
I think in broad strokes I wouldn’t change much because the overall themes were what played out and unfortunately that’s no accident. We have the history of how pandemics play out, and we have the experts who are involved with planning, who knew the shortcomings. But if there were two things that I would do differently if I were to write the book now, one is I would put more attention on the importance of politics in pandemics, which has always been a feature in pandemics, but obviously we saw that up close and personal. I think a number of people were shocked at the level of politics in the pandemic, which looking at the history books, is not necessarily something that should have been such a shock.
It’s not unusual for things of this nature to have the level of political intervention that we had seen and continue to see to this day. And the other issues of equity that really came to light and a lot of the racial reckoning over the last several years. There was some discussion of equity and disasters and inequity and disasters, but I think that in a very important way that has come to light through a number of activists and is probably deserving of even more attention in any text focused on disasters.
So I don’t think we missed anything, between the editors, the reviewers, myself, but there are some things I think maybe we would’ve expanded on with more words and more references and insights.
Jason: That’s really interesting, the politicization of disaster response and getting involved. I think it goes without saying that funding for disaster preparedness usually happens retrospectively, right. After 9/11 was probably the biggest infusion of support for public safety and emergency response systems, at least from my perspective, correct me if I’m wrong. Then the farther we got away from 9/11, the more that funding decreased.
I’m wondering, with these ebbs and flows of funding for disaster preparedness and response mechanism and infrastructure, what are the big challenges that communities are facing and what are some ways that they can deal with that? I find it, again in our work at Trek Medics, especially working in low- and middle-income countries, I often feel like I’m pitching an insurance scheme, right. If we want to set up an emergency medical system, we’re kind of couching it in terms of this is an insurance policy to prevent things from getting bad. How do you see these challenges playing out at the local level and what kind of effective ways have you seen communities deal with them?
Jeff: I think at the community level is where in general you see the most inspiring and the most important stories of success. Because you don’t have the benefit of distance from the disaster in those circumstances. And so you see a lot of coming together of different sectors and things like that.
Now, of course, a lot of the times the things that make the news are the ugly town halls and the conflicts and things like that. But really, in my work and I think a lot of folks who work in disasters, that is not really the norm. What you do see a lot more is folks saying, politics aside, how do we figure this out?
Now there are biases involved with that. Folks who have a seat at the table get a louder voice at times, and so issues of equity can be divided much wider. But I think that how it plays out can vary at different levels. So the importance of community representation and community involvement is really critical in any kind of understanding nationally or internationally of the disaster experience.
To get more directly to your question, I think another piece to this is that we have to look at what the value proposition is that we use for investments in disaster. Because sometimes, and you know I’m ashamed to say I’m as guilty of this as anyone, in the years after 9/11 it was always “you’ve got to do this or you’re going to die. Your family is going to die, so you have to do this now.” And then anyone who didn’t, it’s like, well, you just don’t know anything you’re ignorant.
I’ll give an example. In the healthcare system we’d point to Katrina and say, look at these hospitals, you could be next. And if we waited a few years, we would see the hospitals being shut down through changes in billing processes and reimbursement issues and things like that, and we would have realized that hospitals were actually dealing with another existential crisis that didn’t come from an earthquake or a hurricane but came from the financial situation and the expense of healthcare. So we were not appreciating that disasters weren’t the only thing that people have going on in their lives.
And interestingly, some of the most attention to come from healthcare in the years after 9/11, was when in Katrina it was found that Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements had a bunch of rules involved with it, one of which came into focus that required a certain degree of preparedness and enumerated certain requirements for preparedness for hospitals to be eligible for the reimbursements.
All of a sudden, we had C-Suite attention that grants could never do. I mean, grants were seen as important, and at the time I had worked in healthcare for a number of years and preparedness was always taken seriously, but the level of attention that it was getting because of this change was massive. It turned out, I believe for the healthcare system I’d worked with, it was in the neighborhood of a third of the revenue came from those Medicare and Medicaid resources, so all of a sudden that entire revenue stream could potentially be at risk by the way this new rule was being promoted.
I mention all of this because I think it shows that how we would explain this to a large business might be a little different than how we would explain it to an academic, and that’s ok, right. The world that everyone lives in is driven by different incentives and different value propositions, and if we’re asking someone to invest large sums of time and money into preparedness, we have to be able to articulate the value of that and what that value is and change our vocabulary used to articulate that value to different audiences.
So I know with some of the work that we’re doing and even in the way that I’m designing some of the classes that I teach, it’s to develop ways to sort of broaden the vocabulary but also to broaden the empathy for different audiences that you’re working with to realize what the end result is, what the behavior change you want to achieve is, and what the pathway towards getting there is.
Sometimes it’s about money. Should it be? I don’t know, probably not in a lot of cases, but it is. And just as another side note. Being a center director and having to manage budgets, including things like people’s salaries, it’s not something to just cast aside when people say it’s about money, because there are jobs tied to that money, there are livelihoods tied to that. It’s not small thing to have to be in charge of someone else’s job security.
Jason: Absolutely. That makes total sense. I think that’s fascinating, and at the same time, very predictable. You threatened somebody’s income and in the case of health systems, well that got their attention, and now all this change that seemed like it was so slow is coming quite quickly.
If there is one threat, one mega disaster that you’re most concerned about here domestically in the United States, what would it be? What’s the one that you’re like, oh, this is the one that if it happens, we’re in trouble?
Jeff: So this is talked about a little bit in the book, I believe it’s Professor Adam Sobel who articulates this specifically, but one of the biggest catastrophes that keeps us up at night in both the climate science community and the disaster response community is drought.
There are a lot of big, high-profile disasters, you know, hurricanes, wildfires are getting much worse, all sorts of things creating really intense and devastating disasters. But drought is a slow-moving disaster. Drought is something that over time, with each passing year, it gets tougher and tougher on the community, and it affects the health and the mental health and the economic health of communities. And we’re headed down a path of heat and drought and humidity where we could see large swaths of the world that may be virtually uninhabitable without significant dependence on air conditioning or on climate control systems.
Then there are things like crop failures in nation states that are already teetering on the brink and now have increased conflict as a result.
But you asked domestically, and the reason why I mentioned this domestically is we do have these vulnerabilities domestically, but even more so we look at the immigration issues, particularly along the southern border, we look at the humanitarian deployments and the stress on the national security apparatus. So there’s a series of dominoes that start to fall as these pressures are placed on other parts of the world that drives extraordinary climate migration and climate immigration that we’re not ready for through our policies and through our thinking.
Some of the most forward-thinking institutions on climate change and the impacts of associated disasters and risks is the military, is the national security apparatus. Looking at the vulnerability of forces, the increased deployment, the increase in state instability driven by it. So these things that will last for generations or longer if left unmitigated and if left unaddressed.
And to prepare, it’s going to require a combination of both international policy but also domestic policy. Domestic policy on immigration, domestic policy on how we operate as a nation with our internal food systems and where we live within the United States, and so many more layers of pressures impacting us domestically via a global event.
Jason: That’s really fascinating that you would say drought, that makes a whole lot of sense too. I find it so interesting talking with folks from different countries, particularly when you’re talking to Europeans about the idea that in the United States that if you own land that water passes through, you own that water. That’s such a foreign concept to people in other countries.
I wonder, do you ever see that changing? Even now, as you know we’re looking at record low levels of water in some of our largest rivers, do you ever see that policy changing or is that so embedded in American culture and society that it is what it is and it’s not changing.
Jeff: Wow, that’s a really good question. I mean, on the one hand I see the potential for everything to change, because so many of these laws and rules were built in a time that just does not exist anymore. You know, with water rights or immigration, things were based on the scarcity of resources or on economic development, right, and growing the population. So there’s just a lot of things baked into these laws and baked into these rules that are just less relevant and certainly less within the context of the 21st century, which would make me think everything is on the table.
I think we’re seeing that with the pandemic and with public health laws. Ironically, a lot of state constitutions and state public health laws were put in place during the time of yellow fever and smallpox and gave tremendous authority to public health officials to do what’s needed to stop an outbreak. And now today we are seeing a backlash against that in a lot of states. We’re seeing state constitutions being amended and laws being repealed to roll back some of that, and so I think that demonstrates that just because something has been on the books for decades and even centuries, does that math work out for the long-term? So at the very least, I think the books need to be reopened and looked at.
Now with that being said, there’s something unique about American culture, maybe not unique but maybe more extreme than a lot of other places, that this was a pioneer country, that this is where, you know, individual rights and individual freedoms and their owning property is very fundamental to the creation of the nation. It’s where people left other parts of the world to come to, to have those individual freedoms. And I do have a little bit of empathy even during the pandemic with policies that I don’t agree with, but for many people, this individualism, this individual freedom is one of the most sacred things that they have, and it’s a lot to ask them to give it up. I think we lose sight of that in a lot of the polarization that we have.
And again, it’s not that we need to rethink all of our assumptions, but we also need to remember fundamentally, kind of what these core beliefs are, so yeah, I’m sort of answering around the question because frankly I have no idea, but I think everything’s getting put up on the table.
What actually changes and what doesn’t is going to be subject to some very, to put it politely, vigorous debate, from these different sorts of polls that I’ve outlined.
Jason: Yeah, clearly that’s a crystal ball nobody has, and we won’t know until it happens for the most part.
So you’ve got a new book coming out soon, I take it sometime this year. Share a little about that if you can, what’s the title and what’s the focus?
Jeff: Thank you for bringing that up, it actually relates to some of the discussions that we’ve had, but the title of the book is Catastrophic Incentives: Why our Approaches to Disasters Keep Falling Short.
If you google that right now, nothing is going to show up, as it’s just in production now with our colleagues at Columbia University Press. So there’ll be more and more to see as the months continue, and I’m hoping later this year that’ll be more widely available.
But it’s co-authored with my colleague Dr. Ellen Carlin at Georgetown University. She came from the legislative side of things and also with the bipartisan commission on biodefense, where she was co-director for a number of years. We’ve previously collaborated on a number of articles, and I think both share the frustration when we’re watching the news and we’re seeing experts say things like, “we couldn’t have known,” and we’re over here calling BS on that.
It’s really about getting to the bottom of why there are all these issues. Early on in the pandemic we had written a few op-eds and we were sort of lamenting how fundamental to all of these different sectors responding were business models and different incentives that steer behavior, and it was all driving so much of what we do. So we decided to a full book about it, and we went to our colleagues at Columbia University Press, who were very gracious, we worked through the process and ultimately ended up under contract.
Essentially the first half of the book looks at the different eras of disaster response as we’ve defined them from 9/11 to now. So to give a couple of examples, in the post 9/11 world it was very security oriented, very homeland security and terrorism focused. After Hurricane Katrina it sort of switched back to natural disasters focused. Then we saw H5N1 and a focus on pandemics. So through each of those sort of eras as we define them, we take a look at what was going on in the world, what were the kinds of disasters we were seeing and how did four different sort of societal sectors respond. Those being industry, nonprofits, government, and academia.
Then the second half of the book we break down each of those sectors and we look at why they responded the way that they did. You know, after 9/11 there were a huge number of degree programs coming onto the scene for Homeland Security Degrees, with tons of money coming in and lots of demand for them. Why were they coming on board so quickly? Well, there’s an incentive and a need for them, and sort of these market signals that don’t get talked about a lot.
And a lot of times we think in academia you just do what you think you should do, and you follow the data where it goes and in some circumstances that’s true, but there are these larger forces where you have to fund your work. I always tell folks at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness; I think we’re fortunate to have had great funders and we do great work with people. But I always say our strategy is what we want to do, but our funding is what we actually do.
Now our funding is of course a subset of what we want to do, we pursue projects we’re passionate about and do them, but of course, there’s more things that we think should be done and need to be done that might not necessarily be fundable by a government funder or in the interests of a mission driven agency to do some exploratory research in an area that’s not immediately viable.
So these are things we have to contend with every day, and the purpose of the book is not to name and shame not by a long shot, but is to really just help better understand what are these dynamics at play, and either we need to look at these incentives and see if we can alter them or rewire them or better acknowledge and utilize these organizations for what they’re built to do.
I should also give a quick shout out, we do have some wonderful insights from yourself, Jason, as you recall in the chapter on nonprofits and how nonprofits have to navigate this world. It’s very aspirational and I think, very admirable the work that you do and the work that nonprofits do to navigate this space. But there are very real pressures that are experienced, and I know that you have to contend with the funders, with host nations, with other parties that are an important part of the ability to do that work, and that creates constraints on what can be done versus what’s needed.
Jason: So that’s actually my next question, the dynamics of nonprofits in disaster response or even preparedness. It would seem to me, and I think others would share this, that at face value you wouldn’t want a nonprofit leading your disaster response efforts. But as we see time and time again all over the world, it is often nonprofits that are leading response efforts, especially in mega disasters. I mean, we’re just watching the news right now about the earthquake in Turkey and Syria and you know, one of the questions that comes up is, well what about the government? Well they were affected by the earthquake too, right. Government buildings don’t get spared because they’re the government.
You know, back in Haiti, that was the case, basically the entire UN apparatus collapsed in the earthquake, which really set back response efforts. But I’m wondering why is it that nonprofits play such a prominent role in disaster response, and do you think that that’s a direction we should continue to be headed in?
Jeff: Yeah, well technically I work for a not-for-profit, Columbia University is a 501c, you know, like many universities, many healthcare systems.
You know I think it’s an interesting and important question and we’ve done some writing on this as well too, but disaster researcher Russell Dynes observed, I believe in his seminal paper in 1970, the emergent behavior of organizations and disasters. What you have at different types of organizations, essentially you have some that are built to respond, and you expect to respond, which are emergency management, first responders, Red Cross, sort of pre-established and ready to go organizations. Then you have varying degrees of emergence and extension. Some organizations like faith-based organizations might extend their reach into the community and take on new tasks. And then the furthest along are these ones that completely emerge in a disaster. They didn’t exist before a disaster and oftentimes emerge because no one else is doing it. There’s a community need and no one else is doing this thing.
I mentioned this because in our observations in some of the work we’ve done in disaster areas, the first type is there, the large nonprofits, the response agencies, and they’re there and they’re pre-established contracts and rules of engagement. But the larger they are, the more the impact to the brand and the brand’s ability to do work is a risk factor that they need to consider. And so it makes it harder to do things that you don’t have a protocol for, even if you see a need for it, brand risk is kind of factored in. Again, I’m not judging this, it’s just an important reality here.
So what you’ll see is you’ll see other maybe smaller nonprofits who are a little nimbler but don’t have the ability to gain resources and to do these things.
So nonprofits serve a role. There’s a gap between what government does, what the private sector does, and what people need. And nonprofits either are pre-positioned to do that or they emerge to do it, and so I think that there’s something very important to that, that there’s always going to be gaps and nonprofits by definition are meant to mee that need and fill that gap.
Now, I’m probably going to get myself in a little bit of trouble here and say that nonprofit is a massive industry and it’s only been made bigger by the amount of disasters and the amount of money flowing to disasters, whether through individual donors, through corporate donors, through government contracts to do work, and it creates an industry that can have behaviors not unlike for-profit industries, which sort of optimize around where the most money is and maybe move away from areas that are less funded, including areas like preparedness and mitigation that are tougher to fund and tougher to find donations for.
So this is a very real dynamic and again, I’m not trying to be critical of the organizations themselves, but we have to understand that there are market forces at play in sectors where we might not necessarily intuitively think that there are market forces at play. So I think that there is a need to sort of rethink our work with and the role of nonprofits. Maybe rethink is a strong word, but to better refine the evaluation of nonprofits, the role of nonprofits, to really sort of refine the reliance on them, especially in international settings, but also in domestic settings. Our governments are let off the hook too much because of well financed nonprofits. There’re just a lot of dynamics here that are very necessary in the immediacy of the response to save lives and livelihoods. But in the long run, maybe contributing to an environment that creates suboptimal government response might not be the right balance. It’s just a very fascinating dynamic and it’s one we explore a lot in the book, Dr. Ellen Carlin, and me in our forthcoming book, to try to better understand this dynamic and sort of see how it’s played out in different contexts. So I don’t have a definitive answer, but as you can tell, I think I’m uneasy with the status quo, but I also don’t want to go for the cheap shot and deny all the great and important work that’s done every day.
Jason: Absolutely, and I’m sure you’d also recognize that the whole nonprofit sector, while not exclusive to the United States, but is very heavy to the United States, right. I don’t know what the exact number is, but in terms of philanthropic giving, you know, donations by individuals to nonprofits, a very large share of it happens in the United States, it’s very much a part of our national character, which is to be very suspicious of the government and say we’ll take care of it ourselves.
Jeff: There’s also a large trust element too, and that’s one of the other things, and it’s why it’s somewhat understandable that large brands that have a lot of trust in their brands, that that’s where corporations and wealthy individuals who want to have an impact go to. They don’t have to understand all the nuances, but they know that if they give the money to this trusted entity, it’ll get where it needs to go.
I will say too, something that I’ve observed domestically and internationally is a lot of smaller community nonprofits. There’s sort of two dynamics. One is the gold standard, which is where they really emerge and do amazing work and do things that no one else is doing, but then what happens after the disaster?
Quick example. We were done in Texas in Hurricane Harvey and there was this relief camp that had set up very organically, definitely one of these emergent organizations from a business owner who just, their property hadn’t been severely damaged and ended up as an impromptu refugee camp as they called it for those who were out of their homes from Hurricane Harvey. They registered as a 501, and we helped with some of that process, and we were talking to the person who was running, and she said something that stands out to this day, she said, “I’m going to do this for two years and then I’m done. I’m not setting up a long-term nonprofit. This is going to have to be absorbed back into the social aid structure of the community. I’m not setting this up to be long-term.”
And what struct me with that was that she had built a nonprofit and didn’t get enamored by the money that was coming immediately after the disaster and say, oh this is what I’m going to do forever now. Instead, it was this need is going to wane and ultimately this need will get woven back into the support systems of the community. And there were a couple of other groups who we worked with down there too who had similar approaches and I thought that was really important. Because a lot of the times what we’ll see too is we’ll see a large disaster and we’ll see nonprofits that sort of emerge and then make a business plan to be a permanent nonprofit, and then as years go by and the funding wanes, a lot of them go under. Or a lot of them become, and we see this in humanitarian development, where there’s just this constant dependence where you know, entrepreneurialism is setting up a nonprofit.
Especially, I did my practicum in Ghana, and was in sort of an interesting environment, invited into someone’s home under the auspices of you know just being friendly and it was a friend of a friend, and then I ended up getting pitched donations to this nonprofit that they had set up. It felt more like a shark tank, like a business proposition. And again, not trying to throw shade at people trying to do what they got to do to further their lives and do more, but that sticks out to me as how this economy has been created among NGOs and among nonprofits, and these are important to always have as safety nets in civil society, but again, there’s something I have an uneasiness about with the size and scope and dependence and some of the dynamics at play, again without wanting to take away from the vital nature of the work during disasters as well as after disasters.
Jason: I could certainly attest to that. I’ve seen a lot of that where in fact governments become dependent on the nonprofits to do the work that they’re not doing themselves and whether that’s, oh we’re so grateful they’re doing this work for us, or, great we don’t have to do it now.
Jeff: Yes, absolutely. Sorry to jump in, but I had a conversation, I’m going to try and be careful not to say where, but it was with a public safety agency and a foundation, an equipment heavy organization. But it turned out that most of the equipment and most of the lifesaving equipment that they had was bought by this foundation, which relied on donors. The money that came from the municipality primarily went to really only salaries and the pension fund. So I asked the foundation, should you be doing this? Like, I mean, I understand it’s really important and I’m glad you’re doing this, but should you be doing this? And they said, you know, the board asked them that all the time.
But the reality is that they weren’t going to get the money, and so if they didn’t do it, these responders wouldn’t have what they need to be safe and to be alive. And I think back on that all the time because I’m thinking the is one of those things where anyone looking at the street and seeing the lights and sirens on, they vehicle is going to think the municipality paid for that and they didn’t. So I think the investment of individuals and businesses in the functioning of civil society might not, that actual investment through the tax base might not actually be reflected. I don’t know how to say this, but I just frankly, to this day it just boggles my mind that I could be looking at this response vehicle with the municipality’s name on it and they didn’t pay for it. That they were barely covering the salaries of the people on it. And this was not a small jurisdiction, not by a long shot. So it’s exactly to your point, and I would say that this isn’t just an international phenomenon, it’s a domestic phenomenon as well, this dependence on donors.
I mean, we take for granted that it’s always there, but a big economic downturn or something that has people tighten up their wallets means some of these things we rely on in civil society might not be there because they’re not actually baked into the governance of it. So we rely on the generosity of others to do a job that we think the government is doing.
Jason: Yeah, we’ve run into that ourselves. It’s why is this nonprofit supporting the public emergency communication system. And then we’re in the position of saying, well, we know full well that if we stop supporting it, it’s going to go away, and that there’s some weight, the moral weight there, you feel some responsibility for it. Very complicated questions for sure.
Jeff: I certainly feel like it’s hard to throw shade at any player in this because the agency is just trying to do a job, the nonprofit is filling a need, and even on the political side it’s like, are you going to raise everyone’s taxes by an amount to pay for something that they already see is currently there? It sorts of paints you into a corner and there’s a fragility within all of that. So, I think understanding these underlying business models is really important to sort of understand what drives our decisions to do what we do in the way that we do them, but it also exposes some underlying weaknesses as well as potentially some strengths that are maybe very different than the way we perceive the arrangement of these sectors as they’re oriented in disasters.
Jason: Wow, this is heavy stuff. I feel like I could talk to you, well I mean I know I could talk to you about this for the next two or three hours, but in the end, I don’t know if we’re going to solve it all right now. But I sure am grateful that you are working on this because this is important stuff.
So you’ve got this new book coming out this year. What’s next then for you after that, and what’s next for the National Center for Disaster Preparedness?
Jeff: I think as we talk about all these challenges we’ve faced in disaster preparedness, I think everyone involved including ourselves, sort of knows to a certain extent where the challenges are and how do we do this better.
I would also try to end on a slightly positive note that I think everyone involved in all of these sorts of scenarios, for the most part is striving to do better and to figure out how to crack the code on how to do better.
Now, for our part, we’re sort of growing on a couple different fronts. Our training and education side and the diversity in the types of trainings, whether that’s responder trainings or executive education, we are participating in more and more executive education for groups in the private sector that are involved with some of these levers of change and how investments are calculated to be better informed by the value of resilience and the value of things like equity. But also in training the next generation of leaders with a lot of the skills we wish we had at the time, whether it’s in pre-college programs or in college programs, including some degree granting courses or some course on degree granting programs through the climate school.
But I’d say at the end of the day, it’s having an open mind and seeking out partnerships, seeking out people who operate in worlds that are maybe near ours but not in ours, so that we can better learn how we as academics can do a better job of generating research as well as translating that research in forms that are useful to the good work that really everyone involved, including government, including in industry, including in nonprofits, and including in academia, are seeking to do to build more resilience and ultimately crack the code on what is this ideal structure and idea approach to disaster.
Jason: You know, it reminds me of a time when I was at a conference, the World Association of Disaster and Emergency Medicine, and they introduced a gentleman and said he’s an expert in disaster response. And when he got to the podium, he said, “thank you very much for the kind words, but I’ll have to decline the introduction. Nobody’s an expert in disaster response because we’ve never gotten it right.”
And I thought that was funny, but I also thought, man, we’re really setting the bar high for ourselves because in the end, all of these disasters can overwhelm us so easily, right. I mean it’s like trying to hold the sea back. At some point you are going to be overwhelmed and your resources are going to be exhausted. So it’s more a matter of doing what you can with what you have, and I thank you and everyone that you work with for the awesome work that you are doing. It’s so important. And just peeling back the curtain a little bit on all of this helps a lot of people understand it so much better and get to a better place where they can make decisions and figure out the plan forward.
So thank you, Jeff, for all the work you do and your colleagues at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness do.
Jeff. I appreciate that very much and likewise to you and your team and to all of the listeners as well. We stand on the shoulders of really some amazing work that folks do in communities and in institutions throughout civil society and try to work hand in hand to better the future of the world that we’re in.
Although disasters themselves are very challenging events, the type of intersections, the people coming together can be very inspiring work, and certainly I’m grateful to work with the folks that I do both within the center and beyond the center, through partnerships like yourselves and your listeners.
So thank you for having me and thanks for helping shine a light on a lot of these important discussions.
Jason: My pleasure, thank you, Jeff. Really enjoyed it.
Jeff: All right, thank you Jason.