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3 Lessons from 2011


As my readers will tell you, I have a large rear-view mirror. I love to look back historically every once in a while just to make sure we are heading toward the best future.

2011 was a memorable year for those of us in the emergency management field — and for the many Americans impacted by disasters. Unfortunately, and believe it or not, there are still some that are continuing to deal with all that happened in 2011.

Massive blizzards simultaneously blanketed dozens of states across the country. As snow melted, parts of the Midwest and upper Midwest experienced severe flooding. Texas and other states fought dangerous wildfires for months. In the spring, our nation was devastated by the deadliest outbreak of tornadoes since the 1950s, with multiple instances over just a few weeks. In August, a magnitude 5.8 earthquake struck Virginia and was felt as far as New York City — just one of the 5,017 earthquakes experienced in 2011, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. And as expected, the 2011 hurricane season didn’t give us a break. We had 19 tropical storms, the third-highest total since records began. Irene became the first hurricane to make landfall since 2008. Days later, Tropical Storm Lee proved that storms don’t have to be hurricane strength to cause significant damage. Then there are the thousands of smaller disasters that communities handled every day, out of the media glare. So as we remember 2011, what lessons did we learn?

First, not all disasters come with warnings — and we all need to be ready. I know, I keep saying this but until everybody listens, I will continue to repeat myself. We have to stop expecting the disaster to fit our plan, after all, just last night (January 16, 2023), Iowa experienced a tornado outbreak! Ultimately we all are vulnerable to these hazards. It’s very difficult to prepare for them at the last minute. If we all take away one lesson from 2011, I hope it’s that we all have a responsibility to be prepared. In advance. Second, we can’t underestimate the importance of the entire team. For a long time, we’ve talked about planning for the needs of the whole community and leveraging the resources of the whole community to meet those needs. We saw it in action repeatedly during 2011.

All of these response and recovery efforts engaged the entire team, including federal, state and local officials, the private sector, nonprofits, the faith-based community, volunteer groups and most importantly, the public. And it made a remarkable difference. Third, 2011 further proved that we must prepare for worst-case scenarios or “maximum of maximums.” Japan’s tragic earthquake, resulting tsunami and power plant meltdown was a big wake-up call for all of us back then but does anyone remember it now?

We need to get serious about planning for incidents that involve significant loss of life, destruction of property and threats to our power grid or other infrastructure.

In many ways, 2011 reinforced what we already know: Disasters can strike anytime, anywhere; it takes the entire team working together to effectively serve communities and survivors; and we must continue to plan for and test ourselves for the maximum of maximums. As we begin 2023, let’s apply those lessons and do our part to help the team by getting prepared. Apparently, at least in Iowa, it is already tornado season.

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