by Edward Blakely

In American baseball, cousin to cricket, the batter gets three chances to strike the ball if it comes to him in the correct zone. If the batter fails to strike the ball he/she is out. So, the term strike out has taken on metaphoric significance in daily public life in reference to public policy approaches that fail. These policy responses are deemed strike outs.

After three major disasters in the Gulf-Caribbean, New Orleans, Haiti and now the Gulf oil spill, we have to pronounce the responses as strike outs. These responses were too slow, too shallow and lacking the proper people or equipment to do the job. Placing the blame for these strike outs on politicians, the military or various bureaucracies is misplaced. These strike outs occurred because we have no strategy in any nation or internationally to deal quickly and effectively with large scale natural or man-made disasters.

We look back at what went wrong for example in the Victoria and Canberra fires and see similar patterns. Those in charge couldn’t foresee the scope of the unfolding tragedy nor did they command the resources to deal with the problem effectively. This is not a strike against these hardworking professionals but a strike against the system we all work in. We are under prepared and lack highly skilled and globally available resources to deal with events larger than our local capacities. Moreover, our disaster event managers have been trained to move people out of harms way but seldom have the equipment to deal with the problems at scales larger than their local resources. The reason for this lack of capacity is simple. The events are infrequent and the cost for maintaining the equipment and the skilled people is too high.

The answer is to develop a bank of skilled global disaster professionals and equipment that can be moved to the site of a major disaster within 24 hours, if called upon by national authorities. There are people who know how to cap oil wells, put out fires and to move food and water as well as temporarily house and rebuild communities. Unfortunately there is no international institutional resource to develop or coordinate the requisite disaster people and resources.

Since my sojourn in New Orleans, I have argued that disaster response and management is too complicated to relearn every time we have a big event. Instead, I think we need an international management agency operating under the auspices of the World Bank/United Nations with branch divisions in strategic locations around the world (for example San Francisco for Pacific, Tokyo or Seoul for Asia, Casablanca for Africa/Middle East, Panama for Southern Hemisphere and Glasgow for North Atlantic) that are able to deal quickly with large scale catastrophes.

This organization would have a small staff of disaster management experts who could be dispatched to work with locals in a large event and be backed up with a directory of trained experts who could be called upon for emergencies anywhere in the world. This agency would also develop training programs to increase national and regional/provincial capacities across the globe.

Paying for such a service might be done through insurance premiums collected by national and international insurance firms and reinsurance firms. Cutting disaster cost is in their interest. In addition, there might be an international license for major extractive firms because of the environmental and human risks associated with these industries. Lastly, university training in disaster management needs to be established because the disaster control and management sector is a growing field. We cannot strike out too much is at stake.

Professor Blakely is Honorary Professor at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. He is the former recovery director of New Orleans and held similar roles in Oakland, California in two disasters and assisted with the recovery of New York post 9-11.