Disaster Management and the CDC: Zombies for a Safer America

Cover from original reportIntroduction

Hurricane Katrina was a Category 3 when it made landfall, when the event had concluded approximately 1,353 direct fatalities were recorded (Johnson, 2006). The terrorist attack on September 11th, 2001 claimed 2,753 from the World Trade Center (Caruso, 2011), 125 from the Pentagon, and 256 from the four planes involved in the attacks (National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, 2004). Contrast these morbid figures with Hurricane Ike, classified as one of the costliest more destructive hurricanes in U.S. history (FEMA, 2009), which had less than fifty deaths on U.S. soil (NOAA, 2012), zero deaths from Richard Reid’s (a.k.a. Shoe Bomber) failed attack on American Airlines Flight 53 (CNN, 2009), or zero deaths from Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s (a.k.a. Underwear Bomber) failed attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 (The New York Times, 2012). With the risk of oversimplifying these tragic events’ causes and effects, one of the more significant reasons for these dichotomistic figures is due to the response of the people directly involved. People in the affected area of Hurricane Ike evacuated, and people on the American Airlines Flight 53 and Northwest Airlines Flight 253 apprehended their would be executioners. While government has a huge part to play in all of these events, and to not down play the plethora of research and case studies on the more tragic of these events, there is an inescapable conclusion regarding the possible death toll in any hazard situation, and that is how people respond.

This paper will tackle four points of discussion. The first section will present the foundational principles of disaster management through the optic of a literature review. The second section will examine the novel and highly effective methods that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) used to help educate the American people about preparing for disaster. The third portion will analyze the CDC’s novel approach through the scope of organizational change. The fourth and final section will offer suggestions based on the literature and the outcomes from the CDC’s project.

It is important to stress that this paper’s review of homeland security/disaster management is admittedly incomplete. This field is rich with ideas, articles, and lively debates. In order to capture a true 360° view, it would require more than can be offered in a single student’s research paper.

NOTE: This report was originally created for George Mason University’s -College of Humanities and Social Sciences/Dpt. of Public and International Affairs- Organization Theory and Management Behavior class (summer 2012). This report is the reflection and opinions of this author only, and do not necessarily state or reflect those of George Mason University, or the U.S. Government. 

Articles Contents


Section 1: Literature Review & Foundations of Disaster Management

A good place to start in any discussion about disaster management is to define the terms that will be used. While this might seem plebian, there is confusion amongst the different agencies and researches as to what some of these foundational words actually mean.

Disaster Management is a term that encompasses a range of policies and practices developed to prevent, manage, and reduce the impact of disaster (Henstra & McBean, 2005). This definition gives a very general idea of what the actual scope of the discipline encompasses, but it still leaves the reader unsatisfied. A more inclusive explanation, still lacking definition, is presented by the National Institute of Health (NIH). It defines the term as followed: “as the body of policy, administrative decisions and operational activities required to prepare for, mitigate, respond to, and repair the effects of natural or man-made disasters,” (U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2003). This definition introduces the idea that a disaster can be natural or man-made. It also introduces a vital keyword: mitigate. To go for a more conclusive definition, this paper turns to the current United States Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano. In her opening statement at her senate hearing, she said the following:

To secure the homeland means to find and kill the roots of terrorism, to stop those who intend to hurt us, to wisely enforce the rule of law at our borders, to protect our nation’s infrastructure, and to be prepared for and to respond to homeland disasters with speed, skill, compassion, effectiveness, and common sense. (Napolitano, 2009)

As can be seen from these three definitions, the terms homeland security and disaster management is varied. Indeed, as late as 2008, no explicit agreement about the definition of homeland security exists (Bellavita, 2008). Ironically, if the reader were to look up the definition of “terrorism,” they would also find different definitions from the FBI, Intelligence Community (IC), DHS, and other agencies. Bellavita (2008) identifies up to seven defensible definitions.

  • Terrorism
    • Homeland security is a concerted national effort by federal, state, and local governments, by the private sector, and by individuals to prevent terrorist attacks within the United States, reduce America’s vulnerability to terrorism, and minimize the damage and recover from attacks that do occur.
  • All Hazards
    • Homeland security is a concerted national effort to prevent and disrupt terrorist attacks, protect against man-made and natural hazards, and respond to and recover from incidents that do occur.
  • Terrorism and Catastrophes
    • Homeland security is what the Department of Homeland Security – supported by other federal agencies – does to prevent, respond to, and recover from terrorist and catastrophic events that affect the security of the United States.
  • Jurisdictional Hazards
    • Homeland security means something different in each jurisdiction. It is a locally-directed effort to prevent and prepare for incidents most likely to threaten the safety and security of its citizens.
  • Meta Hazards
    • Homeland security is a national effort to prevent or mitigate any social trend or threat that can disrupt the long-term stability of the American way of life.
  • National Security
    • Homeland security is an element of national security that works with the other instruments of national power to protect the sovereignty, territory, domestic population, and critical infrastructure of the United States against threats and aggression.
  • Security Über Alles
    • Homeland security is a symbol used to justify government efforts to curtail civil liberties.

Of these possible choices, the “all hazards” definition is the de facto standard for many (Bellavita, 2008), and the definition of choice for this paper. To lend credence to this claim, President Bush authorized the Homeland Security Presidential Directive 8 (HSPD-8). HSPD-8 emphasizes the need to prepare and respond to domestic terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies (Caudle, 2005). The most appealing facet of this description is the realization that all hazards have a great deal in common. By adopting this concept, it also frees up crisis mangers to focus in on the specific needs and vulnerabilities in their environments. At this point, it should be noted the terms homeland security and disaster management are similar enough in scope and meaning based on our “all hazard” definition that this paper has used these terms interchangeably.

Disaster is the next term that needs to be operationalized. A disaster is a social phenomenon that stems from interactions between two key elements: hazards and vulnerabilities (Henstra & McBean, 2005). The term social might seem an odd word to use, but one must keep in mind that if a hurricane hits a deserted island, it is not a disaster. If a terrorist blows up an abandoned shack in the backwoods of the U.S., and no one was hurt or witnessed the event, it is not a disaster either. Disasters, by definition, must have a social component. It must impact people.

The components of a disaster, hazard and vulnerabilities, need to be further deconstructed. A hazard is defined as the triggering agents stemming from nature, human activity, or technological (Edwards, 2007). They are any potential threat to something people value: life, health, environment, and/or lifestyle (Henstra & McBean, 2005). Vulnerability is a susceptibility to injury or loss influenced by physical, social, economic, and cultural factors (Henstra & McBean, 2005). It is the interactions between these two that determine the impact and severity of a disaster.

Hazards & Vulnerabilities

Proper disaster management consists of four components: 1) preparedness, 2) response, 3) recovery, and 4) mitigation (Henstra & McBean, 2005).

  • Preparedness, like emergency planning and training (Waugh Jr. & Streib, 2006), is used to discover the best practices and to develop plans of action in the event of an actual emergency. For individuals, having fire drills or going to rally points could express this.
  • Response is the events that occur during and immediately after the event to try to stop further damage. It can be expressed as conducting search and rescue activities (Waugh Jr. & Streib, 2006), getting out of a house on fire, going to the rally point, etc.
  • Recovery usually means “the restoration of lifelines and basic services,” (Waugh Jr. & Streib, 2006).
  • Mitigation, arguably the most important of these four components, is the emerging trend for disaster management. This is the attempt to prevent or lessen the impact of disaster before the disaster occurs, for example, building proper levees or moving people out of floodplains (Waugh Jr. & Streib, 2006).

The Bad News

All disasters are local, since all responses begin and end with local emergency responders

-Dale Rowley

Sadly some hazards are simply unavoidable. Each year there will be hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, fires, and “ManBearPig” sightings. Disaster managers, depending on their functions and locations, must prepare for flu pandemic, major earthquakes, dirty bomb attacks, major hurricanes, or bioterrorism (Kettl, 2006). With this list, even Kettl, in 2006, couldn’t have predicted the massive ecological disaster of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

Whatever the manifestation of these hazards, they are aptly described as “wicked” in nature (Kettl, 2006). They provide little time to react and the cost of failure can very often be enormous in both loss of capital and life (Kettl, 2006). It is believed that the cost of these disasters will only increase in the coming years due to climate change and the increased demands on government to provide more assistance in recovery efforts (Henstra & McBean, 2005). This increased demand was witnessed during the Deepwater fiasco as the government and BP were expected to supplement loss of revenues to those whose livelihoods were based on the Gulf.

Based on the information that no organizational policy can be 100% effective in preventing a disaster (Kettl, 2007; Henstra & McBean, 2005), as well as the lessons learned in Hurricane Katrina and other events, neighborhoods and communities may not receive assistance for hours or days (Waugh Jr. & Streib, 2006). It is therefore important to mitigate causative agents and consequences of a disaster. One of the findings from the Gilmore Commission emphasized that in order to protect the nation, there needs to be an integration of efforts from “federal, state, regional and local governments, not-for-profit and other nongovernmental organizations, private-sector entities, international organizations and nation-states, and individual,” (Caudle, 2005). While the various organizations learn these valuable lessons, communities must build resiliency, and the individual must become responsible for his or her own safety.

It is with this idea of building resiliency in the citizenry of the United State that the CDC’s campaign, “If you’re ready for a zombie apocalypse, then you’re ready for any emergency,” will be analyzed.

Social Media: Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse

The banner image for the CDC’s Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse. Click image to go to the CDC’s website.

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