Earth, Wind, and Fire: Public and Police Response to Natural Disasters

The love and grace and kindness and compassion shown by police and citizens in the wake of natural disasters is a heartwarming reminder that the best in people is frequently found in the worst of times.

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Earlier this week, we reported that Grand Isle (LA) Police Chief Scooter Resweber said that Hurricane Ida—the 'Category 4' storm that slammed ashore from the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday and wreaked havoc as far as New England—was the worst he'd ever seen.

"I've ridden out other hurricanes—Hurricane Isaac, Katrina, Gustav, Ike—and this is no comparison whatsoever," Resweber said.

"I had all the police officers move into the building for safety, and then all hell broke loose," Resweber said. "When the roof started to come apart and the building trembled, we all got scared. We're grown men but you do have fear in you, no matter what job you're in, and we felt it."

A Year of Devastating Disasters

When Resweber's men went out on patrol after the worst of the storm had passed they saw massive damage but found that nobody who chose to ride out the storm had been killed or seriously injured.

Indeed, it's nothing short of miraculous that given the storm's size and strength more Gulf Coast residents weren't killed—as of this writing, Ida is cited as causing two deaths in Mississippi and two in Louisiana.

However, a Connecticut trooper was killed in the storm. Another two dozen people in Maryland, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania were killed by the storm—which had been downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it reached the Northeast—that dumped enough rain in New York's Central Park to break a 94-year-old record. A tornado in southern New Jersey leveled a stretch of homes and floodwaters in New York City turned the subway system into an intricate maze of underground rivers.

Hurricane Ida is just one of the many natural disasters in the United States in the past several months that have had first responders scrambling to preserve life and protect property.

In California's Northstate, the Dixie Fire—which now threatens to burn one million acres in Butte and Plumas Counties before it is finally contained—has drawn assistance from police and fire agencies from throughout the state. The Caldor Fire has burned more than 200,000 acres and threatens the bucolic South Lake Tahoe area which typically hosts nearly 15 million tourists every year, according to the Lake Tahoe Visitors Bureau. The Monument fire will probably eclipse the 200,000 acre mark sometime next week, according to the most current data from CAL FIRE.

We must not forget that at least 125 people died as a direct or indirect result of a deep freeze that enveloped much of the central United States in February. In March, more than 100 tornados in two separate outbreaks claimed at least seven lives.

Needless to say, police play a critical role in response to such natural disasters. I've previously written about law enforcement's responsibility of enforcing mandatory evacuations, preventing looting and theft, conducting rescue and recovery operations, and other vital activities.

It's commonly accepted that police—along with fire and EMS—are America's first responders to all manner of calamity and in many cases they truly are the first to arrive and provide needed aid.

But there are ample examples showing that public safety professionals are in fact, the second to the scene, taking over for the first responders who were first on the scene to deliver immediate care and comfort to those in need. Their efforts must be accounted for, anticipated, and appropriately managed.

Recognizing Some First First Responders

According to the International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters, roughly two-thirds of adults in San Francisco and Santa Cruz Counties "got involved in some sort of emergency response activity" after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Folks like these are often called "emergent volunteers" and while they are frequently enormously helpful, there exists a very real risk that their well-intentioned efforts can create more problems than they resolve.

Consequently, it is a pretty good idea for police (and other public safety entities) to facilitate some type of organization under which "ordinary people" can perform extraordinary tasks when tragedy strikes.

In San Francisco—where I lived for a quarter century—there is a vibrant citizen first responder network called NERT (the Neighborhood Emergency Response Team) fashioned after FEMA's Citizen Corps program. Participants train in personal preparedness and basic disaster response skills such as light search and rescue, injury triage, and ICS.

Across the country, similar organizations under different names (CERT is the most common moniker) exist or can be pretty quickly stood up with the right leadership from local police and fire departments. In addition to ensuring that citizen responders don't become victims, creating such organizations enhances community relations—never a bad thing.

In Butte County—where I now call home and where wildfires are an annual problem—several dozen people actively participate in the Butte County Search and Rescue Team, an all-volunteer, non-profit, non-tax-supported auxiliary arm of the Butte County Sheriff's Office. The organization is comprised of individuals who have passed a background investigation, attended a rigorous 60-hour academy, achieved certification in CPR, First Aid, and other disciplines, and attended regular meetings and ongoing training events.

There are myriad other volunteer organizations in the United States that require similar ability levels of their people so they may handle the difficult work done in the immediate aftermath of a catastrophic event. There are also countless groups made up of people who don't have advanced skills but have substantial will to contribute.

Faith-based groups, local food banks, and neighborhood associations frequently emerge from the rubble and dust to provide shelter, food, and other services. National entities as varied as American Red Cross, Boy Scouts of America, Girl Scouts of the USA, Rotary International, and even collegiate fraternities and sororities have the infrastructure to mobilize thousands of people to do even the smallest thing to help communities affected by disaster.

Finally, don't discount the "mom-and-pop" shops that invariably spring into action to help. Consider the efforts of Willie Ray Fairley—owner of Willie Ray's Q Shack in Cedar Rapids, Iowa—who was named among Fortune Magazine's 50 Greatest Leaders in 2020 after demonstrating above-and-beyond caring in response to natural disasters. After a devastating "derecho" wind storm struck several Midwest states last August—causing $11.5 billion in damage—Fairley leaped into action, serving 400 free meals per day for a month and a half.

On Wednesday, Fairley announced on Facebook, "We're ready to make another trip. We are planning on leaving Monday to head to Louisiana and feed hurricane victims and lineman whoever may need a meal."

Finally, at the very minimum, law enforcement and other public safety entities should do their level best to ensure that the public is prepared in advance with information on what to do in the event of an emergency—everything from planned evacuation routes to procedures people must follow when returning home after a disaster.

Final Words

As I have previously written, Mother Nature can be a cruel creature—she can be an unrelenting, unforgiving, and unrepentant agent of death and destruction.

When disaster strikes, men and women in uniform frequently find themselves standing shoulder to shoulder with the citizens they serve, proving once again the truth of Sir Robert Peel's sentiment that "the police are the public and the public are the police."

The love and grace and kindness and compassion shown by police and citizens in the wake of natural disasters is a heartwarming reminder that the best in people is frequently found in the worst of times.

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Doug Wyllie Crop Headshot
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