Saturday, December 13, 2014


Throughout my degree, the importance of surveillance has been a recurring theme.  Mostly I have learned about disease surveillance in regards to controlling and preventing outbreaks and epidemics.  But, there are many other types of surveillance systems that monitor events in the environment and our societies to warn of potential or imminent disasters.  These include storm surveillance and meteorological reports, tsunami, tornado, drought and fire warning systems as well as government organisations aimed at gathering intel about potential terrorist threats or military actions.  Much like disease surveillance systems, these are geared at notifying governments, institutions, communities and individuals of potential danger so that they can take steps to prepare and protect themselves as well as their assets to minimise the damage as much as possible.

For example, the identification and tracking of a tropical cyclone by a satellite allows those monitoring the system to inform governments, institutions (such as hospitals and schools), communities, businesses and individuals about where the storm might hit, how powerful it will be and how long it might last.  This information can be used to predict the amount of damage the storm may cause and highlight areas or sites that may be particularly vulnerable to the impact.  When provided in a timely and accurate manner, this information is invaluable to preparation efforts.  Local hospitals and schools as well as police and fire departments can begin evacuation and other emergency protocols to limit the loss of life, organise refuge centres for those who cannot leave and instruct people on how they should proceed to keep themselves and their families safe.  Local departments charged with carrying out storm protocols can also take steps to minimise structural damage like raising levees or preparing storm drainage systems.  Government bodies can also use the information to prepare and/or dispatch coast guard and military forces should their services be required.

Unfortunately, early warning systems do not always result in swift and appropriate action on behalf of all parties.  Some individuals choose to stay at home to weather the storm, either because they are too afraid to leave, they do not want to leave their pets behind, they doubt the storm will be too bad or they worry their possessions will be stolen by looters.  When hurricane Sandy hit the eastern United States (classified as a tropical storm), many of the fatalities consisted of elderly people who had not left their homes to get to a safer area and as a result drowned in their homes (Hess 2012).  Of course, in cases like that you often get people who do not believe the storm will actually be such a big deal.  After all, the eastern U.S, particularly in the northern areas, is not accustomed to being hit with those kinds of storms so it can be difficult for people to take the warnings seriously.  There have also been a number of false alarms, when authorities warned of a storm that would cause a great deal of damage but ultimately changed course or deteriorated into something far less menacing.  It is therefore unsurprising that people begin to believe that the authorities are "crying storm" when there really won't be anything to worry about.  Still, New York, resilient as ever, was up and running within days while other areas took much longer to get back on their feet.  The truth is that the U.S. cannot really function unless New York is functioning.  This makes the city a top priority for a large number of stakeholders, from the many international businesses trading out of New York, to the government that benefits greatly from the revenue and tourism in the city, to the 8 million residents that call it home (United States Census Bureau 2014).  Many of these stakeholders have endless amounts of money and access to considerable resources, so it is not at all surprising that the necessary investments were made to get the city back on its feet as soon as possible.

Hurricane Katrina on the other hand, was quite a different story.  The authorities were grossly unprepared for the severity of the damage despite the early warnings and after five days, there were still people stuck in the Superdome taking refuge.  The contrast between the two different responses is stark.  The areas that suffered the most damage from hurricane Katrina had a high percentage of poor African Americans.  While New Orleans is a popular tourist location in the U.S., it would not bring in anywhere near the revenue that New York does and as far as stakeholders go, there were certainly far fewer with so much access to resources, save for federal government.  There was nowhere near the same amount of pressure applied to authorities to protect and restore New Orleans as there was to help New York, at least not from powerful people and businesses.  New Orleans just was not as important, or seemingly important at all judging by the accounts and reports of the response.  For example, the federal and state authorities were unresponsive the day the storm hit and knew very little of what was going on in New Orleans including the failed levees and the use of the Convention Centre as a shelter for thousands of people (Moynihan 2012).  Ultimately, FEMA and the state departments did help, but were quite late in doing so and appeared to have very poor coordination and leadership at times (Moynihan 2012).  For example, the uncertainty regarding which government was responsible for the collection of bodies led to human remains being left in the streets for days (Moynihan 2012).  Hundreds of other national and international volunteer organisations such as the Red Cross took part in the relief efforts as well, thus becoming stakeholders (Moynihan 2012).  The people working and living in New Orleans were undeniably the most affected stakeholders with 1,800 killed and thousands left without shelter or belongings (Moynihan 2012).  Ultimately, the situation that arose during hurricane Katrina seemed closer to what would happen during a disaster in a developing nation as opposed to what would be expected in the most powerful country in the world.

Depending on the developing nation affected by a storm, the damage could be more or less severe.  Cuba for example, has excellent storm preparedness for a number of reasons.  For starters, it sees severe storms far more regularly than many developed nations do, so adequate preparation is a necessity to minimise frequent and heavy losses.  It is also important to consider the emphasis and investment made by the communities, authorities and government on disaster planning, preparation and awareness.  Other developing nations are not so fortunate.  Those without functioning or willing governments are unlikely to have efficient and resilient systems or plans in place.

The stakeholders in a developing country would be much the same as those in a developed country with the exception of a few differences.  A developing country without a government or overseeing body would be lacking that very important stakeholder.  The nation may also have a high presence of NGOs and other aid organisations, which could be very different to the circumstances in a developed nation.  Finally, the locals residing in the area would probably have very limited resources at their disposal.

My final thoughts are that while surveillance is crucial to disaster management, it serves no purpose without appropriate action.


Hess, WG 2012, The People Who Were Killed By Hurricane Sandy, Wordpress, viewed 19 December 2014, <>.

Moynihan, DP 2012, 'Case Study: The Response to Hurricane Katrina', in International Risk Governance Council (IRGC), Risk Governance Deficits: An analysis and illustration of the most common deficits in risk governance, IRGC, Geneva.

United States Census Bureau 2014, New York (city) New York, viewed 19 December 2014, <>


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