18th February 2022, holding on to an English iconic light post against a gust of wind that was a Storm Eunice got me contemplating my options. Being a foreigner in town, I wasn’t sure of my next step if the situation escalated. I wondered how I managed to miss a red warning issued all over the region, was it twitter algorithms or my ignorance that betrayed me?
Once safely home, I immediately googled natural disaster preparation.
Can we depend on current emergency systems?
A UN report finds 90 percent of natural disasters are weather-related while the majority are potentially intensified by climate change. Storm Eunice gusts of up to 110mph had almost broken the strongest wind recorded in the UK. But the island was spared from a disastrous scene thankfully due to the magnitude of the storm and early warning system installed. A case of the 2004 Asian tsunami, on the other hand, marked the overwhelming devastation for countries across the Indian Ocean including Thailand. The Hollywood movie capturing a struggle during the crisis was not under-romanticised as at that time the word tsunami had not been widely known locally let alone the existence of any pre-disaster strategy.
I flicked through the UK official website for emergencies preparedness 101, intended to be better equipped and to casually experiment with the data accessibility. Ignoring a few dead-end links, I found useful contacts, a grab-bag content, insurance recommendation; and interestingly, a toolkit for establishing a new local resilience group, a volunteering template; and finally, information on the arrival of the national mobile alert system although without a reassuring release date. I shifted to the Thai emergency platform, the first link, however, sent me directly into a Thai translation from Japanese emergency instructions which are available in seven languages. I went back only to learn that Thailand’s tsunami warning system remains unreliable partly due to maintenance quality. The government has said otherwise.
A society built on trust
The climate predictions have got this generation rushing for a holistic solution having sustainable technology and built infrastructure sitting within the centre. But what of the resilience of an individual when chronic stresses and trauma from pre- and post-climate disasters are occurring more often. And what if a person belongs to a vulnerable group, or just moved into a new neighbourhood, or a new city, or a new continent. The lack of access to the services, resources, and information needed to overcome a crisis could mean a life or death situation.
On that note, the notion of social resilience is desirable in the sense that once the disaster happens, it indicates a social capacity to survive sudden disturbances. Resiliency within communities allows people to draw on social resources like aid and profound cooperation towards recovery as a goal. This process is basically, but not simply, based on networks, norms, and especially social trust which could take time to build.
Disasters test the power of a society's structures and relationships to adapt, respond, and recover. A strength of the Thai local group presented during the Asian tsunami was apparent in providing urgent relief, distributing supplies and medical support to high-need areas even though they were experiencing the unexpected.
An example given by a report suggests that at the most basic level, having social resilience means that a resident knows their elderly or disabled neighbours well enough that in a heatwave they would check on them to make sure they are faring well and that the AC is working.
A network of people
Social networks become handy as they allow greater transmission of information, to geotag, instantly seek/send help across the world. Rather than trying to find the right person in the midst of disaster, through social networks, community bonds can be forged pre-emergency. It could be a bond between people who live in the same context, maybe who even share interests or face similar circumstances. As such, differences like language proficiency, geographical isolation, and beliefs are mitigated.
Even so, some people could be digitally left behind due to limited technology, low income, emotional isolation, and so on. Research on twitter data usage during Hurricane Sandy shows that physically vulnerable communities had more responses while socially vulnerable communities were less engaged in disaster-related social media. The evidence warns that policy improvement building surrounding social media feeds has to exercise caution against inequity traps.
As a concluding note, building sustainable disaster risk management is a holistic approach including social cohesion and infrastructure. Increasing climate disaster is illuminating that the responsive emergency system in place around the world needs to be re-evaluated. It is time for local authorities to reach out and send a direct warning to the public from every group rather than the other way round. A strengthening of resilience measures should be seen as a cost-effective plan to avoid retrofitting and aftermath recovery. And lastly, survivors and vulnerable groups, which often are the same people, should not be disregarded in any preparedness effort as their experience and knowledge are highly valuable to the broader community.