Dr. William Waugh Jr.

on Surviving a Natural Disaster
Professor of public administration and urban studies at Georgia State University

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Exclusive Interview

Dr. William Waugh Jr. on Natural Disasters

Natural disasters happen all the time, and the best way to minimize their damage is to be prepared. William L. Waugh Jr., Ph.D., is a professor in the department of public administration and urban studies at Georgia State University, and his job is to find better ways to get local governments and citizens prepared to manage any natural or man-made disaster. He’s also contributed to a number of books on emergency management, as the author of Living with Hazards, Dealing with Disaster, co-editor for Emergency Management: Principles and Practice for Local Government, and editor for Shelter from the Storm: Repairing the National Emergency Management System after Hurricane Katrina. In this interview, Waugh explains why good preparation before a natural disaster is the key to recovering from one.

What should people not expect from their local governments during a natural disaster?

The lesson from Hurricane Katrina is that our expectation for an immediate response from our local government should be somewhat lowered. People should be able to take care of themselves for at least a short period of time. A number of 72-hour kits out there suggest you should have water and food for at least three days, a radio, flashlights and batteries. Also, you’ll need a week or more supply of your medications and supplies for your pets and children. Within the emergency management field, there’s a debate about how long the kit should last. Some have this three-day notion, for some it’s 5, some it’s 10. In a pandemic, one may be on one’s own much longer.

Why does it take so long for emergency services to get to people?

Even for the Chinese earthquake, it took several days for help to arrive. During Katrina, communities in Mississippi and Louisiana didn’t get aid for a week to 10 days. It depends on the kinds of hazards and the government response. Floods are not like hurricanes and earthquakes. The problem with earthquakes and hurricanes is that often, the infrastructure is damaged. It’s easier [to get aid to] the Midwest after a flood because the way they are set up.

What are the five most important pieces of advice you would give to someone who is preparing for or recovering from a natural disaster?

1. Be prepared to be on your own for three to five days. In some cases, it could be longer.

2. Pay attention to the news. Make sure you have access to the latest information so you know what is going on.

3. Have a good social network. This also aids communication—being connected to church groups and community organizations can help get information out faster. Ultimately, decisions like whether you pack up to leave are social decisions.

4. There are some pubic programs sponsored by FEMA, the Red Cross and other organizations to help you reduce your vulnerability to water, fire and storm wind. They will provide guidance on how to prepare your home to be more resistant to a disaster.

5. Have an individual and a family disaster plan. Figure out what to do, where you go, and have phone numbers for everyone in your family.

Why do people decide to stay and “ride out” a natural disaster?

Part of it is that with the warnings, people have to hear it and have to believe it applies to them. If your neighbors are packing up, it’s a good sign you’re in danger as well.

What’s important to avoid during a natural disaster?

Things to avoid include being overly optimistic about the safety of your house, or even the community. My parents live in Florida, and my dad always thought his house was built better than everyone else’s. He thinks he would survive a hurricane, and that’s a bit of a dangerous notion. Don’t wait until the last minute to evacuate. The worst-case scenario with a hurricane is being caught on the highway when it hits.

What is the future of disaster preparation and recovery? Where do you see it going?

The topics that are taking off are pandemic issues—how do you have government or business continuity in the face of a pandemic that may last for months and come in waves? The obvious solution is to create social distance, but it’s a bit of a problem to keep people apart, especially in hospitals and other institutions.

How can people manage the emotions they are experiencing during and after a natural disaster?

Panic is extremely rare, but it’s more likely to occur when people feel trapped. If officials aren’t giving out enough information, you’re more likely to panic than if you’re given too much information. If you understand what is going on, you’re less likely to be experiencing stress. If you feel you have some control over events—have enough supplies for a few days, you’ll be less worried. The better prepared you are, the less likely you’re going to be stressed out. Sometimes you’ll be stressed no matter what, but you can minimize it a bit.

Though a natural disaster can be devastating, how can people find the positive in it?

A disaster is an opportunity—if your house is destroyed, you get a chance to try something new. A new house, a new move, big screen TV—what have you. Cities are starting to build this into their emergency planning—if you’re moving people out of a flood plain, it makes things easier and reduces risk. It also speeds recovery if you can use that opportunity to reduce the risk and better the community and your family situation—even if you take the insurance money and run.


What is the belief you personally go to during times of change?

I grew up moving a lot, so I’m not terribly bothered by chaos and change. I tend to think of it as opportunity and a new challenge.

The best thing about change is...

…it’s good in and of itself and it is an opportunity in many cases to make your life more secure.

What is the best change you have ever made?

Moving from the Midwest to Atlanta and that was great.

For more information on Dr. William Waugh Jr., visit www.aysps.gsu.edu.


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Living With Hazards, Dealing With Disasters: An Introduction to Emergency Management


This is a great introductory book for someone who is interested in a career in emergency management, or someone who wants a better idea of what first responders have to deal with in an emergency....