This article was also published in Romanian on contributors.ro
I have just walked away from a really annoying talk show on one of Romania’s news channels with a feeling of déjà vu. Every time there is a natural disaster somewhere in the world the news channels quickly dig up politicians, experts and indignant journalists who proceed to blame each other for not doing anything to prepare Bucharest for the coming quake. None of this intense media scrutiny will translate into policy, political will, or anything that will make a difference.
Now Japan dominates the TV news. This time last year it was the Chilean quake and ProTV did a rather good campaign about how well prepared the Chileans were for their quake. In Chile the people who invest in a building are forever responsible for its structural integrity, whereas in Romania scores of people (in other words nobody) are responsible for construction standards. Nothing came of this and building standards in this country remain overly complex and completely unenforced, and nobody knows if the buildings that have gone up in the last 20 years will withstand the next big quake.
But Romanians are an intelligent people and they are aware of two key facts: a devastating earthquake is expected in Bucharest sometime soon; and the authorities have proven time and again that they cannot be relied on to prepare the capital for a quake. Not only are the government authorities unable to consolidate the buildings that are known to be at high risk but they can’t even deal with the much simpler task of informing people about what they can personally do to prepare. All they can do is blame each other, complain about the legislation and wait for the media storm to move on.
If you know disaster is coming and your government can’t help, what can you do? If you want to escape from the typical Romanian habit of blame, complacency and fatalism, the only answer is to take personal responsibility and make your own emergency plan. This is easier than it sounds, especially for those Romanians who have created successful businesses – in spite of a government that interferes, over-taxes, demands bribes and generally gets in the way of progress.
Disaster preparedness is taken seriously in countries like Japan, Chile, Greece and America and there are plenty of simple things that ordinary people, companies and residents associations can do. If you look at the site of the American Red Cross (who say “the 3 steps to preparedness are: Get a kit. Make a plan. Be informed.”), you will see that a plan doesn’t have to be of the EU or ex-Communist variety commonly used in Romania – long and complex documents that are only understood by the eggheads who write them. A typical American emergency plan is short (it can be pinned onto the kitchen wall) and so clear that even the children understand it.
The best way to prepare for an earthquake is to make a plan and the best place to start this process is to make an emergency plan for your family. But you need to start from the premise that everyone involved needs to be involved in the process, understand it, agree with it, be motivated by it and in the event of an emergency everyone (even the youngest children) know what to do. Any experience of planning in the Romanian-Communist-EU way should be thrown out of the window and a much more simple approach must be adopted. You can constantly test if your plan is coherent by simply asking the children, or your Granny, “is it clear”? You don’t need any highly paid experts to develop your own plan; you can do it yourself on the kitchen table. And you should. It might make the difference between life and death.
The start of any planning process involves an analysis. This should be a process of simply learning more about the problem you are addressing – earthquakes, fire and flood – and it is essential to avoid the Romanian institutional trap of including far too many pages of complex research findings in the final plan, often at the start of the document (making it unreadable). But if you take your family as the target audience you will quickly realize the need for only brief, relevant information that everyone understands.
You should start by asking questions: what is the likelihood of a big earthquake in Bucharest? What happens to homes in an earthquake? What do we do during the quake? How do we need to prepare psychologically? What will we eat, drink? How will we keep warm after the event? How will we communicate, cook food, move? What do we need to stock up with? And what about floods, fires and other disasters? If you can work out a list of questions like this, and answer them in the family, you will have the basis for a good plan.
To make an effective plan you need to make sure that everyone who will be affected by it is involved from the start. If you tell your family or work colleagues “we’ve worked out this new plan and you have to implement it” you can be sure they will not be interested, and why should they if they weren’t involved in its development? It’s important to get people involved at the very beginning of the process – at the concept stage – so that everyone understands the importance of the exercise and has the opportunity to help create it. The starting point should be a simple meeting to discuss earthquakes with the question “what can we do to prepare?” The challenge is to follow this up and to make sure that your group is consulted at every step of the way. If you can do this you will have an action plan in which everyone knows what they have to do in the event of a crisis. If you have a family plan it can be integrated with the plan of the block, the school, the district, the city and even the country – but that is not feasible in a dysfunctional country like Romania. All you can do is look out for your nearest and dearest.
What makes a plan effective is practice. The Americans talk about “practicing the plan” and cities in the USA have massive exercises when the emergency services come together with the local companies, as well as civil society, and they practice the routines that are outlined in the plan. The Japanese, Greeks, Israelis and Chileans all practice their plans and when disaster strikes they have remarkably low casualties (remember how many people died in Haiti as compared to Japan?) Needless to say, there is no practicing of Romanian plans – if only because they are so complex and unpractical that practicing them would be impossible.
The best plans are those which you develop yourself. Although you can download emergency plan formats from America it’s best to just sit round the kitchen table and ask “what should we do in the event of an emergency?” But most emergency preparedness plans include the following elements: emergency roles for everyone involved; stocks of food, water; torches and bedding; an escape plan (how to get out of town); some form of communication when the phone networks are down (which they always do); a radio; and addressing security issues.
I’ve been living in Bucharest for over 10 years and I wish I could tell you I have a well worked out plan that I regularly practise with my wife and two children (aged 8 and 11). But I can’t. Even though I worked on a World Bank funded communication plan for the General Inspectorate for Emergency Situations (a good plan that has been gathering dust ever since), and I know more about it than most people, I haven’t done what I’m telling you to do and I know this is hypocritical. I could easily blame the general Romanian culture of complacency, or a lack of funds, or find all sorts of excuses, but I realize that what was missing all this time is leadership. I should have taken charge of the situation in my own family and sat down with my lovely family and made a plan for their survival – and hopefully I will in the next few days.
Rupert Wolfe Murray is a freelance editor based in Bucharest. He can be followed on Twitter @wolfemurray