Over the last decade the social and economic costs of disasters to the United States, and throughout the World have grown significantly. During the 1990’s, FEMA spent over $25.4 billion to provide disaster assistance in the United States. During that decade, the economic toll of natural disasters, world wide, topped $608 billion. This amounted to more than the previous four decades combined. The causes of this increase in disaster consequences are myriad. Climatalogical changes such as El Nino, global warming and sea level rise have all been identified as contributors. Add to this the many societal impacts such as increased development in and migration to identified risk zones, deforestation and clear cutting, and filling in of floodplains, among many other factors, and the picture becomes more clear.
The discipline of mitigation provides the means for reducing these impacts. Mitigation is defined as a sustained action to reduce or eliminate risk to people and property from hazards and their effects.
The function of mitigation differs from the other emergency management disciplines in that it looks at long-term solutions to reducing risk as opposed to merely accepting that they will happen and preparing for their consequences, responding to their consequences, or recovering from them. Mitigation is usually not considered part of the emergency phase of a disaster as in response, or as part of emergency planning as in preparedness, or following the disaster as with recovery. Mitigation can be performed during each or all of these phases.
Another significant difference sets mitigation apart from the other disciplines of emergency management. Implementing mitigation programs and activities requires the participation and support of a broad spectrum of players outside of the traditional emergency management circle. Mitigation involves, among other public and private sector participants, land use planners, construction and building officials, business owners, insurance companies, community leaders and politicians.
The skills and tools for accomplishing mitigation (planning expertise, political acumen, marketing and public relations and consensus building, among others) are different than the operational, first responder skills which more traditionally characterize emergency management professionals. In fact, historically, the emergency management professional has been reluctant in taking a lead role in promoting mitigation because of its appearing to fall outside of this scope of activities. A State Director of emergency management once said words to the effect… ‘I will never lose my job for failing to do mitigation, but I could lose my job if I mess up a response.’
With the exception of the fire community, who lead early on in the effort to mitigate fire risks through their support for building codes, code enforcement and public education, the emergency management community has remained focused on response and recovery obligations.
However, these trends are changing for several key reasons. Leadership at the Federal level, larger disasters, substantial increases in funding, and more value and professionalism in emergency management, have all resulted in greater acknowledgement of the importance of mitigation.