It is time that the emergency management community examine the disciplines and practices that are considered the essential elements of their discipline. While changes have occurred over time, emergency managers have been reactive as opposed to proactive in defining their role in our communities and society.
One example of this is national preparedness. On June 19, 1978, President Jimmy Carter submitted to Congress Reorganization Plan # 3 “Establishing a new Federal Agency to consolidate emergency preparedness, mitigation, and response activities into one federal emergency management organization.”
When FEMA was established by an Executive Order from President Jimmy Carter in 1979, it became an independent Federal agency and stated that the FEMA Director would report directly to the President. The new Agency encompassed pieces from 7 other Federal agencies and the Office of the President and inherited independent programs from these entities.
With the election of President Reagan and the focus of government on dealing with the Cold War, FEMA took on the task of national preparedness. Civil defense national preparedness drove the emerging discipline of emergency management and provided FEMA with access to valuable authorities and assets such as the Defense Production Act.
In the late 1980’s, natural disasters became regular occurrences and demanded a coordinated response and recovery at the Federal level to help State and local governments. Several monumental failures by FEMA leadership in Hurricanes Hugo, Andrew and Iniki questioned FEMA’s existence. Legislation was even being considered to eliminate the agency altogether, and it was only Director Witt’s skillful negotiations on the hill that kept the agency alive.
Thus in the 1990’s with an experienced, professional emergency manager as FEMA Director and strong support and leadership from President Clinton, FEMA was resurrected with an all-hazards approach and a focus on support for State and local preparedness, response and recovery, with a new emphasis on mitigation.
Building disaster resistant communities became one National antidote for unprecedented flooding, hurricanes changing into rain events, and major earthquakes. Recovery and building back better—incorporating mitigation—became a part of our national preparedness goals. Even in events such as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the September 11 attacks, we saw opportunities to incorporate mitigation and preparedness principles.
Maybe the successes of FEMA and the broad parameters of national preparedness drove the incorporation of FEMA into the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Or it could have been the legislation and funding mechanisms of the Disaster Relief Act that gives generous budgetary authority to FEMA, as well as the issue that many State Directors saw the promise of additional funding for their programs in the aftermath of September 11.
In any case, this organizational structure has certainly not proved to enhance FEMA’s goals of supporting State and local jurisdictions in reducing the impacts of all hazards on their communities and citizens. One could argue that it’s authority as an independent agency as established in 1979, and its ability for funding control, and independence of rapid response now required by the many disasters we are experiencing, have been compromised.
Right now, we are all too close to the devastation and impacts of the incredible wildfires our communities are experiencing and the COVID pandemic that has affected almost everyone in the Nation in a personal way. However, it is not too early to be discussing and proposing opportunities to mitigate the hazards and to reduce the impacts they will have on our communities and people in the future.
There are proven practices for reducing the impacts of wildfire, many of which were employed after the 1991 Oakland Hills fires. But we can do more. We need new policies and new engineering ideas. We also need an extremely critical look at land use planning, successful enforcement approaches, and application of disclosure ordinances.
Our experience with the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) has shown us that local ordinances prohibiting development in the floodplain do limit exposure, but cannot be successful without an incentive or mandate. Once the NFIP became tied to federal mortgage loans, it became the largest and most effective hazard mitigation program in the nation.
One of the most critical elements of any change will always be leadership. Leadership for FEMA and leadership by the President. We believe there is a direct correlation between a significant and tangible commitment by the President and the Executive Branch and FEMA’s successes at responding to disasters.
An example of this occurred in 1992, in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, when “where’s the cavalry” was the catch phrase for the lack of adequate Federal response and support. This criticism would be echoed again after the mishandling of the response and recovery to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
After his inauguration, President Clinton made clear that disasters and improving FEMA was very important to him by appointing James Lee Witt, a State Director of Emergency Management, as FEMA Director. He was the first professional emergency manager to be appointed FEMA Director. With the President’s support, FEMA was reinvented and became one of the best regarded Agencies in the Federal government. An important part of this lesson is that FEMA’s successful responses in the 1990’s were accomplished with largely the same career professionals that were involved in the poor response to Andrew. While most of the career professionals were the same people, what had changed was the tangible commitment from the President and the appointment of an experienced and successful emergency manager to lead FEMA.
With the new administration in 2001, a political operative with essentially zero experience in emergency management was appointed FEMA Director. This resulted in a severe leadership deficit at the agency. Then the events of September 11 completely shifted the focus of the Federal government to terrorism and homeland security.
FEMA lost status again as it became part of the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2003. With the creation of DHS and the demotion of FEMA, a new FEMA Director was appointed who was also a political operative with no meaningful experience in emergency management. According to the Los Angeles Times, this situation was so troubling to FEMA employees that, in what ended up being tragically prescient, a warning letter was sent to members of Congress stating that “emergency managers at FEMA have been supplanted on the job by politically connected contractors and by novice employees with little background or knowledge” of disaster management. FEMA’s exact role was yet to be defined but it’s status had been decreased. And after several years of minimal natural disasters, Hurricane Katrina hit.
The failures in Katrina of the demoted FEMA, led by political operatives, were clear to all. These unfortunate events were caused by the failure of leadership at all levels. But it does provide additional evidence that emergency management is not a priority in certain administrations.
Jumping forward, a new administration appointed Craig Fugate, a very respected State Director from Florida, as FEMA Administrator. Administrator Fugate’s focus was on better community and personal preparedness, not mitigation, but he maintained a strong response capability. The response to Hurricane Sandy, which impacted New York and New Jersey, went well but some issues arose with the recovery. However, throughout the event, DHS and FEMA received strong support from the President.
Recently, problems facing Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and criticisms of the leadership and people of Puerto Rico, are evidence of the lower priority, at the Federal level, placed on disaster response.
Leadership from the President is critical and this leadership supports implementing and engaging support for this critical function with the State and local governments, businesses, non-profit organizations and individual citizens.
Communicating with the Public
Prior to 1993, emergency managers have not embraced informing the public concerning response operations to a major disaster. Things began to change at FEMA during James Lee Witt’s tenure as FEMA Director from 1993-2001. Director Witt made communicating timely and accurate information to the public a priority. He modeled his commitment by making himself and his senior staff available and accessible to reporters and establishing a media partnership that successfully provided the public with critical information throughout his tenure as FEMA Director.
This model of crisis communications has been successfully adopted by the nation’s emergency management community. It is now accepted practice for emergency mangers at all levels of government to appear in the media before, during, and after a disaster strikes and for the media to provide this information directly to the public.
Social media has changed the way emergency managers communicate with the public. Emergency management agencies now communicate directly to the public through social media outlets such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Communicating with the public through social media has become a two-way street and emergency management agencies are working to convert the data points that every social media post represents into enhanced situational awareness.
One downside of social media is the significant increase in recent years in the dissemination of misinformation and disinformation concerning disasters. FEMA and numerous state and local emergency management agencies have created rumor control pages on their websites to identify and dispel false rumors and disinformation.
Climate Change Challenge
There is now no doubt that climate change is exacerbating the frequency and severity of natural disasters. Between 2010-2019, there have been a total of 119 “Billion Dollar” disaster events resulting in over $800 Billion in losses in the United States. There have already been 10 “Billion Dollar” events this year. For the first time, scientists are now linking natural disasters like this year’s wildfires in California, Oregon, and Washington State to climate change.
What does this mean for emergency managers? Responding to these events are stretching local first responders and emergency managers to the breaking point. There are not enough firefighters available to fight the fires in the West. Hurricanes Sally and Laura coming on top of major hurricanes in the past three years have stretched FEMA to the limit.
What can State and local emergency managers do to better prepare their communities for dealing with this surge in major disaster events? More importantly, what role should state and local emergency managers play in working to build more disaster resistant communities to effectively reduce future impacts?
Finally, what role does FEMA play in building support for risk reduction and climate change adaptation in the entire Federal government? Should FEMA become the coordinator of all Federal departments and agencies in order to bring the full resources of the Federal government to support state and local risk reduction and climate change adaptation actions?
Climate change is a significant challenge for the emergency management community. Effective response to increasingly more severe and frequent disasters is imperative. But it is equally critical that the nation’s emergency managers play a larger role in preparing their communities for these events and making their community more disaster resistant.
We are at an important point in moving forward to address the health and safety of our citizens and we need committed leadership to do that. We also need vision and action to secure a better future.
It is time for us to commit to making hazard mitigation the priority of emergency management that will make the critical difference to how we move forward to address our risks and protect our citizens. Mitigation successes achieved in the 1990’s and 2000’s once again need to become a priority for local governments, State governments and the Federal government.
We should set goals now, such as establishing 10,000 committed disaster resistant communities by 2025. To achieve this goal we need incentives, funding, and leadership that will make this a high priority and has a direct connection and the full support of the President. An independent FEMA, as designated in its establishing authority and working with State and local emergency managers, has the history, experience, and legislative authority to achieve a new level of national preparedness based on mitigation to address the issues facing the nation from climate change.
Jane Bullock is the former FEMA Chief of Staff and the President of Bullock & Haddow LLC and George Haddow is former FEMA Deputy Chief of Staff and a Principal in Bullock & Haddow LLC.Recommended1 recommendationPublished in