Give It Up — The Myth of Local Control During Catastrophes

The emergency management community consistently reiterates the mantra that “all disasters are local.” Reality check. It’s way past time to rethink that fallacious motto. Look no further than past incidents such as Hurricane Katrina and future threats such as the Cascadia Subduction Zone (CSZ) earthquake, both of which obviate the blanket application of that idea. In the case of Katrina, in spite of the extensive preparations that had been made in anticipation of that exact scenario, a hazard that arrived with several days of advance notice rendered local incident command and response capabilities ineffectual nearly instantaneously. The six minutes of shaking produced by a magnitude 9.0 eruption of the Cascadia fault will do the same. I submit that it is time to debunk the myth that every incident is truly local in order to ensure that the expectations of local emergency management professionals working in a catastrophic paradigm remain reasonable. Furthermore, that doing so also offers ways in which emergency managers at all levels of government can better orient their resources to limit the overwhelming effects of catastrophes.

How overwhelming? Throughout the United States emergencies (thousands and thousands of them) occur on a daily basis. They’re handled by legions of first responders who provide their respective communities with law enforcement, fire suppression, emergency medical services, and a number of other equally vital functions. Occasionally an area will experience a disaster — an incident that differs from emergencies because of its increased scope and scale. These incidents may require locals to request support in some form from either neighboring jurisdictions, their state government, or even federal assistance available via Public Law 93–288, the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act. While there are clearly disparities between emergencies and disasters, the management of resources allocated to respond to both typically remains firmly within the hands of local emergency management officials. The same cannot be said for the management of catastrophes. While rare, catastrophic incidents have occurred with great effects throughout American history. Hurricane Katrina is one such incident and it created well-documented havoc throughout the Gulf Coast region, impacting several states and hundreds of jurisdictions.

At a local level, the question that must be asked within the context of expectation management is to what extent local emergency managers could or should be considered culpable. Look at New Orleans, for example. Hurricanes were certainly not a new phenomenon for those residing in the greater New Orleans area and the emergency management community had anticipated, and practiced for, a hurricane scenario numerous times before Katrina’s landfall, including in July 2004, just over a year before the incident. But that was practice. When the actual storm surge arrived, over 50 of the levees eventually failed and most of the city became completely inundated. Thousands of stranded non-evacuees huddled on rooftops or in shelters, looting and fires broke out across the city, and a mass of responders and volunteers from across the United States converged on the city. The devastation rendered communications nonexistent and as the flooding increased streets became impassable. The city’s infrastructure revealed itself to be exceedingly vulnerable, in no small part due to poor design and upkeep. And despite the fact that many of these conditions existed long before Katrina made landfall, reports from the media vilified the local response. Against everything described here, not to mention preexisting political, economic, and social issues, what could have emergency responders have done, call for mutual aid? From where? Remember, not only were they facing the challenges posed by having 80% of the city flooded, neighboring communities from throughout multiple adjacent states were equally devastated. Similar circumstances will happen when a major earthquake happens.

So why hold onto the idea that locals will somehow maintain control? It seems pretty clear that the federal government represents the only viable entity capable of managing the response to a catastrophe, bearing in mind that it is vital that one differentiates catastrophe from disaster and emergency. It is also critical to segregate response from the other aspects of emergency management, because few would argue with the assertion that planning, for example, must start at the lowest level.

Why is planning different? Locals truly do have the most intimate knowledge of their jurisdictions’ nuances. Yet, I submit that planners at all levels should consider the words of the Mid-Atlantic Region’s Regional Catastrophic Preparedness Grant Program, a group who admitted that when it came to catastrophes, “emergency planning must accept what is currently unacceptable in terms of planning outcomes” and that the “problems presented by catastrophes will not be solved in a manner acceptable to emergency management professionals or the public.”

Bottom line — In a true catastrophe, no local jurisdiction could or should be expected to do manage the response. The Federal government’s resources represent the only viable option and local emergency management professionals nationwide must accept the inexorable truth that they will not have the ability to handle a catastrophic incident in their jurisdictions. In the wake of Katrina, numerous investigative committees produced documents that contain constructive recommendations important to improving the ability to prepare for, and respond to, catastrophes. The White House’s assessment contained this:

Today, we operate under two guiding principles: a) that incident management should begin at the lowest jurisdictional level possible, and b) that, for most incidents, the Federal government will generally play a supporting role to State and local efforts. While these principles suffice for the vast majority of incidents, they impede the Federal response to severe catastrophes. In a catastrophic scenario that overwhelms or incapacitates local and State incident command structures, the Federal government must be prepared to assume incident command and get assistance directly to those in need until State and local authorities are reconstituted.

Why not acknowledge this as reality? Accepting this philosophical change would allow local emergency managers to focus on preparedness and mitigation, two pieces that in the case of New Orleans could have certainly been addressed in a manner more commensurate with the threat. The intent of this shift in philosophy is not to relieve local emergency managers from their responsibility to improve their respective communities’ resilience or to suggest that a panacea exists for catastrophes. It does suggest, however, that it is time for local emergency managers to focus more of their efforts in the less “sexy” areas of mitigation and preparedness, while simultaneously placing greater faith in the Federal government’s ability to bring its enormous resources to bear when a catastrophe strikes.

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