A Problem or an Opportunity? – Emergency Management, Once Removed, April 2019

A Problem or an Opportunity?

By Jim Mullen

The Disaster Reform and Recovery Act (DRRA) addresses longstanding issues in the disaster management system. Pre – Disaster Mitigation (PDM) is touted as a high priority for attention – so far, so good. Here is the problem: FEMA appears to be proceeding too fast with too little consultation with state and local emergency managers.

The federal rules and accompanying guidance have yet to be developed or vetted with state and local emergency managers. The BuildStrong Coalition has put forth 14 key principles that they recommend be employed in that guidance: the “principles” seem to support competitive PDM, with minimal allocations for building capacity at the state and local levels among its other recommendations.

The suggestion of providing increases in PDM funds is enticing. However, the significant increases being bandied about beg emergency managers’ main question: could they effectively manage dramatically increased funding with current staffing levels? And, why continue to promote competition among jurisdictions, effectively choosing where lifesaving and economically sustaining projects will occur, and where they will not? And the federal government still controls the ultimate decision.

We’ve been down this road before, in the post 9/11 years when homeland security funding was flowing with significant restrictions on state and local expenditure choices. That was a consequential flaw and the well – intentioned FEMA folks, and well-connected groups like the BuildStrong Coalition appear primed to repeat those mistakes.

Pre disaster mitigation is important: we can’t have winners and losers among states and local governments. If there are national mitigation priority projects, then certainly a competitive process makes sense. But at the state and local level, mitigation requirements and priorities should be identified and agreed to without top-down federal direction. Such a system would allow states to budget and plan for the guaranteed availability of federal dollars, dedicating their annual PDM allocation to fund their priority projects. A qualifying match requirement for PDM would be reasonable in these circumstances.

FEMA might well argue: without control, where ‘s the payoff for the federal government? Answer: if something does not break, it need not be fixed in post-disaster funding.

FEMA/DHS leadership: The leadership of FEMA, while competent, is unlikely to possess the political strength or the will to stand up to the erratic impulses of the current Administration. DHS itself unquestioningly has entered a period of chaos amid intrusive directives from the White House that will affect not only FEMA but other agencies within DHS as well. We’re left with a “game of drones” format, with the federal “message” pre -programmed and managed from a remote location. Officials placed in front of groups like NEMA are reduced to merely parroting canned presentations. They dare not drift off script.

Congress may provide the only receptive audience for a serious, pivotal discussion about emergency management policy. Emergency managers, as the nation’s subject matter experts, must tell the Congress how mitigation, and other emergency management elements should be managed. Clearly, Congress will not receive a comprehensive, accurate message from anyone else.

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