Dividing the Burden

By Jim Mullen
Emergency Management, Once Removed

Whose responsibility is it to restore the social equilibrium in a post-disaster environment? It is not solely the government’s role to provide the “answer” in difficult times. Each of us has a role.

Some of the burdens of a participatory democracy fall on individuals and private interests.

When a disaster strikes, it’s never “good enough” to wait for the feds to arrive with money and resources, ignoring the responsibilities of state and local government to anticipate events that could bring the affected jurisdiction’s economy and society at large to an abrupt halt. There are identifiable, resolvable problems that a committed government and private sector can address together(!) before that disaster occurs.

I will surmise that the mantra cited by former FEMA Administrator Brock Long of the ideal disaster response and recovery ideal structure – federally supported, state managed and locally executed – may survive his tenure, at least until the next hurricane’s chorus of dissatisfaction from an impacted population is heard. It is a good concept, but converting this concept into reality will take time, and there will of necessity be a need for federal investment specifically targeted to educating local and state governments about the importance of pre-planning for an extended recovery from a major or even catastrophic event. That won’t be inexpensive, at least in the short term.

As noted previously in this space, the introduction of abrupt expectations for increased local and state responsibility, absent adequate preparation and analysis of how to go about achieving it is a high – risk proposition. Despite the federal government’s preconceived notion that everyone at the local and state level is waiting around for guidance from the feds on what to do next, there is already a lot going on “down there” and yet not enough resources to accomplish what every emergency manager would prefer to accomplish. For state and local political leadership, reliance on federal post disaster largesse (FEMA will fix it!”) has been a convenient excuse for deferring action, particularly for local government. Planning for the decisions that accompany a disaster requires consideration, in advance, of messy choices most politicians might prefer to avoid.

Whatever federal emergency management initiatives emerge in the coming days, local and state government and private sector interests must shoulder their responsibilities. Prompt federal disaster assistance could soon become more dependent on whether a region is considered “red” or “blue” than on the level of damage to the economy, the environment or the population.

Emergency managers might ponder this while everyone else is diverted by the serious constitutional crisis emanating from the capitol. Their communities are far more likely to have to confront a crippling natural disaster before the issues paralyzing our federal government are resolved. And despite what we may believe about the role of the federal government, it is not inappropriate to consider increasing state and local investment in emergency management and planning, so that whatever federal disaster help that is forthcoming is truly supplemental.

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