Hey, What About Us?

By Jim Mullen
Emergency Management, Once Removed

With the current federal government seemingly in perpetual crisis, how can emergency management compete for attention to its’ needs? Let’s be honest: the current spate of investigations, accusations, counter-accusations, all against the backdrop of midterm Congressional elections could stifle productive debate and decision making on issues emergency managers care about.

It always seems to happen. The Clinton impeachment cycle dwarfed any attempts by his Administration to establish emergency management as a national priority despite the efforts of FEMA Administrator James Lee Witt; the post 9/11 environment saw a shift in emphasis to anti- terrorism grant programs at the expense of programs that supported natural hazard preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery.

The current furor over the influence of Russia in our elections and obstruction of justice by senior officials of our government will be resolved, for better or worse, without emergency management being any more than an innocent bystander, if we’re lucky; if unlucky, our profession could become “collateral damage” of the fiscal and political fallout that will surely result.

If the Trump/Pence philosophy as espoused by FEMA leaders is likely to be reflected in upcoming budgets, state and local governments will be expected (forced?) to assume a greater role in the funding of programs that are aimed to support disasters that do not rise to the level of a catastrophic or even major event. Part of that is filling gaps in federal support that may begin to shrink very abruptly. FEMA’s leadership is clearly concerned that the job of meeting the expectations that elected officials and the public have of FEMA, are more than they can handle effectively in certain situations.

This turmoil at the highest levels of government need not paralyze the lower levels. Elected officials all take an oath to protect their communities when they assume their governmental responsibilities.

State and local governments will need to increase their capacity to mitigate, prepare for, respond to, and recover from natural disasters (Hint: they’ll have to spend their own money!).

Merely defeating the “shift the burden to the states and locals” philosophy is an insufficient outcome; assuming more of the responsibility for mitigation policies at the local level and identifying state/local preparedness programs for state and local investment are among the responsibilities our elected officials here in Washington State should acknowledge are theirs to fulfill.

It’s easy to whine about changing federal disaster funding priorities. It is much more difficult to identify how the public and private local and state assets can step up to the challenge of protecting the lives, property, economy and environment of our cities, counties and states. That may be hard politically, but it may become increasingly necessary. Post disaster federal support always should be supplemental to the ongoing best efforts at the state and local level. It is the only way we will be able to recover on our terms. “What about us” is a question for “us” to ponder, debate and answer for ourselves.

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