Not Nearly Enough

Emergency Management Once Removed

April 19, 2024

By Jim Mullen

Even predictable natural disasters frequently catch elected officials by surprise. A discouraging number of elected  officials and senior staff act as if  foreseeing and managing potential disaster impacts is a job for “another budget cycle.” So what are they doing in the meantime? Not nearly enough”.

As director of Seattle’s Office of Emergency Management, just one of the three mayors I served under, Paul Schell, asked what resources would improve our readiness.  To the annoyance of city budget managers during that tight budget year, Schell delivered that much-needed new position, bolstering our recovery capability.  City Councilmembers  once asked that same question in the aftermath of a minor earthquake that very publicly rattled their nerves. Happily, that resulted in rescuing a much-needed position from the chopping block. Still, only two such inquiries in 12 years?

Let’s stipulate that  2024 election controversies and potential political violence are a distinct possibility. Compounding matters, natural disasters are unlikely “to take the year off”, either in frequency or severity. Too many elected and senior state and local officials assume that they can line up at the federal trough when disaster strikes. But, when political partisans value wielding power over alleviating human suffering,  the dysfunction in Congress re national priorities could easily impede federal disaster response efforts; the recent 2024 budget “compromise” left the Disaster Relief Fund (DRF) dangerously underfunded. When that fund is exhausted, perhaps by midsummer, another contentious debate on supplementing the DRF will be engaged, threatening delay in allocating critical financial assistance and jeopardizing previously approved appropriations.

The Congressional budget hawks aren’t completely off base in resenting the pleas for maximum assistance; local government officials aren’t helpless. Right now, they could solicit emergency management’s assessment of the current disaster readiness of their community, identify fixable hazards for mitigation, and provide financial and political resources to address gaps.

Partnering with private industry, local leaders could support outreach aimed at preparing individuals and families to sustain themselves post-disaster. A review of the jurisdiction’s post-disaster recovery challenges should identify predicable priorities in the  minutes, hours, days, weeks, and months after a major disaster.

This isn’t rocket science – it’s responsible stewardship: post-disaster outside resources (FEMA, et al) will be more efficiently deployed if met by a local (and state) recovery structure that previously has taken steps to mitigate identifiable risks, educate its population (maybe through direct online exercises?), support its responders, and has, at minimum, contemplated recovery priorities, allowing   arriving “outside resources” to focus on challenges that truly exceed local capacity.

When  elected leaders are oblivious, willingly or through ignorance,  to the daily requirements of disaster management, after-the-fact measures predictably will be less effective, prompting chaos, dissension, and negative media scrutiny, contributing to erosion of trust in government at precisely the moment when public trust is essential. When responding to the  inevitable question: “what did they do” in advance to assure community resilience, “not nearly enough” won’t cut it.

“Lessons previously learned” are useless unless applied.

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Jim has spent 3 decades in emergency management, including 12 years at the local level as director of the City of Seattle’s Office of Emergency Management and 8 and a half years as Washington State’s Emergency Management Division Director. Jim retired from state service in March 2013. Jim also served as President of the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA) from January 2011 to October 2012. He is currently sole proprietor of “EM Northwest Consulting” based in Seattle.

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