Then and Now

By Jim Mullen
Emergency Management, Once Removed

The 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is this month. The terrorist attack on the Pentagon, and the Twin Towers was shocking, and the anthrax attacks thoroughly spooked the national media and Congress. Concern over natural hazard risks receded, super-ceded by a relentless spending frenzy to combat terrorism. Mistakes were made. What will happen next time?


A false narrative peddled by the federal Administration impugned local and state emergency management professionals and their capabilities. This view allowed the bypassing of existing (and mostly effective) emergency management protocols in favor of “national experts” drawn from the ranks of the Departments of Defense and Justice, and the major consulting companies. Many of those “experts” were sorely lacking in their understanding of the differences between and among various states’ constitutions, and also the prerogatives of local governments. Now required to “swim” in the unfamiliar local and state waters, they were quickly out of their depth. The “wheel” was re-invented, many times over.

Congress, determined to appear decisive approved special funding without insisting on an analysis of the readiness gaps that might have directed those funds. Thus, the wasting of precious time began. Here are a few examples:

  • Many poorly designed exercises were scheduled in which many emergency managers felt compelled to participate: one emergency management director, asked about the value of these exercises, his answer was “None whatsoever, but we have to seem to be doing something”.
  • Local and state public safety officials and their elected bosses, seeing millions of homeland security dollars dangled before them, unquestioningly accepted burdensome, restrictive grant requirements.
  • Local and state emergency management agencies were inundated by federal agencies’ insistence on intrusive, short notice “data calls”, often for information that had already been submitted to the requesting agency.
  • There arose in Congress a perception that states and local governments were carrying backlogs of appropriated Homeland Security grant dollars: programs controlled by governors were in fact responsibly managed; port and transit funds allocated independently of the governors were not being expended in a timely manner, and thus were the source of the backlog. DHS/FEMA’s unwillingness to reveal to Congress where responsibility for backlogs in homeland security spending resided jeopardized the state managed grant programs. In 2011-12 the National Emergency Management Association discovered the truth about backlog, and the record was corrected, belatedly.
  • FEMA’s absorption into the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) led to the systematic dismantling of FEMA’s natural hazard response capability. The gutting of FEMA‘s emergency management programs and funding streams and resources yielded catastrophic results during Hurricane Katrina.

Mistakes can be overcome. . Post Katrina, FEMA hired more emergency management professionals in leadership positions, and FEMA’s response to disasters over the past 7 1/2years has been rightly praised. Emergency Management Performance Grant Program (EMPG) funding remains stable, even as other grant programs endured substantial cuts. DHS no longer impedes FEMA’s mission.

Professionalism of emergency managers is now a priority. Educational programs for current and future emergency managers are developing solid curriculums. If challenged again, we should be better prepared to make rational, data driven efforts to support a coherent national response that is consistent with our national values. Our reaction to future attacks should draw on where we have stumbled in the past, avoiding the inclination to embrace the politics of the moment. Among other things, that means retaining a balance between preparing to deal with terrorism and natural hazards.

We’re human; mistakes will always occur. But, in the words of a distinguished longtime emergency manager from our state, “it’s not that we make mistakes, it’s that we keep on making the same damn mistakes”! It’s been a long journey from THEN to NOW – have we learned anything?

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