Reality of Disasters Trumps All Other Arguments, Debates

Disasters demand attention. They don’t care about government shutdowns, continuing resolutions or sequestration. Political ideology and party partisanship are immaterial to them. Disasters also don’t discriminate. They occur in red states, in blue states and every shade in between. Borders drawn on a map make no difference. So, whether it’s a tornado in Moore, Okla., a chemical spill in West Virginia or wildfires in Colorado, there are undeniable realities when it comes to disasters. 1) They will occur. 2) Some people will need help. 3) Communities will want to recover. Because disasters can be arbitrary and capricious, the only way to truly manage them is to learn from the last one, while mitigating and preparing to the best of one’s ability for the next event. At the end of the day, that determines success or failure, life or death. For disasters, all the rest are just details.

  Download the Article in PDF / E-Reader Compatible Format

About the Author
Beverly Bell is the senior policy analyst for the National Emergency Management Association, an affiliate of The Council of State Governments. In her position, she coordinates and conducts research, interacts with the states on federal policy and acts as an information clearinghouse for emergency management and homeland security issues.

The Aftermath of Hurricane Sandy
Hurricane Sandy, which struck the mid-Atlantic and East Coast in October 2012, continues to cast a long shadow. The subsequent legislation passed by Congress—the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act—impacted every major disaster assistance program administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It also amended the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, the central legislation that guides the declaration process.

Three main objectives drive the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act—expedited and streamlined disaster assistance, increased flexibility and reduced federal costs. These elements are being implemented through a variety of pilot programs and policies that, for example, allow a higher cost-share from the federal government when disaster debris is removed more quickly; simplify paperwork when eligible costs fall below a certain amount; and provide money upfront to a state or jurisdiction based on a capped estimate, rather than the time consuming process of reimbursement after the work has been done. Finally, as a direct result of the legislation, tribal governments received six major declarations in 2013. Prior to the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act, only a governor had the authority after a disaster to request either an emergency or major declaration from the president, which, if granted, allowed federal assistance. Now, tribal governments—if they choose—can make a disaster declaration request directly to the president instead of going through the state.

Addressing the High and Real Costs of Floods
The solvency of the National Flood Insurance Program remains a thorny issue. It’s woefully underfunded, running a $24 billion deficit.1 When Congress passed the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act in July 2012, the legislation was seen as a major step in restoring financial viability to the troubled program because, for the first time in many years, policy holders would be required to pay the full rate without federal subsidies or special allowances. The substantial increases in flood insurance premiums, however, created a backlash from angry homeowners, who make up a large portion of the program’s reported 5.6 million policies.2 Congress responded with the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act of 2014, which repeals and modifies certain components of Biggert-Waters. This included limiting premium increases to no more than 18 percent annually and reinstating “grandfathered” policyholders who had been allowed to keep their home’s original flood-risk rating, even if that rating had been revised in subsequent flood maps. In addition, even as the Federal Emergency Management Agency has updated flood maps to provide a more accurate picture of true risk, some of these have been redrawn because of political pressures.

Climate change plays into the flood insurance conversation as well. If the trend of more intense and frequent storms continues along with rising sea levels, more homes and businesses will experience flooding. Some states impacted by Hurricane Sandy, such as New Jersey, already have begun buying waterfront properties with the goal of removing structures and converting the land to open spaces. Climate change models are also expected to take on a larger role for FEMA as it projects future costs of the flood insurance program. Finally, the devastating March 2014 mudslide in Oso, Wash., has once again sparked debate about restricting construction in areas considered compromised by either natural—such as excessive rainfall from climatic causes—or man-made threats.

Investments Pay Off

The tragic Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013 illustrated the value of state homeland security grant investments. Only moments after the bombing, the state of Massachusetts and the city of Boston were able to bring to bear a wide range of personnel, capabilities and resources, many made possible by grant funding. They included a comprehensive tabletop exercise—anticipating worst-case scenarios and conducted in early April 2013—for the entire multi-agency, multi-discipline team that manages the marathon. It also consisted of SWAT teams and bomb detection dogs, mobile command posts, and interoperable channels on portable radios that allowed officials from various agencies to talk to one another as they secured assistance for bombing victims and initiated the state’s largest manhunt. Finally, homeland security grant investments allowed one of the largest and most successful instances of sheltering-in-place ever witnessed in this country. Authorities instructed residents across the area to stay at home while the massive search for the perpetrators was conducted. Schools and businesses were closed, mass transit was suspended and vehicular traffic was shut down. The directive affected an estimated 1 million people and required extensive organization and coordination among numerous agencies.

EMPG—Backbone of State and Local Emergency Management
Emergency management is a discipline that works from the bottom up. The stronger the foundation is, the stronger the overall capability to manage a disaster. Congress continues to support the strengthening of this robust system by funding the  Emergency Management Performance Grant. These grants are the only source of federal funding directed to state and local governments for planning, training, exercises and professional expertise for  all hazards emergency preparedness. It also requires a dollar for- dollar match, which means every state and local  jurisdiction must invest its own money in order to participate. Emergency Management Performance Grants and the capacity they afford, allow local jurisdictions and state government to coordinate most events rather than turning to federal support. Since 2011, state emergency management has provided annual metrics to Congress, measuring deliverables of the program and demonstrating quantitative results.

The Critical Role of Emergency Management
State emergency management acts as the central coordination point for all resources and assistance provided during disasters and emergencies, including terrorism events. When a disaster strikes, emergency management remains one of the most crucial functions of state government. It also has the overarching responsibility of saving lives, protecting property and helping people recover once a disaster has occurred. Typically, emergency management comes to the forefront once an event has taken place. In reality, much of the work comes before—in the form of disaster drills and exercises, plans and programs, public warning tests and preparedness education. 

Emergency management includes four main parts, referred to as the Four Pillars:

  • Mitigation—Activities that reduce or eliminate the degree of risk to human life and property;

  • Preparedness—Activities that take place before a disaster to develop and maintain a capability to respond rapidly and effectively to emergencies and disasters;

  • Response—Activities to assess and contain the immediate effects of disasters, provide life support to victims and deliver emergency services; and

  • Recovery—Activities to restore damaged facilities and equipment, and support the economic and social revitalization of affected areas to their pre-emergency status.

On the state level, these four elements encompass many different aspects, from planning and implementation to training and exercises. A state emergency manager will interact with all sectors of the population, including other state agencies,  elected officials, local jurisdictions, all public safety personnel, the private sector, volunteer organizations and the general public.

State Emergency Management Organizational Structures/Budgets
In 2013, emergency management directors were appointed in nine states, and in six of these, the governor made the selection. Twelve state emergency management agencies also experienced change with reorganization. This means that the emergency management agency is now located within the department of public safety in eight states, a decline from 14 in the 2012 fiscal year; in 17 states it is located within the military department under the auspices of the adjutant general; in 10 states, it is within the governor’s office; and in 11 states, it is in a combined emergency management/ homeland security agency. The rest of the states use other organizational structures.

Regardless of how an agency’s daily operations are organized, most governors make the final decision on who serves as the state emergency management director. A 2014 fiscal year survey3 of 50 states, the District of Columbia and three U.S. territories found that the governor appoints the state emergency management director in 35—or more than two-thirds—of the states.

Continuing a trend for the past few years, the majority of states—36—combine their emergency management and homeland security full-time equivalent positions. The average number of full-time equivalents for these states is 108. For the remaining states that do not combine their emergency management/homeland security positions, the average is 111. Agency operating budgets for the 2014 fiscal year range up to $56 million. The average state budget is $6.3 million, while the median is around $3 million.

State Homeland Security Funding and Responsibilities
After several years of eroding budgets, the federal State Homeland Security Grant Program saw an increase for the 2014 fiscal year. The program is a central federal funding source that supports and sustains state and local government homeland security capabilities. As recently as the 2010 fiscal year, $842 million was allotted to states. The next year due to overall budget cuts, this amount fell to $527 million and the decline continued through fiscal year 2012, when the total was $294 million. It currently stands at $401 million. 

Nineteen states in 2013 relied solely on federal grants to fund their homeland security offices. This represents a slight increase from the previous year, when the number was 15. Fifteen states relied solely on federal grants. Currently, forty-two states receive 60 percent or more from federal money to fund their state homeland security office, up from 39 states last year. Delaware is the only state in which 100 percent of the funding comes from state appropriations. On average, states rely on 77.1 percent federal funding, 21.3 percent state appropriations and 1.6 percent from other sources to pay for their homeland security function.

When it comes to the state homeland security offices, responsibilities and organizational structures vary from state to state. In some cases, state homeland security directors manage grants and budgets; in others, they have very limited roles. In 17 states, a combined emergency management/homeland security office oversees daily operations of the homeland security function. Twelve states keep the homeland security function in their public safety department and 10 states have it in the adjutant general/military affairs department. Seven states run it out of the governor’s office.The rest of the states have other organizational structures for their homeland security function.

Looking Ahead Reducing Costs of Future Disasters
The Sandy Recovery Improvement Act requires FEMA to submit recommendations for a national strategy to reduce future costs, loss of life and injuries associated with disasters. Any discussion should include strategic considerations such as the impact of climate change; changing demographics, i.e. age, ethnicity and population shifts; and an evaluation of the need for disaster recovery versus community recovery/redevelopment.

There are also long-term issues in reducing future disaster costs. One is the possibility of using the insurance model for providing disaster assistance. As the name implies, this would function like insurance for other areas, such as homes or automobiles. Once it’s determined disaster assistance is warranted, the federal government would provide a set amount to the state or jurisdiction for response and recovery without the bureaucratic documentation of each expenditure. While accountability of taxpayer dollars is essential, this system would allow more efficiency in disaster assistance administration. Related to this is offering inducements to businesses and homeowners  for resiliency, and providing incentives to local governments to incorporate resiliency into their building codes and land-use decisions. Conversely, there should be disincentives for jurisdictions that choose not to take action to reduce future disaster loss or be more resilient. 

A More Deliberate, Coordinated Approach to Addressing Hazards
Discussions started several years ago by the state emergency management community and continued by the current administration in Washington focus on the possibility of streamlining the preparedness grant structure. The concept calls for rolling the federal grants into one program; allowing stakeholders to work together in identifying and prioritizing the risks of a state or region; engaging in comprehensive planning that applies the grants in buying down that risk; and providing a clearer measurement on what the grants deliver, while building long-term capabilities. In the current fiscal and political climate, the proposal offers a solid alternative to silo grant funding, with the added benefits of greater transparency and accountability.

Role of the Military in Disaster Management
As the United States ends its active engagement in two wars, congressionally mandated cuts to the defense department are fostering a new debate over the appropriate role of the military in disaster management. Included in that discussion are National Guard troops, which provide a critical element to response and recovery, and also represent a deployable asset through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, known as EMAC, the nation’s interstate mutual aid agreement. National Guard troops are assigned to each state and operate under the authority of the governor. In many disasters, they deliver food, water and equipment; go door-to-door checking on residents’ safety; and provide additional security to disaster impacted areas. They can be federalized for national missions, but the governor must sign off on it. State emergency management will continue to monitor the military’s restructuring in the face of a changing fiscal environment to ensure that the National Guard component is available for citizens when disasters strike.

1 United States Government Accountability Office, Testimony Before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Economic Policy, Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, “National Flood Insurance Program—Continued Attention
Needed to Address Challenges
2 Federal Emergency Management Agency, Policy and Claim Statistics for Flood Insurance.
3 National Emergency Management Association, “NEMA FY 2014 Biennial Survey,” January 2014.