It’s not just cold air slamming against warm that creates disasters. Disasters come from a variety of threats: rising rivers and unprecedented snowfalls, cyberattacks and infectious diseases. There are also other kinds of risks, such as inadequate budgets and shifting political sands. Regardless of the cause, the consequences are predictable and can be tragic. Disasters hurt people and property. They tear lives apart. They can make political careers or bring them to a screeching halt. Disasters can change the course of history. While disasters can be difficult and present challenges to a neighborhood, community, state and a nation, their impact can be mitigated through strong and decisive action. Often, the only thing standing between the worst outcomes and manageable ones are citizens and public officials who refuse to be helpless pawns or victims, but instead prepare for the inevitable, conduct a thorough response and develop together a well-thought out recovery that acknowledges evolving threats without fear.
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.
When Hurricane Sandy hit the mid-Atlantic and East Coast in late October 2012, it not only killed more than 200 people and caused tens of billions of dollars in damage. It altered the way this country manages disasters. Congress passed the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act of 2013 in late January. In addition to providing almost $51 billion for recovery and other projects, it amended the Stafford Act and key aspects of federal disaster assistance programs. Beyond the legislation, the hurricane also provoked debate on the underfunded National Flood Insurance Program, climate change and its impact on rising sea levels, the growing economic losses from disasters, community resiliency and rebuilding stronger versus not re-building at all. The country hasn’t witnessed this kind of national discourse related to a natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Yet even as these discussions took place, the harsh undercurrent of fiscal battles, partisan politics and citizens who require help persisted. Together, they have created an intense struggle that won’t be resolved any time soon.
A significant cyberattack in this country is inevitable, so states should take steps now to mitigate, manage and recover from it. Otherwise, officials will be caught unprepared while still being expected to successfully handle both the attack and its consequences, which could include everything from grounded air transportation to a compromised electrical grid, from faulty water treatment plants to unworkable ATMs.
The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico is not only the worst environmental accident the U.S. has ever experienced, it’s also a harsh reminder of how—without any warning—one disaster can impact a state’s priorities, budget, elected officials and very future. Adding to the uncertainty for all states is the growing number of disasters across the country.
Economic uncertainty in January 2008 evolved into a full-blown recession by the year’s end, impacting everything in its wake, from state budgets to mortgages and from college endowments to car loans. American consumers dealt with rising food costs, plummeting home values and jobs cuts while riding a rollercoaster of fluctuating gas prices. The downturn has meant the loss of sales, income and property taxes, which could have serious ramifications for important state government functions such as emergency management and homeland security. Complicating the fiscal challenges is the first transition of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to a new administration. This has led to a debate over the continued placement of the Federal Emergency Management Agency within Homeland Security. Yet even as that discussion ensues, the most destructive hurricane to hit U.S. soil since 2005—Ike—and the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, serve as reminders that an all-hazards approach to emergency preparedness and experienced leadership are the real answers to threats, whether they are natural or man-made.
In 2007, the focus shifted from the failures of the Hurricane Katrina response and recovery to a broader debate on the future of emergency management and homeland security. Major issues included the re-organization of the Federal Emergency Management Agency; the use and control of National Guard troops in times of disaster; and the recurring theme of sufficient federal funding to support programs and mandated responsibilities. After the nation caught its breath following one of the most destructive hurricane seasons on record, the goal now is to continue building capacity at the state and local levels; ensuring that the federal government does a better job of engaging all stakeholders in developing and implementing national policy; and preparing for the transition to a new administration in Washington.
More than a year has passed since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, but the fallout continues. Three separate reports on the disaster from the U.S. House of Representatives, Senate and the White House have resulted in numerous criticisms, recommendations and requirements. Whether these reactive measures will result in a better prepared nation is yet to be determined. Underlying all of the challenges is the ongoing struggle between adequate funding and saving human life and property during a disaster. Given the recurring demands on state budgets as well as federal programs, this pressure shows no sign of abating.
Similar to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Hurricane Katrina shone a bright light on the nation’s level of preparedness and revealed serious gaps in the country’s ability to respond to another terrorist attack. Debate continues on whether the federal government’s focus on preparing for a terrorism incident has overlooked the more common threat of natural disasters. Adequate funding for allhazards is a major concern for all state and local emergency managers, particularly since federal mandates in preparedness and response increase regularly, without matching federal funding.