- When Hurricane Katrina blew ashore last weekend and started
to disassemble much of the Gulf coast, several things began to unravel.
First was the demonstration that response teams were not equipped to deal
with such a severe emergency. Communications largely did not work--an incredible
situation in the day of cell phones and satellites. Coordination of federal,
state and local response capabilities was absent, in part because they
could not talk to each other, but, equally if not more important, because
they had not drilled intensively to develop well-honed responses.
- These failings, along with the emergent horrors of destruction
of Gulf coast cities such as Biloxi and the flooding of New Orleans, created
a firestorm of criticism that, sadly, was well deserved. That need not
have been, and it should not have been if the Bush Administration had moved
ahead with well developed plans FEMA had, at least from the early 1990s,
for building and improving the national disaster response system.
- During the early 1990s, Bill Clinton's first term in
the White House, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was well
focused on building a credible national system for managing emergencies.
Several critics said that under FEMA Director, James Lee Witt, the organization
was finally on the right track. With support from consultants, FEMA staff
developed a program called Survivable Crisis Management.
- Before moving into a critique of the present situation,
it is very revealing to look at the work FEMA had in progress. To promote
and develop its Survivable Crisis Management (SCM) program, FEMA published
two guides: An Introduction to Survivable Crisis Management, and the Survivable
Crisis Management Development Guide. Key paragraphs of the Introduction
explain the situation and the requirement very clearly.
- " During the last decade, our Presidents declared
250 disasters across the United States and territories. Those events cost
almost $7 billion in Federal disaster assistance and affected millions
of people. Such numbers indicate that a costly disaster can strike any
community at any time"
- "If you are the Governor, the Mayor, the chairman
of a county board of supervisors, or the leader of any emergency response
organization, you have the legal responsibility to manage the consequences
of any emergency that affects your jurisdiction, regardless of its cause."
- "To assure that you can respond effectively to protect
and assist people your emergency response capabilities must survive the
emergency itself.(emphasis added) No matter what causes the emergency,
you must be able to direct and control emergency operations within your
State or local jurisdiction and coordinate with other jurisdictions and
the Federal Government. The ability to survive and continue to direct and
control emergency operations and continue to govern is called Survivable
Crisis Management (SCM)."
- " FEMA's goal is a nationwide network of statewide
SCM capabilities, all compatible with each other and with those of the
- Under SCM, FEMA set out to create and coordinate national
capabilities to deal with virtually any foreseeable emergency. The spectrum
cited in the guide is as follows:
Spectrum Of Emergencies
| Lowest Risk
|| Intermediate Risk
|| Highest Risk |
- Nuclear War
- Major Conventional War
- Terrorist Risk
- Theater War
- Major System Failures
- Low Intensity Conflict
- Nuclear Incidents
- Small Scale Attacks
- Major Fires
- System Failure
- Two fundamental premises of the FEMA approach to SCM
were (a) a basic emergency response capability is needed to deal with any
disaster, and key preparedness elements are common to all emergencies.
Several home truths were well understood. The plan could not be accomplished
without a lot of coordinated effort across the whole emergency preparedness
system, from state and local to federal. The plan required exceptional
attention to communications, meaning that the emergency systems had to
be sturdy enough to survive even extreme emergencies. Effective coordination
in any given emergency would depend on well developed and well rehearsed
operating practices and protocols. To assure creation of a coordinated
nationwide system at all state and local and federal levels of emergency
management, probably several billion dollars would be needed. To lead that
effort, FEMA had to be a Federal Government organization of well-funded
and influential status in the Federal system.
- We may never know how well the SCM system would have
developed or how well it would have worked in an emergency such as Katrina.
The basic concepts are still reflected in FEMA's strategic plan, relevant
courses are regularly offered at FEMA'S Emergency Management Institute,
and SCM itself is offered as a course by the International Disaster/Fire
and Training Institute. But the promise of SCM has not been reflected in
the response to Katrina. Why?
- Because FEMA was downgraded in the creation of the new
Department of Homeland Security. FEMA lost its cabinet level status and
access. Funds that could have gone to building the SCM or any comparable
system were used to create the new Department. The central focus of national
emergency preparedness, especially after 9-11, was shifted to terrorism
and warfare. The Clinton era name, SCM, was probably a no-no in the new
Homeland Security Department, but the concepts were sound; all the new
administration needed to do pick its own pet name.
- In this instance, FEMA was a victim of two kinds of terrorism.
The first was a Bush administration focus on global terrorism that stole
the money as well as the management priority. The second was a power struggle
in the new Department that stole the power and influence of FEMA and sent
it into decline. Perhaps crudely stated, FEMA was a victim of the Bush
Administration fixation on Osama bin Laden. More simply, perhaps, FEMA
was a victim of the Bush/neo-con fixation on terrorism, fortress America,
and projecting military power abroad.
- Many people have had severe misgivings about the War
on Terrorism, the focus on warfare that has dominated US governance for
the past five years. But for the Bush team Katrina is a wakeup call.
- SCM might not have been the last word in emergency management
for the country, because every emergency management jurisdiction knows
the problem is a moving target and it takes money, dedication, and skill
to stay on top of it. But if SCM had been in place and functional, the
response to Katrina would have been a lot better organized, lives and property
would have been saved, and the life of our country would have been much
less disrupted. At this moment, it is already clear that Katrina will cost
us a great deal more in lives, property and money than 9-11. The biggest
enemy was not Katrina, but our own lack of national level readiness to
deal with it.
- The writer was a Department of State crisis management
trainer in the 1980s and 1990s. In the early 1990s, he led a small consulting
team for a Northern Virginia management consulting firm that assisted FEMA
in developing the SCM plans and documents.
- He will welcome comments or questions at email@example.com