Sunday, September 11, 2005

The Determinants of Disasters and Emergency Management Response

Almost everything you've heard about Hurricane Katrina, the federal response, where blame lies for the levee failure, and the politics of emergency management is wrong.

Does any of this sound familliar?

Things rapidly came unraveled. Neither the county nor the state emergency management systems were prepared for the destruction of a Class IV hurricane. Emergency management personnel, police and fire departments, power companies, and others who normally would have been the mainstays of disaster response were victims of themselves. No one was able to mount an effective assessment of the damage or of medical and life support needs. Officials in the state EOC...kept pelading wiht local officals to tell them what they needed, and frustrated and equally frantic local officials kept saying they did not know what they needed--"Send Everything!" To which agnoized state officials could only reply, "We can't send everything!"

Finally on the third day after the hurricane (and three days after a visit by President Bush and the Director of FEMA), the chaos, frustration, and lack of large-scale help from anywhere prompted Kate hold a press conference. In exasperation she uttered a politically explosive sound bite: "Where the hell is the cavalry on this one? We need food. We need water. We need people. For God's sake, where are the?"

Why, of course that sounds familliar, you say. That's a synopsis of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Actually, no. It's a synopsis of the aftermath of Hurrican Andrew, well over a decade ago. In the article, a scholarly effort to assess the Emergence Management policy subsystem, the authors make the point that what has changed about hurricane response is not increasing incompetence or ineptitude (that has always been true of FEMA)...but rather that intensive national media coverage combined with lagging public faith in government has created the perception of unprecedented incompetence when in fact the *real* causes are structural and political (with significantly more responsibility at the state and local rather than federal level).

The political situation they describe for the Elder Bush is so close to the current situation it is scary:

FEMA, which had been responding with what it considered better than average speed, suddenly found itself completely bypassed as the White House hastily shifted to warp speed. Between noon on the day of the sound-bite and noon Friday, 7,000 federal troops arrived in Florida. On the weekend, 7,500 more arrived, and later, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard units would bring the total to nearly 20,000.

Note, in this case, President Bush sent then-Secretary of Transportation Andrew Card to 'take charge' and, as has been the case with the recent hurricane, the FEMA director was marginalized (though then President Bush was criticized for bypassing FEMA). Also, you may notice that this response, almost a mirror-image of the Katrina response, didn't happen during the war in Iraq with National Guard units deployed. Another meme falls to the facts. The delay in FEMA response (and the subsequent punctuated deployment) was par-for-the-course...not some function of the war in Iraq.

The next one is a point I really want to hammer home:

Emergency management's SOPs and the tradition of first response by state and local government with federal supplementation were instantly dismissed by both victims and a viewing public expecting immediate intervention by the President. Over two hundred years of tradtions of federalsm and a decade and a half of FEMA SOPs based on them dissolved instantly.

Wamsley & Schroeder (both of Virginia Polytechnic Institute) aren't partisan hacks for a Republican administration. They are scholars diagnosing the response and the aftermath of disasters in terms of understanding the true root causes and setting them in their appropriate political context. And they note the very facts that several (and equally ignored) voices in the wake of Katrina have been making: 1) FEMA coordinates emergency doesn't provide direct support 2) state and local governments have the responsibility of responding to the crisis and 3) the problem in the instance of a category 4 hurricane is the devestation of the area and the suppression (as a result) of those same first responders. 4) The response by FEMA wasn't necessarily an instance of incompetence but rather a shift in the expectations of the public as a *result* of media sensationalism. As they put it:

A very large gap had been created between standard operating procedures and public expectations. The disaster was no longer local. The CNN Syndrome had effectively disrupted and distorted normal procedures and response patterns.

On the other hand, their article also makes clear the PR disaster that the Bush White House made of the Hurricane. A hurricane, to be blunt, is usually a PR goldmine for a he can appear decisive and get his 'hands dirty' by visiting the area. As the authors put it "A disaster, for all the pain and loss it entails, is nonetheless a presidential image-maker's dream."

I believe Wamsley & Schroeder miss a key implication of their argument (and hence over-estimate the value of a disaster for the presidency)--that public perceptions of the President as the 'first among equals' also means that he may be held most or primarily responsible when the governmental response is percieved as slow. Their argument points to how the Elder Bush was able to distinguish himself at the expense of the federal bureaucracy...but that need not be the case...and clearly was not the case with Katrina. There the Bush (the Younger) White House was caught napping in terms of 'reacting' (note: the Elder Bush visited the disaster site the day after the hurricane). They allowed the meme of federal ineptitude and slow executive response to fall at President Bush's feet rather than the bureaucracy's...and there is alot of work to be done to reverse that perception (if it can be). However, while they may not have considered what would happen if the White House failed to take the disaster ball and run with it, they do consider what happens if the President doesn't 'act' immediately:

If a president is doing well enough in the polls to resist the lure of such attractive image-making or sustaining opportunities, the stage is sure to be seized by governors, mayors, congressmen, or senators, all of whom will request, nay demand, a presidential disaster declaration, immediate waiver of matching grant requirements, and instant dispatch of federal assistance to his or her stricken constituents. Usually this is done with the same dramatic disaster backdrop and props used by presidents, whover the officials may be. It makes for exciting political theater.

Wow. That's only *exactly* what has happened in the wake of Katrina. If the fact that we are hardly dealing with 'horrific executive incompetence,' rather instead the natural consequences of a disaster that overwhelms first responder capacity hasn't become evident yet it should have.

But where Wamsley & Schroeder really cut through the fog and get to the hard reality of disasters like this is in their exposition on 'burden shifting.' Remember some of the memes that have sprung up in the wake of Katrina: the levees weren't built to proper specs, the Bush administration cut funding that resulted in levee failure, etc. etc. The media has beaten a consistent drumbeat to the effect that the problem in New Orleans was a lack of federal funding for the obvious solutions to the problems.

As we develop more and more land--pushing into wetlands, barrier islands, and building cities on seismic faults--we steadily increase not only the physical threat to those inhabiting such areas but the fiscal threat to the American taxpayers as a whole and to the federal treasury in particular.

Note the important point regarding the political context W & S are making here: there is a clear tradeoff between continued development and economic prosperity and reducing the risk of disaster. Whereas the media paints the issue entirely as a matter of funding the necessary safeguards, W & S suggest there is another side to the coin: the ever increasing demand for funding and the contingent political will for it. With more development, we have greater assets (prperty and people at risk). Providing protection from the numerous potential disasters require significant amounts of public funds. W & S have a figure showing the explosion in demands for federal disaster declarations as well as the upturn in executive granting of these requests, while requests that are turned-down have stayed relatively constant. Far from a case of increasing federal neglect of emergency relief, they paint a picture of a federal government taking on a greater and greater burden.

The same holds true in rural areas and in agricultural lands as we build complicated and expensive levee systems that create an impression of invulnerability at the same time they concentrate the power of rivers in flood. Because local government participation in levee systems has been voluntary and on a matching grant basis, many cities like Davenport, Iowa, have chosen to go unprotected.

In other words, local and state governments make the political decisions as to how much funding goes into supporting the levee systems. W & S argue that the responsibility for providing protection lies with those who are at most serious risk. Furthermore, they identify this (though do not explicitly state it) as a tragedy of the commons problem...where the incentive of high-risk citizens and local governments is to 'free-ride' on a federal bailout post-disaster rather than commit the funds individually (buying insurance) or collectively (through allocating funds to the levee systems). The problem is *not* that the federal government is shorting funds for flood protections. It is that local and state governments aren't willing to pay the political and fiscal costs of providing protection when they can shift thatburden to the federal government in the wake of a disaster.

W & S go on to make a cogent argument that this problem is further exacerbated by the disaster itself, as the political pressure for the federal government to waive matching requirements and, instead, pay for it all itself is overwhelming. Indeed, we've seen the same thing (many conservatives, in fact, calling for this very thing)

Once again, however, a president is under pressure by state and local officials and the media to make a dramatic gesture that serves to acknowledge the loss of victims and affirming his support. The pressures are virtually irresistible and again cost shifting is involved.

If they hadn't already dispelled a number of memes offered by the media, we get one mure slam-dunk on the "FEMA incompetence is a product of the Homeland Security reorganization under the Bush administration." The notion that FEMA used to be this paragon of efficency that has been butchered as a result of bureacuratic changes pushed by the Bush administration is one that has recieved strong support on both sides of the ideological divide.

FEMA was cobbled together in 1978 by a rapidly declining Presidential Reorganization Project under President Jimmy Carter. It has never to date overcome the results of its many birth defects. It has been an agency torn by truf fights along program lines, over-burdened with political appointees, stuck with a "Mr. Bumble" image, labeled the 'federal turkey farm' for the quality of its appointees, tagged with a reputation for petty sleaze and tacky scandals, seen as trying to play a major role in national security without the necessary skill or clout, and percieved of by other agencies as claiming more power to coordinate the rest of the government than it had muscle or capability.

FEMA has problems in terms of competence and capability, and those problems have been omnipresent. A function of the agency itself rather than any particular administration. If President Bush is guilty of anything, it would be of not having done away with FEMA all-together and instead continued in the tradition of previous administrations (of both political stripes) in terms of patronage appointments to FEMA. However, rather than being criticized for labeling FEMA support 'pork' and a desire to de-emphasize the agency...he should be lauded for it. One of the key problems with FEMA that is identified by W & S is that FEMA had traditionally been fractured both in terms of its bureaucratic structure and congressional oversight. Bringing FEMA under the Homeland Security umbrella, it could be argued, may have cured some of those ills. However, FEMA remains underfunded and marginalized even though it is a part of HS. Congress, rather than the President, bears most of the responsibility for the structural problems with FEMA, given the multiple committees that it is responsible to.

With such little direct attention paid to the continuity of FEMA's authorizations and appropriations, especially as they apply to FEMA's capabilities to be flexible in emergency response, it is no wonder that fragmentation within FEMA should seem systematically rooted and impervious to simple reform.

One necessary reform of FEMA, and one made particularly obvious by the abject failure of the Brown apppointment, is to either create more of a professional emphasis in the political appointees to the agency, or provide more civil service positions that would be filled by professionals. However, this won't fix the problem of the multiplicity of congressional committees with 'jurisdiction' over emergency management (20, by the count of NAPA per W & S) that results in the discontinuity of the FEMA approprations process.

As W & S put it:

This congressional fragmentation of authority and the resulting stove pipes are propbaby the leading obstacles to the construction of a unified and, therefore, achievable mission.

Furthermore, as I have long argued and as W & S emphasize, the response problem that is apparent in the wake of these disasters is a function of our federal system...not executive neglect.

...there is the disconnect between our three-tiered federal structure and the need and expectations that FEMA will respond rapidly to emergencies. This is a natural expectation, yet it simply does not fit with our traditions of federalism. Our federal system is essentially a bottom-heavy system in spite of all the rhetoric about the national government becoming too powerful. The Constitution leaves with the states, and the states delegate to local governments, many of the broad policy powers which naturally come into play in responding to an emergency. Thus FEMA has always felt constrained to conceive of itself as the "responder of last resort" and only after local and state governments have been overwhelemed and requested assistance.

So slow disaster response is a function of numerous factors...none of which are particularly the responsibility of the president. While W & S chastize previous presidents for having neglected FEMA [exception: they laud President Clinton for giving it a good appointment in Witt and providing FEMA with more executive support...though in truth their case for Witt is mostly anecdotal and Witt was never faced with a category 4 hurricane level event--where first responders were overwhelmed. The results, despite Witt's political expertise, would likely have been simillar to those experienced under Elder Bush. Just as Brown and FEMA managed lesser Florida hurricanes last year.], the problems they highlight with the agency are found in its structure and bureaucratic relations with Congress. What's more, they identify the various political and enviornmental factors that influence disaster response...many of them endemic to the nature of our political system, conflicting values, democracy, and federalism...not one particular occupant of the White House.

What should strike the reader upon seeing this is just how much of all the hysterics in the wake of hurricane Katrina ere just that: hysterics. It is amazing just how little we have learned from these events in the past...and how easy it has been to fool folks into thinking 1) the FEMA response to Katrina was unprecedented 2) FEMA was responsible for disaster relief, not state and local governments 3) the problem with the levees was a lack of federal funding 4) FEMA's ineptness is new and a result of being reorganized under HS and numerous other obviously false memes. Hopefully responsible individuals in the press will begin to tell the whole story. Because up to this point, it is has been deja vu all over again (heh, *of course* I had to wrap up with that!).

Here is a link to the W & S article.

UPDATE: The link doesn't seem to be working. The article is titled: "Escalating in a Quagmire: The Channging Dynamics of the Emergency Management Policy Subsystem" by Gary L. Warmsley and Aaron D. Schroeder. It appeared in the Public Administration Review, Vol. 56, No. 3 (May - Jun., 1996), p. 235-244. It is available on JSTOR if you have access to it.