Disaster management and federalism (26)
A new cooperative federalism, guided by a more robust federal government role and presence, from planning to funding, should be implemented to involve state and local cooperation.
By Bernard Rowan
The United States is one of the world’s most powerful countries if one considers GDP or military might, but in other respects it is not so powerful. If we look at national debt, balance of trade, or economic diversity with respect to industrialization, the standing of the U.S. would be considerably less remarkable.
The same would be true regarding America’s infant mortality, literacy, and divorce rates, money spent on police, fire, and other safety agencies vis-a-vis education, and the list could go on. Being powerful does not preclude being less powerful at the same time, or underdeveloped, depending upon the subject at hand.
The same must be said for the United States’ preparation and ability to deal with natural disasters as a federal system. Due to its political genesis, America is one of relatively few countries that prosecute politics through a system that defines and distinguishes authority for national, state, and local governments through written constitutions. Americans believe fervently in keeping power locally when it can be kept locally and delegating power to the federal or national government only when the object is one that meets constitutional limits. Every so often, a new leader comes along who wishes to invigorate the federalist components of our political system. Such is one of the dialectics of American political life and history.
As we approach the 10th anniversary of the World Conference on Disaster Reduction, it is instructive to remind ourselves of its five stated priorities for disaster management:
1. Ensure that disaster risk reduction is a national and a local priority with a strong institutional basis for implementation.
2. Identify, assess and monitor disaster risks and enhance early warning.
3. Use knowledge, innovation and education to build a culture of safety and resilience at all levels.
4. Reduce the underlying risk factors.
5. Strengthen disaster preparedness for effective response at all levels.
I would argue that the disaster preparedness, response capacity, early warning systems, and reduction of risk factors in the United States all leave much to be desired. In a political system much more concerned with anti-terrorism, immigration policy, health policy, and economic recovery, there is too little discussion of this subject. In a presidential election cycle now entering full swing, disaster management should be discussed as a matter of national security and national development for this century. And all of these needs are only accentuated by the nature of our federal system of government.
As other essays in this series have elaborated, the consequences of human use and abuse of natural ecosystems, the underprovision of resources and planning, and the need to integrate risk reduction and response structures into economic development priorities and policies are going to become more prominent parts of global public discourse.
There should be no overreaction or notion that the end-time is near, but there should be every effort to protect and preserve our peoples, lands, and infrastructure through the application of public and private resources to disaster risk reduction and management.
The American federal system is ill-equipped to manage and to reduce the risks attending natural disasters in its current configuration. It has failed to do so in the case of Hurricane Katrina and other recent cataclysms. It is time to nationalize further the security of our national borders so as to permit federal government authority to supervise the states in dealing with natural disasters – both response and recovery efforts and even more for risk reduction.
According to a recent report, there are 12,479 miles of coastal borders in the states of the United States of America. There are thousands of additional miles of Great Lakes and connecting waterways or coastlines. This constitutes a vast stretch of territory that must be considered if we want to take seriously the need to anticipate nature’s movements and limit the effects of natural disasters.
If we wish to draw a parallel to national security, the country already has nationalized much of the air safety management apparatus. This makes sense given that on any particular day there are 80,000 or more commercial air movements alone, not including international flights or those of civil aircraft. While few would question the need for the United States government – the national or federal government – to protect our skies and airspace and to secure it from enemies at home or from abroad, the same logic doesn’t prevail with respect to disaster prevention along coasts that have the same quality, i.e. international borders.
Florida and Texas are among the most vulnerable states in terms of disaster management. Many of the other areas more likely to experience natural disasters are in the Southeast and south central sections of the country. They also include the states with the highest percentages of land lying in floodplains. This context creates a disproportionate burden for these states, and it is likely that current investments do not come close to meeting the needs in terms of forecasting, limiting impacts, and response, relief, and recovery.
It is time to nationalize our coastal waterways and coastal borders so that the power of the nation and our people, both in terms of the federal government and in terms of the centralization of decision-making and funding that can reap economies of scale and bring uniform and systemic solutions to common problems, may be brought to bear.
Thomas Birkland and Sarah Waterman have written about the over-emphasis on homeland security and the relative de-prioritization of non-terrorist threats such as natural disasters. Hurricane Katrina was much more of a disaster than it needed to be because the federal government’s disaster management structure and processes were left to relative neglect. State and local counterparts were wholly inadequate.
Birkland and Waterman describe the current era in American federalism, relying on Tim Conlan, as one of “opportunistic federalism,” which extends a mindset that seeks short-term benefit from federal dollars and attention to the exclusion of longer-term needs and coordination. Too many in this country continue thinking of disaster planning and management as something to be done when or after the unthinkable happens – too much more at that time along with too much less in the years that precede disasters. This is an expensive and dangerous mindset.
Many of the states, perhaps most, are in dire fiscal condition at this point; the effects of the first great recession of this century in the United States have reached and continue to mire the states in fiscal dilemmas. We cannot afford the illusion that standing on opportunistic federalism will suffice for fulfilling the responsibilities of America’s governments to the people.
The National Response Framework, which remains the basic law for organizing federal relationships around disaster management, should be scrapped, or at minimum revisited and revised. State and local governments lack the capacity to do the heavy lifting as to natural disaster planning and response in this day and age, and the costs and requirements will only increase this century.
As Birkland and Watermann also have noted, when Hurricane Katrina occurred, and in its aftermath, the chief scapegoat and party to blame was the federal government.
This points to an underlying perception that the mitigation of and preparation against natural disasters is a national governmental issue, not one to be left to the vagaries of state and local provision. But as yet, America’s policymakers and the public have not demanded associated actions and change.
Federalism should be invigorated with a stronger national component, but it should not be eliminated. The Army Corps of Engineers is generally welcomed to facilitate the development of infrastructure projects throughout the country. Think of the benefits in terms of jobs that disaster management industries could provide, working in tandem with the Corps and other agencies of the federal, state, and local governments. Following Richard Weitz of the Hudson Institute, there will always be a role for non-governmental organizations, public-and private partnerships, and the development of a national culture around disaster management.
Disaster management apparatus
But whereas Weitz is content to modify the disaster management apparatus with regional structures and law enforcement information sharing established via the Department of Homeland Security, I think this approach does not go far enough. Regional institutions such as those for the Federal Reserve, national defense, and courts are fine, but the principal center for policy development and implementation needs to be re-vectored to a single agency or policy platform under the U.S. Congress, this disaster management is more appropriately considered a part of national security.
Paying homage to federalism should not amount in the final analysis to leaving the planning, preparation, and execution of prevention, relief, and recovery efforts to the vicissitudes of state and local funding and development.
Too many times each year we see the President doing flyovers and then declaring areas ravaged by flooding, hurricanes, or some other disaster as “national disaster areas.” Then, with the consent of state and local authorities, the National Guard and national agencies begin to respond. What this country did to its airports following 9/11 has been to create and ensconce an entire federal apparatus to support state-level efforts to prevent acts of terrorism.
On any given day, year, or decade, there is an even greater need to do the same for disaster management. As the articles of this series detail, the costs of clinging to old ways continue to rise, and the associated loss of life and all forms of capital stands as a call to action for long-term development that enhances human possibility.
Federalism and disaster management constitutes a field for 21st century technologies and change. A new cooperative federalism, guided by a much more robust federal government role and presence, from planning to funding, should be implemented to involve state and local cooperation and working teams that will implement associated national policies, plans, and initiatives. We are way behind, but the way forward is right before us.
Disaster management is a strategy that is implemented to respond to any type of catastrophic event.
Sometimes referred to as disaster recovery management, the process may be initiated when anything threatens to disrupt normal operations or puts human lives at risk.
Governments at all levels as well as many businesses devise some sort of disaster plan in preparation to overcome a potential catastrophe and return to normal function as quickly as possible.
One of the essential elements of disaster management involves defining the types of catastrophes that could possibly disrupt the day to day operation of a city, town, business, or country. Identifying those potential disasters makes it possible to create contingency plans, assemble supplies, and outline procedures that can be initiated when and if a given disaster does come to pass.
A truly comprehensive disaster management plan will encompass a wide range of possibilities that can easily be adapted in the event one disaster sets off a chain reaction of other types of disasters in its wake.
Bernard Rowan is chair professor and coordinator of political science and international studies at Chicago State University, where he has taught for 18 years. A former fellow of the Korea Foundation, Rowan is an advisor to the Korea Institute of Public Administration and a former visiting professor of the Graduate School of Local Autonomy, Hanyang University.