Budget Cuts & Emergency Response

By Lisa Beutler

Water –it’s never where you want it when you want it.  My last post was about the Texas drought. Dramatically book-ending that story are the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers gone wild, and the eastern seaboard hammered by torrential down pours.

Emergency managers not only face these threats but at the same time face a continuing drumbeat for smaller government.  This extra dilemma seems incomprehensible for many public administrators.  Polls indicate people continue to think government should be involved in disaster prevention, preparedness, response and recovery.   Managing these polar demands has had real consequences.

As of September 9, the cost of Hurricane Irene was estimated at up to $10 billion. This figure makes it one of the top 10 costliest disasters in the nation’s history.  It caused millions of power outages up and down the eastern seaboard, brought widespread flooding, and resulted in over 13,000 flights being cancelled.

In contrast to the finger-pointing and gaffs oft associated with Hurricane Katrina, in this last round of preparation for hurricanes, FEMA and elected officials demonstrated steady leadership. They provided wise advice, appropriate caution and action.  We also saw citizens demonstrate faith in these managers.  They listened and responded appropriately.  While the outcomes of any disaster should not be understated, it is fair to say the situation could have been far worse.  Some critical differences in disaster response between Katrina and Irene are already being outlined.

In 2005, slow response (particularly in New Orleans) resulted in tragic loss of life and left people without water and food for days after the storm.  Realignment of emergency agencies, done after 9/11 to support homeland security, caused confusion over chain of command and ultimately put people at risk.  Another interesting, yet less discussed aspect of the governance approach involved contracting out emergency services.  This was similar to approaches used in the ongoing war effort.  While effective in some situations, this further bifurcated and confused chains of command, and removed levels of accountability.

Only one federal team, the Coast Guard, appeared to come out of Katrina relatively unscathed.  In considering lessons learned from that hurricane, Rear Adm. William Lee, commander of the Coast Guard’s District 5, based in Portsmouth, Va., was succinct.  “The primary lesson the federal government took away from Katrina,” he said, “is that we needed to do a better job of preplanning and coordination across the interagency.”

Prior to Irene, he said his team had, “been planning extensively, talking within the Department of Homeland Security partnerships, the Department of Defense (DoD) partnerships, to make sure that we’ve got the people and the equipment and posture in place that we can come behind the storm and respond appropriately,”

For instance, Lee said, the Coast Guard and DoD had developed a concept of air operations for tracking incidents, determining needs and directing various assets.

“It’s a team effort,” he said, an “all-out team effort.”

The direct and cost saving benefit of prevention, preparedness and collaboration is clear. Yet, federal emergency managers have been directed to fund this latest round of disasters from current budget allocations.

The impact of this directive is immense.  Federal agency expenses for response efforts are more than double of what would normally be allocated in a regular year.

What this means is that resources used for response to today’s disaster must be taken from prevention and preparation for tomorrows disaster.  The training and collaboration needed for seamless response will be lacking.   The levee improvements already scheduled for the near term will be delayed.  Mitigation efforts will be stifled.

The false economy of penny pinching today will rob all of us tomorrow.   We know investments in collaboration, preparedness and prevention pay off.  The real thing we can’t afford is the price tag of a future disaster where these investments were not made.

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One thought on “Budget Cuts & Emergency Response

  1. Excellent article, Lisa! You nailed the dilemma facing the field perfectly. We can also add to this concern the dramatic reduction of homeland security funding to the nation’s states and localities–of which we are seeing for the first time rolled out. The budget pressures for the disaster response field has never been greater. The challenges will need to be addressed openly and often among the nations first responders–and communicated to budgetary decision makers. thanks, Adam Sutkus.

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