Contention over Catastrophes

Friction among state, local and federal disaster responders imperils recovery from emergencies.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, only one thing seemed to disintegrate as fast as the levees that were supposed to protect the city: the relationships that are supposed to bond local, state and federal officials during and immediately after such a disaster.

But why?

The answer will have significant implications for the future of emergency response in the United States. Already, governors are lining up in opposition to the "federalization" of domestic disaster response. Yet some in federal government clearly feel that if they're going to be blamed for failures-failures they ascribe at least in part to state and local officials-then they'd prefer a system in which the federal government has the option of being much more pre-emptive. In fact, the federal role in U.S. disaster response and recovery has been increasing steadily, according to emergency management scholars. On April 22, 1927, President Calvin Coolidge named a special Cabinet-level committee headed by then-Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover to deal with the massive flooding that ravaged communities up and down the Mississippi River Valley. The scene, described in John M. Barry's highly topical chronicle, Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America (Simon & Schuster, 1998), arguably represents the beginning of the modern era of intergovernmental disaster response. It also represents the first clear attempt to politicize federal disaster response, with Hoover consciously riding his performance during the floods all the way to the White House.

The federal government began trying to formalize intergovernmental roles and responsibilities through the 1950 Federal Civil Defense Act, which defined the scope and type of assistance the federal government would extend to states and localities after certain types of disasters or emergencies (although Congress had been offering financial aid to states and localities piecemeal since the early 1800s). In 1979, President Jimmy Carter created the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in large part as a response to governors' complaints about the fragmented nature of federal disaster planning and assistance. And in 1988, Congress passed the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief Act, which outlined the protocols for disaster declarations and what sort of intergovernmental response would follow.

From 1989 to 1992, a succession of calamities, including the Loma Prieta earthquake in California and hurricanes Hugo in South Carolina and Andrew in Florida, highlighted the federal government's slow and bureaucratic response. These events also were teaching state and local governments plenty about their own emergency capabilities. The experiences led to the vaunted turnaround at FEMA with the appointment of James Lee Witt, the first director with actual state emergency management experience.

The increasing federal role in emergency readiness and response brought two results, says Tom Birkland, director of the Center for Policy Research at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy. First, states and localities were getting hooked on federal money-especially for recovery. In addition, presidents also were discovering the political benefits of declaring disasters, which allowed them to liberally sprinkle significant amounts of cash around states and localities in distress. "That spending grew considerably under the Clinton administration," says Birkland. "And it created the expectation of federal government largesse. But federal spending was always meant to supplement and not supplant state and local spending."

All Emergencies Are Local

If the federal role in disaster response and recovery has increased-along with expectations of federal help-emergency management experts at all levels still agree on the basics of existing protocol: All emergencies are, initially at least, local-or local and state. "For the first 48 to 72 hours, it's understood that local and state first responders are principally responsible," says Bill Jenkins, director of the Homeland Security and Justice Issues Group at the Government Accountability Office, which is investigating intergovernmental response to Katrina. "The feds come in as requested after that."

The extent to which the local-to-state-to-federal response ramps up depends on a host of factors, including the size of the incident and the plans and agreements that are in place. It also very much depends on the capacity of the governments involved. Some are just more capable of dealing with disasters on their own and seem less inclined to ask for outside help. Others seem to hit the intergovernmental panic button more quickly. But whichever it is, say those on the front line of emergency response, the reaction of various governmental partners shouldn't be a surprise. Key players at every level of government should have a very good idea of what they will be called upon to do or to provide when a particular disaster hits.

Most important to the strength of the intergovernmental chain are solid relationships among those who might be called upon to work together in times of high stress. "You don't want to meet someone for the first time while you're standing around in the rubble," says Jarrod Bernstein, a spokesman for the New York City Office of Emergency Management. "You want to meet them during drills and exercises." New York, says Bernstein, has very tight relationships with state and federal officials in a variety of agencies. "They're involved in all our planning and all our drills. They have a seat at all the tabletop exercises we do."

During those exercises, says Bernstein, federal, state and local officials establish and agree on what their respective jobs will be when a big one hits. Last summer, for example, the city worked with FEMA, the Health and Human Services Department, the FBI and New York state health and emergency response officials on an exercise aimed at collecting 8 million doses of medicine and distributing them throughout the city in 48 hours. "We were looking at how we'd receive medical stockpiles from the federal government, break them down and push them out citywide. There is a built-in federal component to that plan," he says.

Point Fingers Everywhere

It's hard to figure out exactly what agreements or arrangements were in place in Louisiana prior to Katrina, in large part because state and local officials at this point don't seem to want to talk about them (numerous e-mails and phone calls to Louisiana, New Orleans and FEMA officials asking about response plans went unanswered). To the extent that some officials would talk-off the record-and from conversations with close observers, it is clear that intergovernmental relationships among FEMA, Louisiana and New Orleans were neither close nor formalized, and if people cared to point fingers, they could be pointed in all directions.

FEMA has come in for the most consistent and visible pounding, but more dispassionate observers think it's unfair that the agency be singled out. "[Former FEMA director] Michael Brown's comment that the Louisiana and New Orleans governments were 'dysfunctional' is right on the money," says Susan Cutter, director of the Hazards Research Lab at the University of South Carolina. "And you can add to that 'inexperienced.' "

For example, a tabletop exercise done in Louisiana last year called Hurricane Pam identified a huge gap in disaster planning in New Orleans: An estimated 100,000 people wouldn't be able to get out without help.

As is standard in emergency management planning and practice, it is the locality's responsibility-at least initially-to evacuate people, unless other partners are identified beforehand. Last spring, the city floated the notion that it would rely primarily on the faith-based community to organize and mobilize caravans out of the city for those without cars or who needed special assistance. The faith-based community balked, citing liability issues, according to a longtime New Orleans public policy analyst. The city never came up with Plan B-that is, until Katrina struck, when Plan B turned into a panicked plea for state and federal help as the floodwaters drove people toward the Superdome.

By contrast, John Pine suggests learning from Louisiana parishes with a record of responding smoothly and competently to disasters. "You look at places like Jefferson, Vermilion and Calcasieu," says Pine, who is Louisiana State University disaster science and management program director. "Those parishes are just extraordinary and have long cultures of excellent preparedness and excellent local government."

Robert LeBlanc, Vermilion's veteran director of emergency preparedness, says it's the parish's responsibility to get residents out of harm's way and his parish's emergency response plans assume no significant help from state or federal officials before-or for at least 48 hours after-a storm blows in and over. "When we declare an emergency, the first to get out are those with special needs and those in nursing homes and those in low parts of the parish," says LeBlanc. Depending on who is being evacuated, the parish uses everything from school buses to ambulances, all prearranged to go where they're needed and all covered by FEMA reimbursements because it's part of the parish's official emergency response plan. "New Orleans had 1,000 flooded school buses," LeBlanc says. "It had Amtrak offering to take residents out of there."

But if New Orleans had planning problems, then Louisiana also seemed to have troubles. In the fall of 2004, three top administrators with the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness were indicted for the alleged misuse of up to $60 million in FEMA mitigation planning money.

In the wake of the scandal, a fresh team was appointed to head the department, including a new operations director. Veteran Louisiana emergency management officials say extremely valuable institutional knowledge was swept out the door with the purge, including expertise in what to expect from, and how to work with, FEMA. "Three individuals key to that organization got caught up in that mitigation plan business and that was a great loss," says Vermilion's LeBlanc. The former deputy director for emergency preparedness, Mike Brown (no relation to the former FEMA director) "knew exactly what to do during emergencies," says LeBlanc.

Communication among the three levels of government before, during and after the event also was messy. Indicative of the problem was the struggle between New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and state and federal officials when it came to repopulating the city. "You have the mayor saying to residents 'Y'all come back,' and the feds are just exploding," says Peter Beering, terrorism preparedness coordinator for Indianapolis. "So the mayor is playing to his constituents and blaming the big bad feds for getting in his way."

Overlaying the uneven intergovernmental response were traditional tensions between Louisiana's capital, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans, including the fact that Nagin declined to support Kathleen Babineaux Blanco in her run for governor, even though both are Democrats. The extent to which such tensions played into the New Orleans fiasco is hard to judge, but nobody in Louisiana would describe the relationship between the two cities as close.

As further evidence of the fragmented nature of government and governance in Louisiana, Janet Howard, president of the New Orleans Bureau of Governmental Research, points out that there are three different groups doing separate analyses of what happened: the Louisiana legislature, the New Orleans mayor's office and the New Orleans City Council.

Such factionalism within Louisiana is clearly one reason some officials seem so keen on taking emergency management out of the hands of state and local government. And it isn't just frustrated federal officials who think a more forceful emergency response might be a good idea in some instances. Bill Leighty, chief of staff for Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, spent two weeks in Louisiana helping coordinate the state response. He says watching FEMA's actions versus the military's while he was in New Orleans suggests the strong need for an intergovernmental discussion of when a more aggressive federal approach is appropriate. FEMA's mind-boggling bureaucratic approach to every item it provided or action it took was, at times, brutally exasperating, says Leighty. "But when you tell the 82nd Airborne, 'Secure New Orleans,' they come in and they know exactly what to do and it gets done."

Even some longtime New Orleans residents, who watched helplessly as looters rampaged through parts of the city, say they wouldn't have minded at all if the military had stepped in to restore order. "There are times when people are overwhelmed," says Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at The George Washington University, "and they don't care what color uniform is involved in coming to the rescue-red, blue or green."

Planning for the Last Disaster

States as a whole clearly are not going to go along with any emergency management plan that involves the federal government declaring something like martial law, though. Indeed, the National Governors Association in October issued a terse statement to that effect. According to the statement, NGA agrees there needs to be a thorough analysis of local, state and federal coordination for disaster response. "The possibility of the federal government pre-empting the authority of states or governors in emergencies, however, is opposed by the nation's governors," the statement says. Most states would much prefer to see existing protocols continued and FEMA restored to its former glory, when it was packed with experienced staff, well-funded and hard-wired to the West Wing.

Many simply question the whole idea of predicating a sweeping new intergovernmental policy on what happened in Louisiana. "It's true that we're always planning for the last disaster," says Cilluffo. Turning established intergovernmental emergency response policy on its ear based primarily on the experience of one state, one city and one disaster probably would be a mistake, he and other experts argue.

Still, the uneven responses to Katrina, and to a lesser degree Hurricane Rita, argue for a serious review, according to emergency responders. Emergency management response generally, and intergovernmental communication specifically, seemed better coordinated during Rita and Wilma, but both hurricanes highlighted continuing glitches.

The evacuation of Houston and environs in advance of Rita was poorly coordinated, argued David G. Wallace, mayor of Sugar Land, Texas. In testimony before the House Committee on Homeland Security, Wallace noted, "The decision to evacuate residents when Hurricane Rita was about to hit land was made by local governments, led by Houston/Harris County. The call to evacuate was not led by the state through a centralized process." Wallace argues that such a lack of coordination was a big part of the problem as a panicked procession of fleeing vehicles turned into one gigantic traffic jam.

In the wake of Hurricane Wilma, there were continuing signs of logistical problems with quickly getting adequate supplies into devastated areas, although Florida Gov. Jeb Bush noted that given the length of time between evacuation orders and when Wilma hit, residents should have been able to get out of harm's way or stock up on supplies.

The big difference among Katrina, Rita and Wilma is the former seemed to paralyze state and local officials, whereas during Rita and Wilma, there were at least ongoing, functional communications and relationships, says John R. Harrald, director of the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at The George Washington University. "So the question is, what do you do when state and local capacity fails for one reason or another, either because they're overwhelmed or they're incompetent? Do we have a system that allows us to scale up adequately, or do we need a system where we can bring in the military sooner, but not give away state and local control?"

Can We Talk?

Answering those questions will not be easy and will require rekindling a conversation about intergovernmental coordination and cooperation, the likes of which Washington hasn't seen in a long time. It's not clear whether the current cast of characters in the nation's capital is capable of that conversation. Congress and the Bush administration now seem much more comfortable dictating intergovernmental policy than discussing it. At the same time, states and localities haven't exactly been exceptionally responsible or reasonable in clamoring for federal emergency management and recovery assistance. Even longtime public policy analysts in Louisiana considered Louisiana's Republican Sen. David Vitter and Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu's bipartisan grab for $250 billion in state and local assistance after Katrina to be a low point in the post-disaster intergovernmental proceedings.

More than just issues of emergency planning, response and recovery need discussing, says Paul Posner, an experienced GAO intergovernmental affairs analyst who is now director of the George Mason University master's program in public administration. "There's other knotty issues that cause a lot of intergovernmental friction, like federal insurance policies, local building codes and state land use policies."

There will be plenty to talk about now that the 2005 hurricane season has cooled off. But have the politics of intergovernmental emergency management and response cooled off enough to talk rationally?

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