Too Many Disasters?

The Back Story: When the fire crews were pulling out after fighting the Holloway, Ten Mile, and Long Canyon wildland fires in Nevada last August, local residents were invited to take the extra briefing and planning maps of the operations which would otherwise end up as recycled paper.  I picked up three of them.  The Holloway Fire map showed the 461,047 acres burned, the Long Canyon map shows another 36,904 acres burned over. [Inci]

The local community hall had been transformed into a command center complete with a “business office” situated in one corner with account clerks, management, billing, and procurement personnel all crammed around crowded folding tables.  A mapping center was located in the center of the room, capable of creating large maps with updated information showing the extent of the burn, roads and fences,  along detailed locations of ranch buildings, homes, and other edifices.  Heavy equipment rumbled into town by the convoy.

The meeting room became the “check in” site, for crews and equipment coming in from Idaho, Oregon, Montana, and other units from around the country.  The storage room was pressed into service as the meeting room for the coordination between and among the various crews.  Everything from crew camping areas, a portable helicopter port, radio and communications services, to food service was coordinated for some 800+ firefighters in a building designed to handle events for a village of some 200 people.

What the National Interagency Fire Center coordinated was essentially a town within a village, a town the sole purpose of which was to fight a threatening wildfire complex.

Yes, there were local resources available — all three fire fighting vehicles we had were in use; when the Ten Mile fire threatened to turn west toward the town county volunteer fire fighting crews and equipment for structure fires were on hand.  We provided some of the water used; the NIFC keeping very careful records of pumping — for which the local GID was paid.  However, please bear in mind we could have thrown all the crews and trucks we had at the fire complex and still have been totally swamped by the incident.  800 firefighters could have cleaned off our local grocery store shelves in a day.

 

 

The News: Why recount this “old news?”  Because in the wake of the disaster on the East Coast caused by Hurricane Sandy there are still those who from the comfort of their think tanks who argue that we’re allocating far too many of our national resources on national disasters.

One argument holds that we have “too many” national disasters.  The central tenet is “… emergency and disaster response should be, as much as possible, pushed down to the state and local level. A national effort should be reserved for truly catastrophic events. Indeed this preference for “local first, national second” can be found in the legislation authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency.”  [NYT]   To wit one might say, yes and what’s your point?  If incidents like wildland fires and hurricanes can be handled at the local level they will be.  However, a half million acre fire or a super storm covering the eastern U.S. from Georgia to Maine, surely are events falling neatly into the “national disaster” categorization.

The argument quickly gets mired in quantitative nit picking.  When is a wildland fire too big to require coordinated management? How much flooding does there have to be before activities of  the Red Cross, the  National Guard and coordination with the Army Corps of Engineers are in order?  How many states must a hurricane pass through before it’s a national problem, or will the devastation of coastal and  central Florida be sufficient to pass the “national disaster” test?

The Heritage Foundation takes the quantification argument a step further.  Look, says the graphic, we are declaring too many events as national disasters — look at the numbers:

Wow, look at all those “new” national emergencies!  Whoa. A bit of history is in order.  Note that after 1993 the number of fires increases in the total. There’s a reason for that, which is explained in the history of the National Interagency Fire Center:

“The Boise Interagency Fire Center (BIFC) was created in 1965 because the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and National Weather Service saw the need to work together to reduce the duplication of services, cut costs, and coordinate national fire planning and operations. The National Park Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs joined BIFC in in the mid 1970s. The US Fish and Wildlife Service later joined in 1979. The Center’s name was changed in 1993 from the Boise Interagency Fire Center to the National Interagency Fire Center to more accurately reflect its national mission. The US Fire Administration-FEMA joined NIFC in 2003.”

Therefore, the more agencies involved in the coordination of forest and wildland fire fighting the more declarations of fire emergencies there will be simply because the number of jurisdictions included — for the sake of not duplicating or squabbling over resources — has been increased.  This explains the fact that fire management events were not included before 1965.

The other bit of mental gymnastics required to make the localization or privatization argument work stems from tightly controlling the definition of a disaster:

“The most efficient role for the federal government is to fill in where states cannot, for example, where the damage is of such a nature that it is not amenable to state or local solutions. Hurricane damage typically is localized, and requires a street-by-street response which the federal government is ill prepared to provide. A large oil spill, by contrast, is not capable of local relief alone, and that is where federal coordination can be most effective.”  [NYT]

Where did that “hurricane damage typically is localized” conception come from?  Hurricane Isaac wandered around Louisiana and Arkansas, Tropical Storm Beryl graced Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina.  [NOAA]  The oft mentioned Katrina involved Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. There was Andrew in 1992 slamming into Louisiana and Florida.  In 2008 Hurricane Ike caused severe damage in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.  In 2004 Ivan was a memorable experience for residents of Florida and Alabama. [WU]

Yes, some street by street responses are in order.  However, let’s not skip a step here.  In the aftermath of major weather events some has to get the infrastructure going.

WalMart, Home Depot, etc. can’t get bottled water and plywood to anyone until the roads are cleared.  You can’t go street by street until you can find the streets.  The city of Hoboken, New Jersey found that it’s local equipment was completely inadequate to get to some 20,000 stranded people, and has requested and received assistance from the National Guard.  [NJ.com] Purchasing industrial sized high wheeled vehicles isn’t practical for most small cities and towns.  The U.S. Army and National Guard has such equipment, and the situation in Hoboken is precisely why national assets can be usefully applied to local situations.

Yes, local power companies assist each other during weather related outages.  However, what the think tank tinkerers seem to have missed is that the Department of Homeland Security has worked with the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (among others)  to produce the National Response Plan (pdf) and the roles of NGO’s and private corporations are discussed beginning on page 24.

As mentioned in a previous post, the National Interagency Fire Center had pre-positioned resources available to address fire events in northern Nevada based on information from the National Weather Service, the Department of Agriculture, and other agencies which had been monitoring the potential for wildland fires well before the summer of 2012.  This is relevant because some coordination is necessary to put the infrastructure restoration in process for other kinds of weather related disasters — flooding, tropical storms, and hurricanes. Coordinating information between power companies and the NOAA is essential if private sector companies and public utilities are to effectively plan for emergency operations.

The second major theme of the localization/privatization crowd is that the federal government already recognizes the need for locally managed response operations.  Indeed, this is one of the main features of the National Response Plan cited above.  So, what?

If an emergency can be managed at the local level it should be.  However, as demonstrated above major wildland fires, and major tropical storms and hurricanes aren’t local events.   And, even if they are localized to some extent, such as hurricanes affecting only the state of Florida, this doesn’t mean that local resources are sufficient to address the needs of the population. Nor does this mean that local administration and resources aren’t themselves victims of the event.

Secondly, this argument implies that FEMA and other federal resources are superseding rather than coordinating local and state emergency responses.  Wrong again.  Someone must have missed this memo from the Department of Homeland Security last June:

“Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano today announced the final allocations for seven FY 2012 Preparedness Grant programs, totaling more than $1.3 billion to assist states, urban areas, tribal and territorial governments, non-profit agencies, and the private sector in strengthening our nation’s ability to prevent, protect, respond to, and recover from terrorist attacks, major disasters and other emergencies in support of the National Preparedness Goal (NPG). In FY 2012, DHS preparedness grants were reduced by nearly $1 billion from the FY 2011 enacted level and $1.5 billion below the President’s FY 2012 request.”

That’s right — federal dollars to states, urban areas, tribal and territorial governments, non-profits, and the private sector to help them (those local governments and local agents) to help them better handle emergency situations.  Included in those grants were funds for the Emergency Management Performance Grants (EMPG) Program – providing more than $339 million to assist state and local governments in enhancing and sustaining all-hazards emergency management capabilities. [DHS]

Far from discouraging the preparedness of local officials and agencies, the federal government is actively promoting their capacity to handle what they can.

A third problem with the localization argument as presented by opponents of federal activity and those promoting the privatization of emergency services is that the focus is almost exclusively on FEMA.   The first thing out of most of the conservative mouthpieces is that FEMA didn’t perform well in — Hurricane Katrina.   We can take that for granted.  The agency at the time, that would be the Bush Administration, was headed by an unqualified person and bereft of the resources necessary to tackle the job. The conservative argument become circuitous: The agency failed, therefore all federal emergency management must fail, thus proving privatization is preferable.

No. It doesn’t prove that at all. All that’s proven is that FEMA was a mess under the previous conservative administration.  Additionally, to cite FEMA as the all purpose whipping boy is to ignore the other efforts by the Department of Homeland Security to facilitate local responses, assist local communities and utilities with pre-disaster planning, and to coordinate federal and private sector responses to natural and man made disasters.

That FEMA operations will have some glitches is reasonable given that the agency’s most obvious functions are highlighted during times of extreme stress.  However, the privatization crowd would gleefully cite individual instances of mis-applied efforts to argue that the totality of the operations are failures.  The most rarefied academic response proposing privatization sounds like this:

“Put simply, if FEMA continues to centrally plan the economies of disaster areas, it is bound to fail. Economists from Adam Smith to Friedrich Hayek to Milton Friedman have stressed the inherent problems in central planning.” [NYT]

Who is  “centrally planning the economies…?”  In fact, the operations of FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security sound remarkably like the prescription from the privateers: “Government disaster response should focus on: restoring law and order and protecting the life and property of citizens; providing emergency services; and quickly restoring infrastructure to open the channels of trade.” [NYT]  Translation – prevent looting and lawlessness, provide emergency public services, and get the infrastructure up and running.  In what fantasy world does FEMA, or any other coordinating  local or state agency, not attempt to do these things?

The greatest disaster would be one in which we fall prey to the siren song of privateers who would protect the carried interest income of the wealthiest among us while advocating that state and local governments attempt to cope with natural and man made disasters on their own.  Worse still would be the effect of allowing price gouging and rampant local inflation perpetrated by the unscrupulous upon the un-protected during emergency situations.

That would be one disaster too many.

* and we haven’t even touched on the probability that given the advance of climate change the weather will be ever more unpredictable and extreme, but that’s a post for another day.

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