Congress, State and Local Governments Offered Response Guidance

Dec. 2, 2005
Professor Paul C. Light, founding director of New York University's Center for Catastrophe Preparedness and Response, a federally-funded think tank created following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, has made a number of recommendations for federal, state and local governments in a new report, "The Katrina Effect on American Prepearedness."

The report, subtitled, "A report on the lessons Americans learned in watching the Katrina catastrophe unfold, compiles data from two surveys – one pre-Katrina ("The State of American Preparedness") and the other post-Katrina (Katrina Effect on American Preparedness"). The studies identified a "significant drop" in public confidence in the government's ability to handle disasters in the wake of the "botched response" to Hurricane Katrina.

"'The State of American Preparedness' and the 'Katrina Effect on American Preparedness' reports illustrate the need for immediate action to strengthen public confidence in the key institutions on which Americans rely for information and direction during disasters," said Light. "Americans have been watching their local and federal institutions a great deal lately, and many do not like what they've seen."

In the report, Light made a number of recommendations for federal, local and state governments. According to Light, Congress should:

  • Reorganize to mission, not turf. Light suggested Congress give the president authority to create a new Citizen Preparedness Directorate with the Department of Homeland Security with the authority to develop inter-agency plans, deploy and redeploy resources and oversee government-wide activities to better prepared citizens and federal, state and local agencies for a wide range of catastrophic events.
  • Assure a steady supply of talent. The president should be given great authority to strengthen the federal government's human capital in the preparedness effort. Such strengthening could include improving the recruitment, retention and training of specialized work forces involved in preparing for catastrophic events, including acquisition, logistics, science and engineering and healthcare professionals.
  • Reform the presidential appointments process. Congress should undertake "significant and long-overdue reform of the presidential appointments process to assure that key positions are filled rapidly with qualified personnel. One suggestion was to update what Light calls "antiquated" security clearance forms. Another was to reduce the number of presidential appointees significantly to assure that vacancies at lower levels of the political hierarchy do not produce delays in the federal response to catastrophic events.
  • Tell the truth about the range of threats being faced. "Too many Americans simply do not know enough about what they are up against," said Light.
  • Discipline the growing list of emergency management training programs so that being an emergency/disaster management professional has real meaning. Universities, colleges, community colleges and vocational schools are creating a host of certificatin and degree programs in the field of emergency management, said Light, but much of the growth has taken place without any accrediting oversight or common goals.
  • Make evidence, not hunch, the coin of the realm. "Too much of the conversation about preparedness has been driven by long-established ideas about how the public consumes information before, during and after a disaster," said Light. Public attitudes may be changing, he added. Knowing more about how the public gets and processes information is essential for designing strategies for reaching all corners of a community.

"Local governments, charitable organizations and private businesses play an extremely important role in assuring preparedness," said Light. Americans not only get their primary information at the local level, they will always think locally when it comes time to take action." With that thought in mind, Light offered these suggested reforms for state and local governments:

  • Be clear about who "owns" the emergency preparedness task. Americans did not have a clear sense of just who was responsible for what happened in New Orleans and the Gulf states. Citizens cannot know where to turn for help if there are too many agencies involved. Focus attention on where citizens should turn for information following a catastrophe.
  • Practice, practice, practice. More training creates high performance, but also generates news stories about readiness. Too many communities are waiting for disaster to strike to mount their first exercise. Plans are not enough and may actually work against execution if they are so complicated that they cannot bend and flex against reality.
  • Make the emergency management function as visible as possible within state and local governments. Too often, the function is buried within a fire or police department, with all that means for public visibility for the director of emergency management. To the extent possible, the director of emergency management should be a visible, well-known figure in local government and the media who can easily be identified as a trusted source of information.
  • Draw upon the Department of Homeland Security playbook. Local governments should think hard about creating a government-wide office of preparedness, which the DHS just created to enhance cooperation between all units involved in disaster education, funding and preparedness.
  • Create a local command center. Local governments should give close consideration the DHS's decision to create a department-wide operation unit that acts a command center during actual disasters. Structured to involve stakeholders across a region, such an operations center could improve reaction times, while minimizing finger-pointing during and after an event. However, such a command center is doomed to failure unless local governments put a single individual in charge of actual decisions.
  • Build a local capacity for response around all sectors, including private businesses, charitable organizations and faith-based organizations. Not only are these non-governmental agencies often the first to arrive at a disaster, they are essential educators of the public. The low level of confidence in local business is particularly troubling given the fact that they have such influence over employee time and focus. Local business must be partners in preparedness, and should work together toward joint training activities for their employees. Similarly, local charities and faith-based organizations can provide needed insights into closing the preparedness divide, as well as providing long-overdue training to the pockets of poverty and isolation that produced so many victims of Hurricane Katrina.

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