Emergency Management and the New Administration: A Wide Range of Organizational, Intergovernmental, and Operational EM Issues Face the Incoming President and His Team

By Cigler, Beverly A. | The Public Manager, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Emergency Management and the New Administration: A Wide Range of Organizational, Intergovernmental, and Operational EM Issues Face the Incoming President and His Team


Cigler, Beverly A., The Public Manager


President Obama will enter office at a time of problems unprecedented in number, complexity, and concern for the well-being of the nation. Among them is national security, both from international and domestic threats. The nation became fixated on the threat of terrorism after 9/11 and was jolted again by natural hazards in 2005: Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma. The interaction of natural hazards (such as hurricanes) and human actions (such as engineering failures, the lack of wise land-use mitigation, weak building codes, poor wetlands preservation, and unenforced zoning) had disastrous outcomes for the Gulf Coast, including the "Great Flood of New Orleans" in 2005 and the devastation of Galveston in 2008. Following another season of California wildfires, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) warned in late 2008 of likely damages from a catastrophic earthquake in the New Madrid Seismic Zone, which covers Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, and Tennessee and includes 44 million people.

This first forum article summarizes key emergency management (EM) issues facing the Obama administration. Topics include whether FEMA will be in or out of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), recent changes in FEMA, and several other FEMA-related concerns. It also introduces the other articles in our forum, the latest in a continuing series assembled by the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) Katrina Task Force (KTF).

Status of FEMA

Housed in DHS, FEMA coordinates the national government's role in preparing for, preventing, mitigating the effects of, and recovering from all types of domestic disasters. Since its creation after 9/11, DHS has seen a clash of cultures. Ways to find and kill terrorists and eliminate their sources of funding sharply contrast with the predominant state and local focus on the most common threats to life and property, those stemming from natural hazards. Design flaws were the primary cause of the 2007 Minnesota bridge collapse and the 2005 failed levees in New Orleans (contributing to the Great Flood), which drew attention to unintentional human-made catastrophes that can interact with natural hazards.

Conflicting Focuses?

Many emergency managers and their professional organizations argue that DHS primarily focuses on crisis management that prevents acts of terrorism through law enforcement, immigration policies, and other means. FEMA, on the other hand, emphasizes disaster consequence management for all hazards. The claim is that the effectiveness of both DHS and FEMA is hampered by the latter's current placement. The Obama transition team is being asked to recommend the removal of FEMA from DHS and its restoration as an independent agency reporting directly to the president, with a director that serves as a member of the president's cabinet. That would parallel the historical state and local organization for dealing with the most typical emergencies and disasters where they occur--locally--which has no need for the kinds of intelligence associated with terrorists.

Others argue that, in its short tenure, DHS has already gone through much reorganization and that the Obama administration needs some lead-time to assess FEMA performance in DHS. When it was created, optimistic forecasts were that it would take five to ten years for DHS to become fully functional. The Homeland Security Presidential Transition Initiative (HSPTI), which included Obama-Biden transition team members, recommended delaying a decision on FEMA until the outcome of the Quadrennial Homeland Security Review (QHSR) in late 2009. The thinking was that maintaining the status quo in the first year would avoid unnecessary instability and confusion at a time of elevated risk. The HSPTI also argued that deferring a decision on FEMA would provide time for the Obama administration to consult with congressional leadership and build support for any major changes that may be contemplated within the QHSR process. …

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