Revitalizing Emergency Management after Katrina: A Recent Survey of Emergency Managers Urges Improved Response, Planning, and Leadership and a Reinvigorated FEMA-The Federal Government Has Responded by Making Most of the Recommended Changes

Article excerpt

In the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the federal government and the State of Mississippi issued several reports criticizing and recommending improvements to federal and state disaster response. Common themes included the following:

* Accurate forecasts prevented further loss of life.

* All levels of government understood the potential consequences of a large-scale hurricane on the Gulf Coast.

* All levels of government were unprepared for a disaster so large.

* The state and local infrastructure-including flood protection, law enforcement, human services, emergency response, and medical care--was inadequate for the scope of the disaster.

* Response plans at all levels of government were inadequate for the scope of the disaster.

* All levels of government failed to execute existing response plans effectively.

* Massive communications failures undermined coordination.

* Lack of training, communication, and situational awareness undermined command and control.

* Military assistance was invaluable, but uncoordinated.

In general, the federal reports recommended a stronger focus on comprehensive emergency management; improved coordination through a national emergency operations center (EOC), regional strike teams, and interagency planning; better communications interoperability; greater commitment at all levels to the national emergency management system; better training and professional development at all levels; more comprehensive community preparedness; and more thorough planning for catastrophic disasters. The Mississippi report also emphasized smart growth and recognition of the long-term consequences of economic development decisions.

Did the events of August and September 2005 lead the emergency management community to reexamine the way it thought about and planned for catastrophic disaster? The author devised an online survey, the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM)-National Emergency Management Association (NEMA) Emergency Management Survey, to examine these questions.


The survey examined "catastrophic disasters" from the perspective of local and state emergency managers. A catastrophic disaster is an "event having unprecedented levels of damage, casualties, dislocation, and disruption that would have nationwide consequences and jeopardize national security."The survey asked emergency managers to explore four themes: the most likely catastrophic disasters in their political jurisdictions, the effectiveness of their political jurisdiction's emergency operations plan (EOP), the causes of the policy failures of Hurricane Katrina, and suggested improvements for the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The author administered the survey to IAEM members and fifty-four state and territorial emergency management directors in early 2006. Despite a low response rate (3 percent), the survey reached all ten FEMA regions, thirty-five states and territories (65 percent), eighty-five counties (3 percent), and four Canadian provinces and one Australian state. The political jurisdictions (states and counties) in the survey represented 26 percent of the US. population.


Catastrophic Disasters

Since September 11, 2001, terrorism and homeland security have largely overshadowed disaster assistance in federal emergency management. Although comprehensive emergency management includes homeland security and national preparedness, national security issues have dominated priorities and resources for disaster assistance throughout FEMA's history. In contrast, the state and local emergency managers in the survey clearly do not rate terrorism as the most likely type of catastrophic disaster to confront their political jurisdiction (Figure 1). The disasters ranked as most likely were flooding (67 percent listed flooding as first to fifth most likely), tornadoes and associated storms (58 percent), winter storms (50 percent), wildfires (46 percent), and chemical accidents (41 percent). …