Academic journal article The Public Manager

Declaring Catastrophies: Hurricane Katrina and the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill

Academic journal article The Public Manager

Declaring Catastrophies: Hurricane Katrina and the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill

Article excerpt

Both Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the British Petroleum (BP) oil spill in 2010 impelled Americans to demand that the president take extraordinary and vigorous actions. Both disasters also have major implications for America's public managers. When presidents declare major disasters and emergencies under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act of 1988 (Stafford Act), both tangible and symbolic purposes are served.

Would it have made a difference if Presidents George W. Bush and Barrack Obama had possessed and exercised the authority to declare catastrophes in official terms for the megadisaster each had to address? What would it mean if future presidents were granted--and exercised--the authority to declare an event a catastrophe? Would it make a difference whether the catastrophe owed its origin to human cause or natural forces?

Since Hurricane Katrina, various policymakers and researchers have pondered and debated whether or not the addition of a "catastrophe" category to the Stafford Act is necessary and worthwhile. The BP oil spill of 2010 reignites this debate and President Obama has repeatedly referred to the oil discharge as a catastrophe.

Would it be sensible for presidents to have the power to declare such events as "catastrophes" rather than merely major disasters? Would a catastrophe declaration denote greater presidential commitment and involvement in the government's handling of a megadisaster? Would a catastrophe declaration convey more federal benefits and resources to affected states, localities, and individual and family disaster victims than would a major disaster declaration?

The Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006 already insists as a condition of FEMA funding that state governments add to their disaster plans annexes, which spell out what they would be prepared to do to address "catastrophic incidents."

Catastrophic incidents under current law and policy are "any natural or man-made incident, including terrorism, which results in extraordinary levels of mass casualties, damage, or disruption severely affecting the population, infrastructure, environment, economy, and national morale and/or government functions." A catastrophic event could result in sustained national impacts over a prolonged period of time; almost immediately exceeds resources normally available to state, local, tribal, and private-sector authorities; and significantly interrupts governmental operations and emergency services to such an extent that national security could be threatened.

Declarations as Tools of Emergency Management and Symbols of Presidential Concern

Since 1950, U.S. presidents have had authority to issue declarations of "major disaster" to individual states, the District of Columbia, and to U.S. Trust and Commonwealth Territories when governors (executive leaders) request them, although the law allows the president to issue them in the absence of a governor request as well. The Disaster Act of 1974 granted the president authority to issue declarations of "emergency."

An emergency, or "EM" in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) parlance, is issued by the president for imminent disasters to facilitate mobilization or for purposes of life, safety, and rescue help. EMs are capped at $5 million in federal spending, though presidents need only apprise Congress that an EM will exceed the cap to continue federal spending unrestrained.

The world of presidential disaster declarations changed significantly in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and over the course of the George W. Bush administration:

* FEMA was folded into the new Department of Homeland Security (2003).

* The National Response Plan (NRP), which was replaced in the National Response Framework (NRF), became the bulwark of national (not simply federal) emergency management (2007).

* The National Incident Management System, the tactical and field operation arm of the NRP/NRF, has continued to evolve since 2002. …

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