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Justice, Fairness, Inclusion, and Performance.

An Intergovernmental Web and Effective Disaster Response: Difficult, but Possible

April 02, 2020

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Blog Entry by Academy Fellow Dr. Katherine Willoughby ('13)

With contributions by Donald Bathurst, Gregory Devereaux, Kay C. Goss, Elizabeth Kellar, Shelley Metzenbaum, John Ten Hoeve, and Louis W. Uccellini

Never has it been more clear that effective intergovernmental arrangements are essential to the health and economic well-being of the American people. Lack of a coordinated, nationwide government response to the pandemic is starkly evident.

The overarching objectives of an effective emergency management system are prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery. A well-oiled intergovernmental system of emergency management requires everyone involved to understand the part they play in the whole. Governments can and do conduct disaster response well by working separately and together, and with a variety of other non-governmental partners.

Currently, the U.S. Centers for Diseases Control has issued interim guidance for individuals, schools, workplaces, and businesses, but these are advisory, not federal directives. State governors have leapfrogged over federal action to prevent the spread of the virus by limiting gatherings of people and shutting down businesses and community events.

In Georgia, the governor rolled out restrictions slowly, only recently signing an executive order mandating vulnerable groups to shelter in place and another allowing medical professionals with inactive or lapsed licenses to practice. The mayor of Atlanta, however, instituted stricter measures and sooner than the governor—mandating all city residents to shelter in place, with few exceptions for travel of essential workers, to buy food, and/or purchase medications. Counties and cities throughout the state present a mosaic of strategies to combat the virus, with some mandating all business closures except those related to essential services (without defining what “essential” means) and others allowing restaurants to continue to operate, albeit under tighter strictures regarding client numbers and food service methods. Such disparate actions contribute to inefficient and chaotic response to a cataclysmic event that grows more dangerous every day.

On the other hand, some states and local communities are repurposing structures and protocols engaged in past disasters to assist in the current emergency. For example, Florida has activated its Business Damage Assessment Survey, which typically aides the state in understanding local economic effects of hurricanes. The survey asks business owners about local conditions and the types of assistance that would benefit them most during recovery from disaster. State agencies and local partners can use the data to design bridge loan programs and better target available resources as the crisis continues. In Savannah, Georgia, a community development financial institution opened its Recovery Loan Program for businesses grappling with the pandemic—the first instance of natural disaster relief program expanding to cover a public health crisis. Likewise, Florida’s First Coast Relief Fund was created in 2016 to assist with hurricane recovery and has been reactivated now to target resources to nonprofit organizations assisting communities with the public health crisis.

These systems work best when the different roles of players are recognized and respected, roles are executed in timely and accountable ways, and communication among all is freely and honestly exchanged.

To better understand the complexities and contradictions of the intergovernmental web of structures and protocols in times of disaster, the National Academy of Public Administration Standing Panel on Intergovernmental Systems developed a case assessing this system specific to emergency response in the United States. The case research, developed before COVID-19 came to light, investigates how government emergency management strategies and disaster preparation and mitigation efforts have evolved over time in this country, to highlight steps backward and forward.

The cases collected are rich with examples of response following a multitude of disasters spanning earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires. Some responses successfully navigate the intergovernmental web to meet objectives of effective and efficient results. On the other hand, there are numerous examples of how our system lags. Response to Hurricane Katrina illustrates eclectic emergency management conducted across multiple governments hit by the same disaster. This hurricane was an exceptional catastrophe requiring the evacuation of New Orleans, displacement of over one million people across the nation, and billions of dollars in relief funding.

Unfortunately, significant control gaps among federal government agencies and programs in the aftermath of the hurricane allowed fraud, waste and abuse of public funds. Inadequate planning and foresight on the part of policy makers at all levels of government, and lack of inclusion of the business community as well as the public in preparing for disaster, contributed to poor, insufficient and/or ineffective response. Some political leaders were wary of even sharing control in the aftermath of the epic disaster. But, others were more trusting and prudent of the need for collaboration. For example, in Mississippi, federal and state emergency agents created a joint recovery office, and the governor and his wife travelled the state in the immediate aftermath of the storm to directly communicate their concern for victims, responders, and emergency managers. These efforts contributed to a relatively smooth recovery in this state compared to that in Louisiana and other hard hit states.

Perhaps most importantly, the case highlights the importance of learning from each disaster and the responses to it, to better inform future endeavors when catastrophe strikes. The case concludes with action strategies to improve our intergovernmental system of emergency management in times of crisis. While each disaster brings its own challenges to effective relief and recovery efforts, learning from the past feeds realistic “sense-making” that is necessary of all parties—the ability to develop appropriate responses to new situations. Looking to the past and learning from it yields the steps we all can take to meet the ultimate goal of an effective intergovernmental emergency response system—a prepared and resilient nation.