Commentary

Preparing for & Responding to Disaster – A 2018 Review

by Christopher Reynolds & Allison G. S. Knox

Fire, wind, and water – a lot of water. The year 2018 delivered all in a series of natural disasters that seemed almost continual. Throughout the year, there was a significant risk to lives and property caused by wildfires in the West, hurricanes in the Southeast, and flooding in numerous locales nationwide.

Christopher Reynolds headshotStatistics for disasters that occurred in 2018 underscore the devastation suffered by states and communities throughout the nation. According to global insurers Swiss Re and Munich Re, natural disasters worldwide produced losses exceeding $155 billion. The Camp Fire, which decimated Paradise, California, in November – killing more than 90 and destroying more than 20,000 structures – produced $16.5 billion in losses. Hurricanes Michael ($16 billion) and Florence ($14 billion) were not far behind. The impact of the flooding incidents that affected Texas, the mid-Atlantic, and many other regions throughout the nation, led to 83 deaths in 2018, according to the National Weather Service. Even the 49th and 50th U.S. states were not immune to natural disaster last year, with the Kilauea Volcano eruption in Hawaii in May (more than $800 million in estimated cost of recovery, according to Puna County), and a 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck Anchorage, Alaska, in November (a minimum of $30 million in estimated damages, according to the Anchorage city government).

Since the start of 2019, there have been numerous articles and commentary pieces attempting to answer the question, “Why is the nation getting hit with so many, seemingly worsening weather events, year after year?” Climate scientists and long-term forecasters continue to address that question. However, emergency and disaster management (EDM) specialists must answer the “how” and “what next” questions:

  • How did the EDM sector perform last year in terms of preparing communities for, and responding to, these serial disasters?
  • What should happen next?
  • What policies, procedures, and approaches should be put into place to ensure that everything possible is being done to protect lives and property in the coming years?

EDM Performance in 2018

The year 2018 was a busy one for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and its innumerable local partners, which responded to 124 federal disaster declarations – including multiple wildfires, mudslides, hurricanes, and tornadoes. The fundamental precept of the nation’s disaster response is that all disasters are local – meaning local and state agencies are literally and figuratively the “first responders,” and serve on the front lines when faced with any significance incident.

Overall, the combined efforts of local, state, and federal emergency management officials in 2018 were commendable, particularly in view of the magnitude of disaster victims, destroyed infrastructure, and the seemingly never-ending recovery needs of communities nationwide. Although disasters are local, the coordination and collaboration among professional responders are anything but local. Following are some examples of how the EDM community responded to 2018’s most visible and dangerous disasters.

California Wildfires: Public Education Continues to Be Key

The fast-moving and unpredictable California wildfires strained local and state emergency resources to the breaking point and required multijurisdictional logistics needs. However, an independent review of the work of the men and women in California emergency management suggests that their coordination of hotshot crews, aerial tankers, fire and weather forecasts, mutual aid resources, and evacuation shelters was effective, particularly given the chaotic circumstances. 

In the aftermath of any disaster, FEMA – together with local, state, and other federal agencies (such as Homeland Security Department) – critique their efforts to determine what could have been done differently to improve their mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery activities. In the wake of the California wildfires, familiar themes of the wildland/urban interface, as well as power line maintenance were all scrutinized.

The critique’s conclusion: wildfires will continue in California and other arid jurisdictions in the West. The most effective way authorities can help residents prepare for and mitigate wildfire devastation is to educate the public on the importance of maintaining a defensible space between their homes and vegetation. State forestry officials can also assist greatly in this effort by conducting prescribed burns, which reduce the amount of brush, shrubs, and trees that contribute to fire spread. Although controversy will continue as to whether the frequency and severity of wildfires are the result of global warming or poor forestry maintenance, local, state, and federal investment in public education and in controlled burns constitute two policies that help mitigate against future loss of life and property in and on the edges of Western forests.

Hurricanes Florence & Michael: Collaboration Continues to Improve

Emergency management response to Hurricanes Florence and Michael in 2018 underscores the tremendous progress achieved by responders across federal, state, and local agencies. Key to 2018’s success was well-coordinated collaboration between and among government and nonprofit agencies.

Hurricane Florence was a devastating flooding event, rapidly dropping up to three feet of rain on parts of North and South Carolina. In response, FEMA, working with state and local emergency response agencies and personnel, performed well, with FEMA Integration Teams (FITs) in position prior to the disaster. The North Carolina FIT meant FEMA was able to access needed communications equipment, coordinate rescue personnel, and provide related aid much more quickly than in previous disasters. With Wilmington, North Carolina, becoming a veritable island, cut off by water, such access was essential. The other element that set the response to Hurricane Florence apart from previous disaster responses was the involvement and contributions of nonprofit agencies in North and South Carolina. World Central Kitchen, the relief-providing nonprofit founded by Chef Jose Andres, served more than 250,000 meals to North Carolina evacuees and emergency responders after the storm hit.

During Hurricane Michael, which struck the Florida panhandle and Georgia with tremendous force about a month after Hurricane Florence, safety concerns and property damage caused by the storm’s Category 5 winds was the principal focus. In the storm’s immediate aftermath, FEMA reported it had 3,000 employees in the field who worked with Florida, Georgia, and Alabama state and local emergency responders to conduct dozens of evacuations, hundreds of rescues, and thousands of shelter-in-place wellness checks. Longer term, recovery efforts – particularly in Florida’s panhandle, where property damage was estimated at $5 billion – have been challenged by “anemic” nonprofit and corporate financial support, and the presence of 20 million cubic tons of debris.

In the wake of Hurricanes Florence and Michael, emergency managers and state officials across the southeastern United States were concerned about the determination of many residents in the most affected areas to “ride out the storm.” Refusing to leave their homes in the face of mandatory evacuation orders created additional response challenges.

Preparing for & Responding to Disaster – A 2018 Review
©iStock.com/Darwin Brandis

Next Steps

Although 2018 may have felt as if the natural disasters affecting the United States were more severe than in previous years, the collective EDM response community – at the federal, state, and local levels – met the challenge. In the years since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the EDM community has gleaned many lessons, which have raised the standard for disaster coordination and management.

Part of what makes the U.S. EDM community successful is its forward thinking and continued improvement of capabilities to prepare for, mitigate the damage of, respond to, and recover from disasters that seem to leave few areas of the country unscathed – and, as seen in 2018, even fewer months in any year unaffected. As the EDM community seeks to build on its best practices, it should call on political leaders to forward and support policies and practices that will help communities.

Disaster Recovery Reform Act of 2018 (Signed Into Law on 5 October 2018)

This legislation, signed into law as Hurricane Michael was bearing down on the southeastern United States, directs FEMA to pre-stage incident command teams, logistics resources, and urban search and rescue teams directly into an anticipated disaster-stricken area. Previously, FEMA efforts were reactive, and directed resources only following a federal disaster declaration.

The Disaster Recovery Reform Act changes the paradigm by not only focusing FEMA on immediate aid and response, but by focusing the federal agency on efforts to mitigate problems and allow affected individuals to benefit from multiple forms of assistance. The new law also requires communities receiving FEMA disaster assistance to set aside a portion of the funding that will be dedicated to mitigation efforts to protect against future events.

Like any new federal law, details are critical – how regulations and policies are implemented will make the difference between smooth coordination and chaos. The EDM community at the local and state levels – particularly in regions of the United States that tend to experience natural disasters with more frequency – should heed progress on this front. As experts most familiar with local conditions and challenges, the thoughts, perspectives, and advice of the EDM community are essential when planning for future disasters.

National Politics

As this article was being completed, the federal government – including FEMA – was just getting back to work, following a 34-day partial federal shutdown. As the government was being shuttered, President Donald Trump threatened to withhold FEMA recovery funds in the wake of 2018’s wildfires, charging that California has mismanaged its forests and wildfire mitigation efforts – a decision derided by many as politically motivated.

Such charges are not unprecedented, and may or may not be merited. According to Daniel Vock and Jim Malewitz of the Pew Charitable Trust, between 1991 and 2011, presidents approved more than 85% of governors’ disaster requests, which means that almost 15% of requests went unfunded. During that time, Democratic presidents denied requests from Republican governors 53 times and Democratic governors 44 times. Republican presidents turned down requests from fellow Republicans 49 times and from Democrats 43 times – a “score” which makes it difficult to assert a uniformly political motive.

On the other hand, in 2015, President Barack Obama rejected Florida Governor Rick Scott’s request for a federal disaster declaration for severe flooding that occurred in Tampa Bay. Prior to that, FEMA rejected Scott’s requests for federal assistance for two hurricanes and a flooding incident near Pensacola. Both decisions were seen by many as the result of “bad blood” between the president and the governor.

The interplay between federal, state, and local budgets and political interests is not new and often overshadows disaster response and recovery efforts. What is needed is bipartisan agreement that EDM must become a “politics-free zone,” at least insofar as recovery from recent disasters is concerned. In terms of planning/preparation and mitigation efforts, politics is inevitable. However, those politics should be infused with the mantra that “we’re all in this together, and should help one another,” regardless of the location of past/future disasters, and the political leanings of decision makers. The EDM community – particularly in the wake of its high performance against the 2018 disasters – deserves no less. At the same time, the EDM community needs to address its political challenges with the same degree of professionalism and unity that marked its response to the devastating fire, wind, and water in 2018.

Christopher Reynolds (pictured above), EdD, CEM, is dean and vice president of Academic Outreach & Program Development at American Military University and American Public University, and a certified emergency manager with more than 40 years of experience.

Allison G. S. Knox teaches Emergency Management & Fire Science at American Military University, and is an emergency medical technician with research interests in emergency management policy.