Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Review - Disaster Response and Homeland Security: What Works, What Doesn't

It's time for another book review. This one is James Miskel's Disaster Response and Homeland Security: What Works, What Doesn't (2006). In general, I found that the book accurately identified some of the problems with disaster response, but I'm somewhat skeptical about some of the proposed solutions. Let's dig in:

Problems With The Current System

In discussing the problems with the disaster response system in the U.S., Miskel argues that it often works well for smaller, more common disasters, but not for major catastrophic events:

There has, indeed, been a pattern of "failure" in meeting the needs of the victims of certain types of catastrophic disasters. ... Where preparedness is lacking is in the realm of out-of-the-ordinary disaster.
But the disaster response system has not been improved because it generally works well and fails only in less frequent catastrophic disasters, especially hurricanes:
In fact, few studies look at disaster relief as a system that is built upon a network of interdependence among too-numerous organizations. That network usually functions reasonably well, but it has repeatedly stumbled over its own feet in certain types of major disasters. ...

[A] review of the history of the disaster relief program indicates that the system has never responded well to major hurricanes.
Given that after-action reports on many catastrophic disasters have identified the same problems, again and again, Miskel argues that big changes are needed:
It seems clear that this fine-tuning has not made enough of a difference and there is no reason to believe that the answer is more fine-tuning.
As I said earlier, Miskel identifies a number of problems inherent in the system. First, there are many cooks in many kitchens, which seriously complicates the response to major disasters:
Private sector organizations, state and local government agencies, and federal agencies each have their own disaster relief programs and the challenge imbedded (sic) in the system is how to orchestrate these multiple programs effectively. ...

Just as uncertainly and information overload are inescapable features of war, they seem as well to have been inevitable in the responses to major relief operations. What has made them inevitable is, of course, the scale and geographical dispersion of the disaster itself and the complexity of the response system itself - with its too-numerous actors at the federal, state, and private sector levels...
This problem plagues the response at all levels, not just the federal level:
When Hurricane Hugo struck the state [of South Carolina], the governor's office chose to rely upon the state police radio network to collect information about storm damage, rather than the network that had been set up by the emergency management agency. ... Whatever the motive, the result was that there were two emergency operations centers in the state: one in the governor's office and the other at the emergency management agency, and there were reports that for ten days the emergency management agency did not even know that the second emergency operations center existed.
Another problem, Miskel argues, is that the current reimbursement system provides an incentive for state and local governments not to prioritize preparedness. In the wake of a disaster, the president decides whether to issue a formal disaster declaration, making the state or local entity eligible for federal reimbursement of costs. Then, the federal government makes a political decision regarding the rate at which reimbursement will be provided - usually, 75%, 90% or 100% - though in major disasters the rate tends to creep up, as federal elected officials want to be seen as generous in a time of crisis. Miskel argues that this has a negative effect on the preparedness efforts of state and local governments:
Ninety or 100 percent reimbursements amplify the incentives for states, local governments, and even individuals and private sector organizations to spend less on preparedness on the presumption that whatever the costs are of inadequately preparing for disasters, most if not all of them will ultimately be assumed by the federal government.
The only time there is a focus on preparedness is in the aftermath of a major disaster such as Katrina. But the focus and energy soon fade:
Coordination of before-the-disaster preparedness efforts, on the other hand, is rarely either proactive or consistently effective. Except in rare circumstances (such as the immediate aftermath of disaster when the images of the destruction and suffering are still vivid and the political pressures for action are still strong) preparedness measures have historically been regarded as a low priority relative to other government functions. As a result, the coordination of preparedness at the federal and state level has been only intermittently energetic.
One noteworthy exception: Miskel points out that some private-sector entities, such as insurers and utility companies, have a strong economic incentive to respond quickly and effectively to disasters. And as a result, these entities have generally done a better job of focusing on preparedness.

For its part, the federal government tried to deal with the problem of insufficient preparedness in 1979, when it created FEMA. But FEMA was never vested with sufficient authority to overcome this structural obstacle:

[When FEMA was created in 1979] the prescription was for centralized federal orchestration of preparedness planning at all levels of government by a new agency, FEMA. The executive order did not, however, give FEMA enough clout to overcome the low priority that is ordinarily assigned to preparedness.
As a result, when there a major disaster does strike, the White House usually finds it necessary to play a direct role:
[O]ne of the lessons that can be drawn from tropical storm Agnes [in 1972] is that a heavy White House hand is sometimes necessary to achieve responsiveness and unity of effort within the family of federal agencies. ...

[Hurricane Andrew] was another example of the need for the White House to take special steps to ensure unity of effort by the federal agencies. The other examples that have been noted so far are Vice President Agnew's fact-finding tour after tropical storm Agnes; Jack Watson's interagency strategizing in the Carter White House, and the appointment of Harold Denton as the president's "personal representative" during the Three Mile Island episode; President Clinton's flood relief summits during the Midwest floods; and the replacement of the FEMA Director by Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen in the response to Hurricane Katrina.
So, federal operational leadership is not the reason why the system tends to succeed in response to disasters that are relatively limited in scope. Miskel credits others:
When it succeeds, the disaster relief system does so not because of inspired operational leadership at the federal level, but because it is a system whose pieces have been built beforehand, over time in response to federal preparedness policies, state and local government initiative, and private sector response to market incentives and regulation, as well as the dedication of private voluntary organizations, and the acumen of individuals and families.
Miskel expects nothing to change:
Given the fact that preparedness has always ebbed in the months and years after events such as a major earthquake, hurricane, or terrorist event, there is no reason to expect anything different in the future as long as the existing structure of the disaster relief system remains in place.
So, in review, the basic problems are a too-complicated system, a low priority on preparedness, and an overreliance on federal assistance, especially operational assistance.


In discussing potential solutions to these problems, Miskel compares the disaster relief systems in the U.S., Canada, and Australia. These other countries are like the U.S. in that they have developed economic infrastructure, and each also has a federalist system of government in which states and provinces have important - and in many cases, primary - responsibilities.

In making these comparisons, Miskel spends much effort on describing the process by which reimbursements are doled out to Canadian and Australian provinces, in comparision to U.S. states. It is clear that the reimbursement system in both Australia and Canada is both de-politicized and less generous than the U.S. system. Miskel argues that there's an important effect to this:
Lower reimbursement rates are an important consideration. Not only do they restrain federal spending, they also give a stronger incentive for states to take emergency preparedness seriously because that helps reduce costs and to manage their disaster relief expenditures carefully.
Miskel suggests the Canadian model as exemplary. Under Canada's system, provinces are responsible for all disaster response and recovery costs up to $1 per capita, after which the federal government kicks in 50% of all costs up to $3 per capita, 75% of costs from $3 to $5 per capita, and 90% of costs over $5 per capita. Miskel writes:
If the right [reimbursement] trigger were established, as it appears to have been in Canada, states would always have the financial incentive to manage relief operations effectively because their share of the costs would never get as low as it does in the United States.
Recalling the earlier point that federal operational leadership is not often the determining factor in the success of a respons, Miskel's more significant proposal is for the federal government to largely
abandon the disaster response business and focus on preparedness. He argues that the federal government's direct involvement in response activities is actually a detriment to an effective response:
One of the surest ways to weaken the self-organizing features of response in the private sector and at the state and local government level would be for the federal government to assume a more direct role in managing disaster responses. The very last thing that the federal government should do is crowd initiative at nonfederal levels out of the system in the name of improving the federal response to catastrophic disasters. ...

The more effective and proactive the federal government becomes at providing disaster relief and the more generous it is in reimbursing state/local governments, the more it may be encouraging the states to trim their investments in preparedness

As the federal government preempts the states in more and more disaster responses, the result will be the displacement of the very things that make the system work most of the time - state, local, and private sector preparedness and initiative.
Miskel argues that unless the federal government abandons operational assistance for "routine" disasters, not only will state and local governments continue to provide a less effective response, but the federal response to major catastrophes will always be less effective than desirable, because FEMA will always train and prepare for routine events rather than catastrophic ones:
[A]s long as the responsibility for routine and catastrophic disasters remains in FEMA or a successor agency, the habits and protocols that the agency learns and repeatedly relearns during the course of responding to the forty to sixty disasters that are declared in a typical year will necessarily dominate its culture and influence how it responds to atypical disasters.
The answer, Miskel argues, is for the federal government to focus almost exclusively on preparation for major disasters:
[I]f the federal government were to get out of the business of responding to routine disasters, it would be better able to concentrate on addressing the shortcomings in preparedness that have been identified after each of the catastrophic disasters since 1972.

If the Canadian or Australian model were adopted for routine disasters, presidential disaster declarations would become considerably less frequent as they would be required only when a state requested physical, operational assistance from the federal government. ... As state governments would then become unambiguously responsible for disaster response, this should result in greater political attention to preparedness at the level of state and local governments.
So state and local governments would be clearly in charge for routine disasters - but what about major disasters? What sort of steps would the federal government take, once it took charge of preparedness for major disasters? Miskel would give the military much of the job of designing the response system:
[C]onsideration should be given to assigning the military with the mission of developing and managing both a command and control structure for disaster operations and a program for conducting drills and exercises that would work out over time the kinks in command and control procedures, identify gaps in operational plans, and train federal agency personnel.
And since White House pressure is always needed in major disasters anyway, Miskel would formalize this:
In any event, greater White House involvement will be essential if the shortcomings of the past are to be avoided in the future. ... The responsibility for overseeing federal and system wide preparedness should be taken from FEMA and added to the vice president's portfolio or assigned to an Emergency Management Council based in the White House.
I like Miskel's ideas regarding the de-politicization and limitation of the reimbursement process - it never makes sense to incentivize inadequate preparation.

I also agree with his argument that the disaster response system generally deals quite effectively with smaller, more localized disasters.

But I'm less persuaded by his proposed fixes for the federal system. Essentially the argument seems to be that if the military and the White House take over, they will have sufficient capability and power to bring the federal operational response under control, even during a chaotic response to a catastrophe. But how will the federal government interact with state and local governments? How would federal agencies perform during catastrophic operations that are, by definition, infrequent events? How much more seriously will the federal government take its preparedness efforts? Won't the tendency to short-shrift preparation for unlikely catastrophic events persist, even if the charge is led from the White House? Would the White House be able to improve the response under the proposed system, moreso than in the current system, when it has to get involved anyway?
Essentially it seems like the details of the federal response would be kicked over the wall, into the Pentagon and the White House. And it's not clear to me that those are the silver bullets to fixing the federal response system.

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