When Disaster Strikes, Who’s in Charge?

By Nadav Morag, Ph.D.

With the recent wildfires in Colorado and across the country still fresh in our minds and in light of the latest destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy in the northeastern portion of the United States, we are ever more aware of the power and unpredictability of natural disasters. As our nation begins to heal and process this recent tragedy, our faculty leaders will offer their insights on disaster preparedness.

Police car - CTU Homeland Security DegreeHurricane Sandy is a recent reminder of the tremendous power of Mother Nature.  We live in a country that, both by virtue of its size and its geographic location, is subject to a variety of natural disasters including earthquakes, brush fires, tornadoes, mudslides, flooding, ice storms, blizzards, tsunamis and, of course, hurricanes.  Not surprisingly, a big and important part of the Homeland Security mission has to do with preparing for, responding to and recovering from natural disasters.

Locals in the Lead
The way the United States works to accomplish preparedness, response and recovery in the context of natural disasters mirrors the way that it copes with other Homeland Security challenges such as terrorism or pandemics, via its legal and institutional structures.  The one fact that acts as a common threat throughout disaster preparedness, response and recovery is that we are a federal nation and consequently authorities are divided between the federal, state and local levels of government.  Moreover, our Constitutional “default state” is to provide powers to state and local authorities unless they are expressly given to the federal government.  This, by the way, is exactly the opposite approach to that taken by our neighbor to the north, Canada. Their federal system’s powers are not expressly given to the provinces and territories but rather are given by default to the federal government in Ottawa.  For the United States, this means that preparing for, coping with and recovering from natural disasters is, first and foremost, a local function.

Local government, via local police, sheriffs, city or county fire service, local EMS service, local hospitals, municipal services, etc., is naturally the first level of government to be at the scene. Additionally it is also likely to be best versed in dealing with the type of natural disaster that is most endemic to that particular region of the country.  They are the ones that need to have the planning in place to cope with the situation and to coordinate between the various response and recovery agencies.  In other words, local governments run the disaster relief show with state and federal governments providing support. 

The role of local government includes:

1. Acting as the primary “first provider” of emergency response services.

2. Activating the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan.

3. Coordinating the response with public and private organizations and agencies.

4. Notifying the State Emergency Management Agency of the situation by regularly submitting Situation Reports (SITREP).

5. Activating necessary local governments and organizations that are signatory to mutual aid compacts.

6. Activating response agreements with state and federal departments or agencies.

7. Proclaiming a local state of emergency to authorize: using local resources, expending local funds, and waiving the usual bidding process for goods and services.

8. Requesting the State Emergency Management Agency to provide State and/or Federal assistance.

Aiding Local Government
As you can see from the list above, local government has a great deal to do and plays a critical part in coping with natural disasters.  However, as was the case with Hurricane Sandy, local governments can sometimes be overwhelmed and run out of the personnel, equipment and resources needed to deal with a large-scale natural disaster.  When this happens, local governments can turn to other local jurisdictions for help (via previously created mutual aid agreements). They can also turn to the state government for assistance.  The state’s role is to evaluate local government requests for assistance, to activate a State Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to help coordinate the State response, to declare a “state of emergency”. This process activates the state’s disaster plan and provides state resources for the local areas in need, enabling them to request federal assistance.  In a very large event the state will typically request that the President declare a “major disaster” and activate the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (usually known as the Stafford Act).  The Stafford Act requires the President to appoint a federal coordinating officer to analyze which types of support are needed and to administer the provision of that support.  The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a part of the Department of Homeland Security, is given the authority by this legislation to coordinate federal government relief efforts. Under the Stafford Act, the federal government can provide local communities impacted by natural disasters with such things as: technical experts, equipment and communication systems, emergency housing, medical assistance, low or zero-interest loans for rebuilding, and a host of other services, with at least three-quarters of the cost of these services to be paid for by the federal government.

This graphic illustrates the entire process from the start of a natural disaster to the federal response.

FEMA Flow Chart - CTU Homeland Security Degree

Criticisms and tensions regarding how this system works usually revolve around issues of authority and funding. The federal government, understandably, wants a say in how federal dollars are spent and the state and local authorities sometimes view this as an intrusion into their areas of authority.  Overall though, the system allows a tiered response to emergencies in keeping with the American philosophy that emphasizes the importance of local government and local communities.

Image credit: DNAinfo/Joseph Tabacca