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Illustration by Michael Waraksa

A Strategic Response

There’s a disconnect when it comes to emergency disaster response, experts say. On one hand, factors such as society’s increasing reliance on technology, the effect of environmental changes like rising sea levels, and the way globalization connects disparate regions of the world have made dealing with 21st century disasters and their widening effects a more complicated task. 

“What this all adds up to is complexity,” says Admiral Thad Allen, a former commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard who directed the federal response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.    

On the other hand, the U.S. government’s response to this increasing complexity is mired in an outdated paradigm. The approach implicit in the country’s primary federal disaster response law, the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, is to restore affected sites to preloss condition. But in many cases, such as in coastal areas where advancing water table levels indicate that future floods are likely, this approach is shortsighted. 

“We put it back the way it was, not the way it should be,” says Brad Kieserman, vice president of disaster operations and logistics with the American Red Cross and a former official with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). 

The government’s approach to the funding component of recovery is also problematic, Kieserman adds. In general, funding is not capped, and this leads to a kind of feeding frenzy when disaster hits. Kieserman recalls his days at FEMA when fiscally conservative members of Congress, who were often critical of how much money was being spent through the Stafford Act, would do an ideological about-face when their area was hit with a disaster. “They were absolutely appalled we weren’t spending more money in their state,” he says. “It is sporadic self-interest.”  

What might resolve this disconnect in the future, and make disaster response more suited to the complexity of disasters and their effects? That was the subject of a recent seminar, Expert Voices III: Improving Disaster Recovery Services, held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Participants like Allen, Kieserman, and other experts offered best practices for improving emergency management and disaster response.    

Taking the broad view, Kieserman said that government needs to shift away from its current process of managing disaster response in a “highly prescriptive, high-risk-averse, high-transaction-cost” fashion. “We need to change the law, and the funding stream, to recognize that recovery is the future, not the past,” he said.  

That will require rethinking emergency funding so that it becomes less a method for restoring preloss condition, and more a way to strategically protect assets from future emergencies, he added. “Fundamentally, I think we need to look at federal disaster dollars in particular as investments as opposed to the way we look at it right now—as this revolving door funding stream,” Kieserman explained.   

And funding is the not the only thing that needs to be changed, Allen said. Emergency response in general needs to be more strategic, so that complicated disaster events can be better managed. “We’re going to have to learn how to confront complexity as a risk aggregator. Start breaking it down into component parts, and learning how to deal with it in an operational and tactical sense. That’s going to require us to think differently,” he said.  

A more strategic approach will also require more thoughtful preparation before events happen, according to Mike Isman, vice president of strategic consulting and analytics for Booz Allen Hamilton. Too often, emergency response drills become exercises in which complacent participants go through the motions and carry out rote procedures, he said. 

“There’s this attitude of, ‘We ran a successful exercise, because nothing went wrong.’ But that’s not a successful exercise. A successful exercise is, ‘We hit a snag, and we’ve now figured something out from that snag on how to do something different,’” Isman says. “…You need to fail in benevolent environments, where you’re doing your exercise, so you can actually learn from it. So when the real things happen, you’re actually much smoother in what you’re doing.” 

Once an exercise does identify snags, follow-through is crucial, said Mark Misczak, recovery director with Hagerty Consulting. For example, a year before Hurricane Katrina hit, officials conducted a weeklong hurricane response simulation for a fictional “Hurricane Pam.” The exercise gave officials an idea of the scale of response capability needed in case of a catastrophic storm. “Unfortunately, there was little or no follow-up after the exercise to see if the capabilities existed,” Misczak said.  

And strategic preparation also includes better damage assessments—a process that should start before events occur, experts say. A jurisdiction’s annual budgeting process can include valuations of assets that may be vulnerable to disasters, so planners have a better idea of the range of potential losses. “We need a prescriptive assessment of damage, and the consequences of damage, not a windshield drive-by after an event occurs,” Kieserman said. This prescriptive method would enforce the link between disaster relief funding and a jurisdiction’s annual budget process, which would make for more efficient relief allocations. “We need a unified budgeting and funding approach to disaster operations,” he said. “And folks, it’s not that hard. It really isn’t.”  

Finally, better practice of the predictive sciences is a key component of the strategic preparation process—and that is something that the government is actively trying to improve, Allen said. Besides the existing federal hurricane center in Florida, tornado center in Oklahoma, and space weather center in Colorado, the government recently opened a national water center in Alabama. “They will try to become as good at predicting river rises as they are with hurricane landfalls,” Allen said.  

To illustrate predictive importance, Allen cited the responses to the flooding in South Carolina in 2015 and Missouri earlier this year. Both responses would have been stronger with better flood forecasts, he said. “Those were near misses in our ability to understand what was going on and to be able to react in time,” he explained.  

Technology can also be used more strategically, in innovative ways, to improve  emergency response. Misczak offered the example of Lidar surveying technology that measures distances by illuminating targets with radar. In damage assessments, that technology can be used in a flyover to measure damage such as sand erosion from beaches, or tree and canopy loss, instead of manually going beach to beach or tree to tree. This saves money and manpower, he said.  

And damage is not the only thing that needs to be measured—the economic recovery of the community itself needs better measurement after a disaster, Kieserman said. “The speed of the restoration of the tax base is directly proportional to the speed of the recovery. Few people pay attention to that data point, but it is ‘the’ data point,” he explained. But that data point is often hard to measure in an easily understood way, without getting lost in a sea of statistics. “Most of us are visual people, so that big data kind of paralyzes us,” he added.  

And the economic recovery process itself also takes strategic planning, even in the smaller details. Allen illustrated with a story from the Katrina response he called the “Waffle House Conundrum.” In the wake of the storm, officials were pleased to see that a Waffle House had reopened. But when they visited the restaurant, the owner told them that no one was coming, because everyone was eating at the feeding stations that were set up by the responders for local residents.   

“So we had to wean the people off the feeding stations–the food was really good there, by the way; I was eating there too—and say ‘OK, now you have to go to the Waffle House,’” Allen said. “And then all of a sudden this starts to regenerate [the economy].”