Orlando Sentinel: Emergency and disaster management deserve a 'safe space' from politics
A $19 billion disaster aid bill passed last month by Congress and signed into law by President Trump will provide welcome relief for millions of Americans affected by natural disasters in 2018, including Hurricane Michael, which devastated Florida’s panhandle; Hurricane Florence, which put the Carolinas under water; wildfires in California; and flooding across the Midwest.
The not-so-good news is that the bill took months to come to fruition — the result of political bickering over emergency funding for Puerto Rico and the border wall.
In recent years, Mother Nature has been unrelenting in unleashing natural disasters here in Florida and throughout the United States. In response, the brave men and women comprising our federal, state and local emergency and disaster management (EDM) community always rise to the occasion.
Unlike these professionals, however, our national leadership seems largely unprepared to manage and respond to disasters they know will occur. Rather, they seem prepared only to practice politics amid serial emergencies. This must change, and follow the higher bar set by our EDM professionals, who deserve their own public policy “safe space,” where politics are kinder and gentler, if not absent altogether.
The year 2018 was a busy one for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and its local partners, which responded to 124 federal disaster declarations.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, America last year experienced the fourth-highest total number of weather-related disaster events in one year, the fourth-highest total cost ($91 billion) for resulting damages, and more than 500 weather-related fatalities.
The 2018 hurricane season featured 15 named storms, including eight hurricanes. Category 5 Hurricane Michael, which struck Mexico Beach in October, 2018, produced wind speeds of 160 mph.
Emergency management response to both Michael and Florence underscores the tremendous cross-jurisdictional progress achieved by responders. Key to 2018’s success was improved collaboration between and among government and nonprofit agencies.
Out West, the catastrophic 2018 California wildfires strained local and state emergency resources to the breaking point. Nonetheless, coordination of hotshot crews, aerial tankers, fire and weather forecasts, mutual aid resources and evacuation shelters was effective, given the extreme circumstances.
In the face of these and other weather-related disasters, the extended EDM community definitively proved it is among the world’s best in training, coordination and preparation.
Clearly, the EDM community’s most significant challenge is not hurricane-force winds, downed power lines, impassable highways or incessant rain and flooding. Rather, it is politics — some good, but mostly bad and ugly — playing out at the federal level.
On the positive side, late last year Congress passed the Disaster Recovery Reform Act of 2018, acknowledging the shared responsibilities of disaster response and recovery, reducing the complexity of FEMA, and improving our nation’s readiness to respond to the next catastrophic event.
Unfortunately, the “bad and ugly” of EDM politics tends to dominate the headlines, eclipsing and even obstructing the work of EDM preparation, rescue and recovery.
Serial political dramas — including continued recriminations in Congress over the administration’s response to the devastation in Puerto Rico; and the resignations of former FEMA Director Brock Long and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen — fueled the finger-pointing and extended debate regarding the $19 billion disaster bill last month.
Federal politics has a long history of vexing the EDM community. Between 1991 and 2011, U.S. presidents left almost 15 percent of governors’ disaster requests unfunded. In 2015, President Obama rejected then-Gov. Rick Scott’s request for a federal disaster declaration for severe flooding in Tampa Bay — a decision seen by many as the result of “bad blood” between the president and the governor.
We would never bet against the EDM community in the face of any disaster. But against national politics, it desperately needs reinforcements.
What’s the answer? Bipartisan agreement that EDM must occupy a “safe space,” where politics are minimized and where there is a true commitment to action. In terms of planning, preparation, mitigation and recovery, a complete “ban” on political activity is unrealistic. But those politics should be infused with a spirit of collaboration, regardless of the disaster’s location, or the political leanings of decision-makers.
While politicians assert that many national issues of concern, like immigration and healthcare, should not be hamstrung by politics, EDM truly deserves a safe space from the acrimony that pervades so many public policy issues. The safety and security of all Americans — and especially that of our courageous first responders — demands no less.