When Hurricanes Strike: Trust the Pros, Not the Politicians

Spc. Agustin Montanez | U.S. Northern Command

Hurricane season is in full effect. Since the devastation caused by hurricanes Harvey, Irene and Maria, storm activity continues. Hurricane Nate swept into the Gulf Coast of Louisiana on Oct. 10, and 22 deaths have been attributed to its impact. Tropical Storm Ophelia hit England and Ireland Oct. 17 and took three lives with it. The patterns of hurricane season won’t change, but we can change the way government responds to them.

We witnessed a smooth response to Harvey and Irma. We saw images of emergency responders helping residents and neighbors helping one another. We saw President Donald Trump, along with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials, reporting on how fast relief was flowing to Texas and Florida. The aftermath of Hurricane Maria brought more images of destruction but less of those that describe a successful relief effort.

The Trump administration’s inadequate response to Hurricane Maria is another in a series of examples of why we need to change how government reacts to disaster. According to Status.pr, the daily update website from Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, 29 of the island’s 65 hospitals still don’t have power. Fifty-five of 78 municipalities, equivalent to counties, still don’t have power. Only 42 percent of cellphone towers have been rebuilt or repaired.

The disaster declaration process is driven by emergency management professionals at the local level. As an event grows in lethality, local managers report to political leaders who can appeal up the ladder. A city emergency manager reports to the mayor, who appeals to the county executive, who appeals to the state governor or tribal chief executive. Governors and tribal executives appeal to the president of the United States through FEMA. The president invokes the Stafford Act, the law that established the process of disaster relief and emergency declarations, to declare federal disaster areas.

This layered disaster relief and emergency management network needs to work more like an immune system, one that reacts automatically and reports to the brain a little later. What we have works well when our political leaders are paying close attention, but it’s clear that this isn’t always the case.

Political leadership is the thread that connects everything. Elected officials give the public a single point of focus. Behind the scenes, we hope that politicians are engaged and ready to do what it takes to get their residents through the disaster. Unfortunately, there are too many examples of hope and reality not matching up.

In the wake of 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, then-President George H.W. Bush blamed slow federal response on the state of Florida. The Bush administration blamed Florida officials for not formally applying for relief, and not activating their full complement of engineers serving in the Florida National Guard. The relief effort went underway too late.

Presidents aren’t the only ones to drop the ball. In July, Gov. Bruce Rauner was slow to declare flooded areas of McHenry, Kane and Lake counties state-level disasters. After formal requests from county officials, Rauner finally reviewed the areas involved, claimed there wasn’t enough damage for an emergency, was hammered in the media and reversed his decision.

What lies below political leadership is a corps of emergency and disaster relief managers. These people spend their time preparing for the worst. They don’t work in jurisdictional vacuums, interacting with peers at state, county, private and federal levels, to form a network of like-minded professionals.

These are the people who should drive more of the disaster declaration and relief decision-making process. Politicians should still be involved, as emergency managers are accountable to the executive branch; but, like an immune system, they should have more leeway to respond independently of the executive branch.

Looking back, allowing Illinois emergency officials to make disaster declarations means that Rauner wouldn’t have needed to blame the state’s delayed response for flood relief on local officials for not requesting state help.

Allowing state officials to work even closer with federal staff could have avoided the finger-pointing between Florida and the Bush administration. The hurricane relief effort could, and should, have started sooner.

In the case of Hurricane Maria, closer communication and decision-making among FEMA, the military and local government could’ve resulted in better logistics and transportation strategy. The Trump administration didn’t hold status updates for four days after the storm made landfall and put senior officials on the ground the fifth day. This lapse pinched the flow of relief to the people of Puerto Rico.

Americans love the myth of the hero. We praise the idea of a figure rising above the furor to save the day. A better disaster relief system should depend more on the emergency professionals, the day-to-day heroes, than the politicians who love to position themselves that way.

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