I have always thought my grandparents lived in historic times. They went from horses and buggies to automobiles to airplanes to man landing on the moon. Similarly, we watch emergency management leadership transition from baby boomers to Gen Xers to millennials and ponder our own living history.
Modern emergency management was born with the creation of FEMA on April 1, 1979, by President Jimmy Carter. This move came from a need to have a single federal agency coordinating the disaster response of others. The primary focus of FEMA in the early 1980s was not on natural disasters, but civil defense.
This focus didn’t end until the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989 and we saw the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was at that point that civil defense at the federal, state and local levels began to take a backseat to natural hazards. This era also saw the appointment of James Lee Witt as the first professional emergency manager leading FEMA as its director (1993) and the establishment of FEMA as a cabinet agency (1996). I began my civilian career as an emergency manager on Sept. 1, 1991, so this transition has been etched in my memory.
It was at this time that we first saw a real emphasis on disaster mitigation, with Witt birthing a program called Project Impact in 1996. Back then I would say, “Emergency managers can’t even spell ‘mitigation.’” While it was part of our doctrine, there had been little to no emphasis on that aspect of the profession. At that time the only higher education program in the nation with an emergency management focus was at North Central Texas College.
We took a significant step back in 2001 when the George W. Bush administration took control of emergency management. We once again had a political appointee, Joe Allbaugh, assume the role of FEMA director. Project Impact was canceled as a FEMA program on the same date that western Washington state experienced the Nisqually earthquake, Feb. 28, 2001. FEMA was first given the expanded mission of “homeland defense” in May of that year, preceding the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
The creation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2002 has had the most impact on emergency management and FEMA of any event since the agency’s creation. FEMA became part of the DHS and quickly took a backseat to other elements within the department. The creation of the Homeland Security Grant Program in 2003, with its terrorism focus, made state and local emergency management agencies take a hard turn toward terrorism response.
It took Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the obvious failure of FEMA, along with Louisiana and New Orleans, to provide a course correction that allowed the pendulum to start to shift back toward an all-hazard approach. Grant funds following Katrina were allowed to have a “dual-use” function, with terrorism still being the priority.
Now as we are about to end the Craig Fugate era of FEMA, we have a more balanced approach to disaster mitigation, response and recovery, although recovery planning still lags at the state and local levels. Today there is a college or university program with an emergency management focus in every state.
Emergency management history continues to be written every day. As I look into my crystal ball I see climate change impacts causing a whole host of high-impact disasters. The next decade and beyond will be an era of hyper technology formation and adoption by emergency management agencies. Are you ready?