Like millions of other Americans, I watched in horrified fascination as New Orleans descended into anarchy in September 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
I was not on the ground there; I was safely at home near Washington, D.C., glued to the television set. Just when it had seemed that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was finally finding its footing, now FEMA was incompetently floundering.
The response of the New Orleans authorities was also a stark contrast to the strength shown by New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. And it contrasted again two years later in 2007 when California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger confronted massive wildfires in his state. Schwarzenegger responded swiftly, appeared at every fire site and refugee camp, gave nonstop press conferences and comforted the weary.
The response of elected officials makes a difference in disasters. When they’re strong and competent, they can lead recoveries and inspire devastated, discouraged and displaced people to struggle on and begin recovering. When they fail, response is hindered, recovery delayed, and the pain of a disaster is prolonged even further.
When it comes to emergency preparation, training and education, there are plenty of options for operational professionals. First responders and emergency managers know their business. In addition to their daily duties, they train and exercise constantly, can draw on experience and are usually familiar with all relevant parties in the surrounding jurisdictions.
That’s not the case with elected officials. For them, there’s a constant churn based on electoral terms, preparation is spotty and uncoordinated, training is haphazard at best and exercising is optional. Because these officials are usually sovereign in their jurisdictions, no one can force them to attend exercises or classes. They’re also influenced by political rivalries and ideological differences that emergency managers lack.
Across the country, the range of preparation for elected officials varies widely. Probably the best state program is in California, which faces a wide variety of potential natural disasters.
After 9/11, California upgraded its emergency capabilities and began the Golden Guardian training exercise program. When exercises revealed a lack of knowledge and confusion on the part of elected officials, the California Emergency Management Agency worked with the University of California’s Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation to develop a new training curriculum. The result was the California Public Officials Communications Training Initiative, which launched in 2007.
The initiative uses seminars and exercises to prepare elected officials to communicate during a disaster, as well as teaching them their responsibilities and the basics of the emergency management system. Trainers bring the classes to the officials, conducting sessions all over the state, including small towns.
Additionally California developed and distributed the Elected Officials’ Guide to Emergency Management [PDF], a 12-page guide that encourages officials to prepare, explains their roles, lays out the state’s emergency management system, and discusses the types of disaster declarations, assistance available and different recovery programs.
Contrast this effort with the level of preparation in Florida, a state where hurricanes are an annual occurrence and the Florida Division of Emergency Management is widely seen as the nation’s best such agency. Here, the role of elected officials is an afterthought — as it is in much of the rest of the country.
Training for Florida elected officials largely consists of a brief guide [PDF] and an eight-minute video. Introduced by Gov. Rick Scott, the video urges elected officials to get to know their emergency management team, plan and train for emergencies, and apply for aid and support once disaster strikes. If local officials need support, they can contact the division’s Intergovernmental Relations Team, which also handles what training they get.