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A Decade of Disasters, 2000-2009

Looking back at a tumultuous decade and how catastrophic events can reshape the emergency management profession.

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We've just completed what is perhaps one of the most, if not the most tumultuous decade in the history of the emergency management profession. It is an unfortunate fact that it usually takes a disaster to change the organizational culture and direction for businesses and governments.

As we look back on the last 10 years, a decade in which we've experienced the highs and lows of human behavior and resiliency, we see how events can reshape the emergency management profession. We saw the courage of thousands on Sept. 11, 2001, when our country was attacked by terrorists, and the bravery of those displaced by nature’s fury, which showed that each individual can make a difference. Events have tested our ability to go on and changed forever how we see the United States and our place in the world.


Year 2000

A great deal of preparation went into preparing computer systems and processes for the transition to a new millennium. The non-negotiable deadline drove people and organizations to update their software and equipment to ensure that as Y2K loomed we had people and systems in place to deal with the potential fallout from systems failing. Because of the due diligence done by many, there weren’t catastrophic system failures, as the doomsayers had predicted. It was an uncanny reality that because people were in place at emergency operations centers nationwide, and for that fact around the world, we were better prepared to deal with a problem should it occur than at any other time in history.


Year 2001

There are two events from 2001 to be highlighted: one everyone living at the time can recall. The other, though not seared into our brains, also changed the focus for FEMA. On Feb. 28, the day of the Washington State Nisqually Earthquake, new FEMA Director Joe Allbaugh killed the Clinton administration’s Project Impact program. Project Impact had been a pet project of James Lee Witt in his tenure as FEMA director. Mitigation had finally been given a boost within FEMA, but it was not to last — FEMA was downgraded from being a cabinet-level agency.

The terrorist attacks on 9/11 pushed emergency management into a totally new emphasis on terrorism. The formation of the Office of Homeland Security foreshadowed the creation of the new U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).


Year 2002

For a long time, some emergency managers saw the creation of the DHS and the subordination of FEMA into its organizational ranks as a disaster in itself. The purse strings for billions in terrorism prevention and response dollars were being administered by the Department of Justice with FEMA playing a distant second fiddle to a headlong rush toward counter-terrorism programs.

Some state and local emergency agencies renamed themselves as homeland security. In a sense, the emergency management community took a step back in time to its initial civil defense days.


Year 2003

Congress passed initial funding of homeland security grants, and a wealth of new terrorism-focused funding hit state and local emergency management programs broadside. That funding skewed disaster preparedness away from natural hazards while individual emergency management programs sought to maximize the amount of funding their jurisdictions could obtain from federal grants.

2003 also saw the creation of the mandate to implement the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and a new emphasis on the Incident Command System. To obtain and retain federal funding, jurisdictions would have to adopt and annually report their progress at becoming NIMS compliant.


Year 2004

Though it seems much more recent, it was the Indian Ocean tsunami of five years ago that will be remembered as the disaster that washed away 230,000 lives and impacted almost a dozen countries. The tsunami truly emphasized that disasters refuse to recognize jurisdictional boundaries. Like many disasters it is the visual — the video of the event and the aftermath broadcast around the world — that touched our hearts and wallets. It was this event that finally encouraged the U.S. federal government to fund tsunami warning systems on both coasts.

Four hurricanes roared through Florida causing loss of life and billions of dollars of damage. It was a very active Atlantic hurricane season and gave Florida emergency management agencies a run for their money.


Year 2005

The London bus bombings in July broke our feeling of being protected and immune from the types of terrorist attacks that have occurred routinely in other modern countries. The new element being that some of these attackers were not foreign nationals, but British citizens who had become radicals bent on attacking their own country.

The Second Stage Review that was completed by then-Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff took the preparedness function away from FEMA, leaving it as a response and recovery agency only.

Hurricane Katrina and its impact on New Orleans made the United States look like a third world country. FEMA and the federal government took it on the nose and on the chin for their “Failure of Initiative.” Following Katrina there has been a new emphasis on evacuation plans and the challenges of providing assistance to vulnerable populations, before, during and after a disaster.


Year 2006

This year saw the pendulum swing back from terrorism to a more balanced approach to all-hazards. While it took time for homeland security grants to catch-up to an all-hazards approach, there was finally an acknowledgement that the dual use of funds, both for terrorism and natural disasters, was a good thing and not something to be avoided.

Although the death toll was not huge the Sago Mine disaster in West Virginia caught the attention of many. The unfortunate and ultimately wrong report that 13 miners were found alive when 12 of them perished, was a reminder to officials everywhere to verify information before making announcements to the media. It’s also an example of media crossing the line by trying to be first, rather than being correct.


Year 2007

The new FEMA was born. The Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act became effective on March 31, 2007. This Congressional action put preparedness back into FEMA along with the responsibility for managing homeland security grants and other organizational changes.

The Southeastern U.S. was seized in a multiple-year drought. It was anticipated that Atlanta and other areas of the Southeast would eventually run out of water. Although we are prepared for electrical power outages, the impact of no water for a metropolitan area of the nation was a daunting hazard to contemplate. Fortunately that line was never crossed in 2007, but with climate projections being what they are, it’s a hazard that we must prepare for in the future.


Year 2008

The largest number of deaths this year came from the China Sichuan Province earthquake. It was the first time China’s media and the foreign media worked in concert to tell the story of collapsed schools and devastated lives from an earthquake. Likewise, the Mumbai terrorist attacks saw the utilization of social media to tell the story to the rest of the world, and it was noted that the terrorists themselves where using it to coordinate activities.


Year 2009

The Craig Fugate era began at FEMA. For the first time in almost a decade we now have a professional emergency manager at the helm of FEMA. The true impact of his leadership has yet to be felt on a broad scale. Perhaps, fortunately for him, there have been no large-scale calamities so far in his short tenure. Climate change and how we adapt is being studied by the federal government as well as the scientific community. Climate adaptation is sure to become a topic in the new Fugate FEMA.

No one can tell what 2010 will hold for us. There could be a catastrophic California earthquake or another terrorist attack on the United States — perhaps this time with weapons of mass destruction. If either of these events happens, it will surely yank emergency management in a new direction as we deal with what emergency managers recognize as “predictable surprises.”

Eric Holdeman is a nationally known emergency manager. He has worked in emergency management at the federal, state and local government levels. Today he serves as the Director, Center for Regional Disaster Resilience (CRDR), which is part of the Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER). The focus for his work there is engaging the public and private sectors to work collaboratively on issues of common interest, regionally and cross jurisdictionally.