The United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created nearly 20 years ago in response to catastrophic terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Emergency management became a pivotal component of the Department with the inclusion of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Over the last two decades, our nation’s threat landscape has drastically changed. Today, the most significant threats we face are both natural and manmade, foreign and domestic. They are increasing in complexity, frequency, and magnitude, and no one is spared.
The cost of disasters has drastically increased since 9/11. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), in the last two decades alone, natural disasters have accounted for nearly $500 billion in damages and losses nationwide – on average, that is approximately $30 billion per year. Moreover, for the past year and a half, communities nationwide have been battling the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic while also continuing to respond to disasters and emergencies of historic scale. In response to COVID-19, Congress has already appropriated nearly $4.7 trillion in emergency funding to help families, governments, and private industry recover and is considering more.
When it comes to emerging manmade threats, malicious actors are targeting both the public and private sectors, with an increasing emphasis on the convergence of technological and physical systems. These incidents, especially those with cascading and kinetic impacts, require a whole community effort from a variety of stakeholders to adequately address the hazards and manage their consequences. Since 2005, nearly $53 billion in federal preparedness grants have been awarded to state and local governments as well as eligible private nonprofit organizations to help them build and sustain capabilities to prevent, protect against, respond to, and recover from acts of terrorism and other disasters. Additionally, earlier this year, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced $1.8 billion was being made available in federal preparedness grant funding.
While significant federal funding has been allocated to address these challenges, the question remains: are we prepared for the ever-changing risks we face today as a country?
What Has Changed in Emergency Management?
While current emergency management and homeland security challenges are complex, much progress has been made in the field over the course of the last 20 years.
Emergency management has become professionalized. Over the past 20 years emergency management has grown into a professionalized career field. Today, there are more college degrees and concentrations in emergency management than ever before, and considerable investments have been made into developing broader and deeper doctrine and methodologies that can be used by those in the industry. Additionally, emergency management is becoming more ubiquitous. Those in fields outside of emergency management are being exposed to required courses in crisis management and leadership. Reality is, there are few who won’t be exposed to emergencies throughout their career and understanding the fundamentals of how to respond and recover effectively is beginning to take center stage.
Greater emphasis has been placed on preparedness, mitigation, and resilience. A transformative event in many ways, 9/11 also sounded the alarm on our nation’s need to properly prepare for and mitigate against all hazards to hopefully prevent them or lessen their impact as opposed to simply responding and then recovering. Since then, the profession has become more forward-thinking, and planning has become an essential aspect to the field with major disasters marking significant policy milestones. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, emergency management morphed again taking on an all-hazards approach that focused more on community resilience. After Hurricane Sandy in 2013, FEMA’s public assistance model adapted to further account for community resilience by allowing communities to build disaster-damaged infrastructure back to current industry standards. Then, following the historic 2017 and 2018 hurricanes and wildfires, Congress passed the Disaster Recovery Reform Act (DRRA), which dramatically increased the amount of pre-disaster mitigation funds communities can now compete for through FEMA’s new Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) grant program.
Important public alert and warning capabilities have grown. Additionally, there are newer and better ways to warn the public and encourage them to take protective actions. At the time of 9/11, public information sharing was a major public safety challenge and emergency managers, and the private sector, helped the homeland security community solve it. Established in 2006, the Integrated Public Alert & Warning System (IPAWS) is the national system for local alert and warning. Managed by the FEMA, IPAWS provides authenticated emergency and life-saving information to the public through mobile phones using Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), to radio and television via the Emergency Alert System (EAS), and on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Weather Radio. Today there are more than 1,500 federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial alerting authorities that use IPAWS to send critical public alerts and warnings within their jurisdictions to protect life and property in the event of a hazard or incident.
What Needs to Change in Our Field
While significant investments have been made during the last 20 years, as our nation’s threat landscape evolves so, too, must our priorities.
The capabilities of the private sector must be fully enabled. The private sector holds the keys to our nation’s resilience – nearly 85 percent of our nation’s critical infrastructure – yet they are often not eligible to receive federal assistance to prepare for, mitigate against, respond to, and recover from the hazards they face. This is a growing challenge as many disasters impacting critical infrastructure and resources have drastic cascading impacts on disaster survivors and communities attempting to recover in the wake of an emergency, particularly cyber incidents.
FEMA has acknowledged the private sector’s importance through the adoption of their Community Lifelines approach as well as the incorporation of the private sector in the National Response Framework. While these are major steps toward bridging gaps in understanding and facilitating information sharing across the public and private sectors, more must be done. Ultimately, unmitigated risks can have catastrophic impacts on those we serve. Therefore, consideration must be given regarding private-sector eligibility, with appropriate cost-share adjustments and/or incentives or disincentives, for federal mitigation and preparedness grant programs to help them address critical capability gaps and threat vulnerabilities before disaster strikes.
Mitigation and resilience programs must continue to be expanded and prioritized. Current mitigation and resilience programs operate in silos. For instance, FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Assistance (HMA) program only allows eligible projects to mitigate natural hazards. Recently, FEMA allocated an unprecedented $3.46 billion in hazard mitigation funding associated with the 59 major disasters for the COVID-19 pandemic; however, building resilience against significant hazards we have recently faced, including future pandemics or cyber threats, are unallowable with this funding. With over $5 billion in federal mitigation funding now available, eligibility to mitigate both natural, biological, and manmade hazards should be considered.
“Many disasters impacting critical infrastructure and resources have drastic cascading impacts on disaster survivors and communities”
The complexity of disaster management must be reduced. One of the biggest challenges in the field of emergency management is bureaucracy. Fundamentally, disaster management works best when it is locally executed, state managed, federally supported, and private-sector enabled. At the federal level, disaster response, recovery, mitigation, and preparedness programs are diffuse. Today, more than 20 federal agencies support over 90 disaster management programs. Therefore, while significant federal funding is available, many state and local jurisdictions do not know how to manage funds in a results-driven way to minimize future risk and losses.
Too often, communities are stuck in early stages of recovery when another disaster strikes. On any given day, state and local governments are often managing multiple disasters and must weigh maximizing the use of federal funds against the time associated with navigating complex federal requirements. Accordingly, reducing the complexity will allow federal dollars that come into a local community for preparedness, recovery, and mitigation to get spent more quickly, more effectively – on more innovative, tangible projects instead of ones that simply seek to check a bureaucratic box. To do this, Congress will need to examine how to best consolidate federal programs, and federal agencies will need to invest more resources into educating eligible applicants as to what they are entitled.
Organizational and individual preparedness must become a bigger priority. While the prominence and professionalism of emergency management has evolved, the frequency of events has also rapidly expanded and stretched our collective capabilities. In 2020 alone, natural disasters accounted for $74.4 billion in damages and losses nationwide which is up 88 percent from $39.6 billion in 2019, and this excludes COVID-19, persistent cyber threats, active-shooter events, refugee housing, and other unexpected challenges communities faced in 2020.
As a secondhand impact of continual response and recovery, preparedness programs – such as emergency planning, training, and exercises – often take a back burner and billions in federal preparedness funding remains unspent. In a crisis, responders will execute missions as they were trained to do so; therefore, to meet the evolving threats, more consideration needs to be given to planning, training, and exercise programs for the wide variety of hazards communities may face. Preparedness is a shared responsibility; it calls for the involvement of everyone, not just the government, in preparedness efforts.
Greater focus must be placed on disaster equity and inclusion. A community’s ability to successfully recover from a disaster is based, in part, on its affluence – less affluent communities do not have the infrastructure, social capital, systems, or access to technical support that larger communities have. Ultimately, this creates disparities in the recovery and resilience process and more must be done to provide them with greater access to critical federal programs so they are equally prepared and resilient.
The Biden administration has placed great priority on leveling the playing field for all communities, especially those impacted by disaster. For example, just this month, in the wake of Hurricane Ida, FEMA announced they will now accept a broader range of homeownership and occupancy documentation for survivors seeking assistance after a disaster. While FEMA is required by law to verify home occupancy or ownership before providing certain types of assistance, historically the agency only accepted specific documents to do so – such as rental agreements, mortgage papers, and property deeds. This practice often led to disaster survivors in disadvantaged communities being denied assistance which was then followed by a lengthy appeals process, further delaying recovery. While other changes may require longer-term regulatory or statutory changes by Congress, solutions like this demonstrate that FEMA can make changes within its own authority to provide more equitable outcomes for every disaster survivor.
Our nation will never forget the events of September 11, 2001. It was a tragic wake-up call that our country must do more to protect our residents and our communities. Twenty years later, we have made great strides in professionalizing emergency management, taking an all-hazards approach to preparedness, alerting the public to threats, and advocating for a whole community effort to prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters.
Over the next 20 years, it is imperative that we do more. We must seek to harden the critical infrastructure of the private sector, expand mitigation funds to all-hazards, streamline over 90 federal disaster programs, prepare organizationally and individually for the unexpected, and pursue preparedness, recovery, and resiliency outcomes that are equitable. Preparedness is never static, but if emergency managers continue evolving and innovating we will further progress the safety and security of our nation for generations to come.