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Who Is in Charge and Who Should be in Charge in Major Disasters?

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.

By William Waugh

Waugh juneThe practice of emergency management changed when Hurricane Katrina came ashore in 2005. Despite the fact that after-action reports cited the need for more centralized leadership, much of the slow response is attributable to delays caused by federal and state officials not comprehending the situation on the ground. The event has become the symbol of failed leadership and we still struggle to find a solution. Who should have been in charge? This has been the persistent focus of debate. Who was to blame for the fragile levee system, the lack of preparation, the slow mobilization of state and national resources and the piecemeal and painful recovery process?

At recent ASPA conferences, distinguished participants have argued that federal officials should have assumed command and coordinated the response. At the 2013 conference, General Russel Honoré, who restored order in New Orleans when chaos impeded the assistance, complained that “there were too many governments” involved in the response (he made the same observation about the Hurricane Sandy response). At the 2014 conference, the Elliot Richardson Lecturer, Elaine Kamark from Brookings, suggested that “incidents of national significance” require national action and Katrina was just such an event. She went on to argue that the question of who should be in charge has plagued the Hurricane Sandy recovery and has raised questions concerning how to lessen the likelihood of future disaster on the New Jersey and New York coasts.

The foundation of our nation’s emergency management system has been that state and federal resources should be brought to bear when local resources and capabilities are overwhelmed. Local authorities, often without outside help, handle most disasters. The local level is where public, private and nongovernmental cooperation comes together. It is also the level at which decisions have to be made concerning response priorities and recovery needs  The issue that Honoré and Kamark addressed is how we should respond to catastrophic disasters and whether we should respond differently than we do for lesser disasters. Should we rely on a cavalry approach in which federal officials ride to the rescue with little connection to the public, private and nongovernmental agencies on which we rely?

These questions are certainly not new ones. Law permits the federalization of disasters when national stability and security are threatened. In fact, the George W. Bush Administration toyed with the notion of broadening that authority so that federal officials could take the lead in lesser events. Officials suggested that legal foundation for a broader national role had been found. The problem was in the determination of the threshold for “national significance.” It is a vague term. Notwithstanding an administration’s penchant for executive-centered management approaches, governors resisted a federal pre-emption of the state leadership role. Despite the obvious shortcomings of state and local leadership, federal resources were also inadequate to the task.

One of the more disturbing aspects of the Katrina response was the fact that officials at all levels of government, spent hours with their lawyers trying to figure out just what legal authority they had in the response. Confusion reigned while storm survivors waited for assistance. A partially implemented National Response Plan and an uneven understanding of the new National Incident Management System also complicated the Katrina response.

Confusion aside, there is a momentum to disaster operations. Nongovernmental organizations respond independently. Some emergency responders self-deploy without waiting to hear from their commanders. Emergency responders and emergency managers in communities affected by the disaster quickly activate their emergency operations centers and emergency plans and mobilize to support live-saving operations, open shelters and other facilities to provide more long-term support for survivors. In catastrophic disasters, many of those capabilities are damaged or even eliminated.

The point is that the emergency management system is in motion at the community-level and outside support is just that – support. That is how the system is supposed to operate. Fundamentally, local governments are responsible for being the first responders when disasters occur and for land-use planning and other measures to prevent and/or reduce the impact of disasters. They are also responsible for the planning necessary for disaster recovery. That bears repeating, the response shapes the recovery. The sequencing of disaster aid affects the speed of recovery. Local determination of priorities is essential. Moreover, disaster response is not simply a logistics challenge – transporting food, water, tents and other materials to the disaster zone and distributing them to disaster survivors. There is a difference between housing the displaced and dealing with the psychological and social issues that arise. Professional emergency managers in public, private and nongovernmental organizations are needed to assure that what we know about collective behavior and human needs in disasters inform policies and programs.

Local and state agencies in Atlanta received complaints about the lack of adequate direction when each school district, each local government agency and each business made its own decisions about closing due to severe weather. Because the storm hit a bit further north and into the heart of the metro area, decisions to close schools, close potentially hazardous roads and workplaces were made too late – too late to beat the weather. Should a state official, perhaps the governor, have made those decisions? Should they have been made by a committee representing the school districts, government agencies, major employers, etc.?  Why weren’t the decisions coordinated so that officials could anticipate traffic levels and minimize gridlock? Had school, business and road closings been coordinated, fewer people would have been stranded on highways for hours.

State officials were slow to recognize the developing disaster and local school officials and employers decided too late to send workers home. School officials have to make the decision to close schools in the wee hours of the morning and, once buses begin to pick up students, it is too late to change their minds. Parents leave for work and there is no one home to take care of the children. Reunification – reuniting students and parents – is a complicated process, as well. There are also financial and legal costs associated with the decision to close and those costs are largely borne by the parents and local taxpayers – which further complicates the issue of who should make the closure decision. Who is in charge is important, but there is a compelling reason to leave the responsibility for closure decisions to local officials and employers.

In more catastrophic events, decisions relating to evacuation have social, economic and political implications. Many governments were involved in critical decision-making during the Katrina and Sandy disasters, but they have legal and political responsibility to represent their constituents in the affected communities. A cavalry approach with the military or federal agencies riding in to save the day simply does not work when the system and authority is fragmented. The real question is how to structure the operation so that residents have meaningful input in how the response and recovery is to be structured and sequenced. How to build local capacity, including the mechanisms to expand state and local resources via the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, and statewide mutual assistance agreements should be the question. How can we help local officials provide the necessary leadership?

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

One Response to Who Is in Charge and Who Should be in Charge in Major Disasters?

  1. Lloyd Colston Reply

    June 20, 2014 at 7:52 pm

    “One of the more disturbing aspects of the Katrina response was the fact that officials at all levels of government, spent hours with their lawyers trying to figure out just what legal authority they had in the response.”

    Why was that? The Stafford Act is not new. The Incident Command System, they are required to use, is not new.

    What is the difference between New Orleans and Gulf Port? They were both struck by the same hurricane. In fact, the damage to Gulf Port was every bit as catastrophic as New Orleans. Did Louisiana have a plan they chose to not follow? Did Mississippi have a plan they chose to follow?

    “At recent ASPA conferences, distinguished participants have argued that federal officials should have assumed command and coordinated the response.”

    Your participants should have mentioned that is ONLY possible when Congress approves and the President signs changes in the Stafford Act. In the mean time, do YOU really want the Federal government dictating YOUR response to a disaster?

    As a reminder to your readers, the response to Katrina was two days faster than that to Hurricane Andrew and SuperStorm Sandy reaction was even faster.

    Please do your readers a favor and encourage them to participate in their LOCAL emergency management program, their LOCAL emergency planning committee, develop and FOLLOW their LOCAL plans, become a part of the solution, and help their neighbor do the same.

    ALL disasters are local. “We need “whole of society” not just “whole of government” responses.” http://nyti.ms/1nTrlzE

    When the individual is prepared, the ALL of America is prepared. http://www.fema.gov/areyouready

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