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Disaster Management: Local Foot Soldiers Press Forward, Unaided but Undeterred

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Katherine Willoughby
September 7, 2020

The word pioneer conjures up characterizations like foot soldiers paving the way for others, not deterred by the unknown, visionaries unwilling to stay still. When thinking about local government managers, this word has real meaning and application as modern government managers must be public pioneers conducting perpetual disaster management.

For example, lines of windstorms ripped through the Midwestern United States this week, bringing 100 mile per hour gusts with the power of an inland hurricane and spreading destruction from Nebraska across multiple states to Michigan and beyond. Thus, amid a catastrophic natural biological disaster, these states and their local governments faced a devastating natural weather-related one.

Over the past two years, my colleagues and I have been conducting research about how local governments manage through natural weather-related disasters, given that these governments are the “boots on the ground” when disaster strikes. The United States National Preparedness System emphasizes that governments at all levels must support disaster preparation with effective administrative, logistic/ and fiscal resource management systems to bolster community response and recovery. However, local governments are first responders in times of crisis.

Effective disaster response is founded on well-designed and practiced emergency protocols and financial systems that can streamline the use of disaster relief funds as well as the help procure supplies and services necessary in the aftermath of a catastrophe. Local fiscal resources shored up for emergencies may include intangible assets like unreserved fund balances or contingency funds as well as tangible assets such as land, buildings, vehicles, machinery, equipment and supplies such as computers, gasoline, medications and masks.

Mitigation efforts by local governments to reduce the costs imposed by disasters and to advance recovery in the aftermath include consistent updating asset inventories and risk assessments, familiarity with federal and state protocols for securing aid funds, disaster scenario development, employee training and practice, established relationships, contracts, and/or mutual aid agreements with regional and local partners for after-disaster support and backup IT support services and facilities available when disaster occurs.

Our research findings about local government fiscal resiliency following disaster, which has broadened to include both natural weather-related and biological disasters, indicates that government managers are stepping up to the task and in pioneer-worthy ways. Though the pandemic may not have the same consequences and ramifications, there are a number of parallels between deadly viruses and killer tornadoes.

During the pandemic, local officials are culling through their ordinances to determine how public spaces can be changed to benefit local business operations—for instance, allowing restaurants to serve customers on outdoor patios spanning public sidewalks and parking lots. Government finance officers are sweeping fund balances to shore up loan money to make available at no interest and with streamlined application processes to their Main Street businesses to keep the local economy going. Department managers are working with community navigators to correspond with multiple ethnic groups, to better understand needs as well as to provide consistent and clear messaging across a variety of cultures. Program managers are encouraging and supporting employee-public engagement to conduct food delivery and other services that reach the most vulnerable. The pandemic has put, “Government actions on steroids,” with local officials rethinking core services, repurposing government facilities, reassigning employees and re-budgeting to add value. These public pioneers are not content to sit still and wait for the calvary to rescue them.

It’s only reasonable to acknowledge that reactions to life-threatening disasters of all kinds inevitably vary from place to place. Our research shows that local governments with less fiscal capacity tend to be less ready for disasters. Should disaster strike, these governments have less capacity to apply for aid, are rarely prepared with the data needed that costs out property inventory and assets lost, or even if they do have the data, tallied costs do not reach federal minimal levels to be funded. This speaks to the social inequity implications of disasters, particularly major natural disasters, that make the poor poorer, if not the rich richer. While the federal government has provided funds to reimburse some local governments for pandemic costs, such funds to date do not counter local government revenue losses, and many small local governments are being left empty handed of any fiscal aid at all.

Essentially, the current disaster dramatically uncovers that small-town America is being left behind. Time and again, officials and managers of small local governments recognize that, “No one is coming to save us.” At the 2020 Conference of Mayors, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, mayor Bill Peduto expressed dismay that without investment, “It is putting the final nail in the coffin [for economically vulnerable regions]. It is saying to an area of America that we don’t have the capacity to help you.” Sadly, the pandemic has revealed to small local governments across the nation that they are on their own in times of disaster. On the other hand, it is incredibly inspiring that many officials and managers of these governments are channeling the pioneer spirit—scanning the environment, gathering intelligence, communicating constantly and consistently and engaging their communities to determine a way forward, and then putting one foot deliberately in front of the other to press on.


Author: Katherine Willoughby is Golembiewski Professor of Public Administration in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. For more than 30 years, she has taught courses, conducted research, and consulted regarding public management, budgeting and finance, focusing on performance management and budgeting reforms. She is working on research about local government fiscal resiliency in times of disaster with Komla Dzigbede, assistant professor in the Department of Public Administration at Binghamton University, State University of New York, and Sarah Beth Gehl, research director of the Southern Economic Advancement Project, a fiscally sponsored project of the Roosevelt Institute. Their most recent study is published in Public Administration Review 2020 COVID-19 Viewpoint edition, “Disaster Resiliency of U.S. Local Governments: Insights to Strengthen Local Response and Recovery from the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

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