A Case for Political Leadership in Disaster Response & Recovery

Among some professional emergency managers and media outlets, the role of senior elected officials in incident response and recovery efforts is, at best, perceived as unhelpful. However, political engagement is necessary for effective disaster response and recovery, and continuous, meaningful involvement of elected officials is an essential element of the National Preparedness System.

In the immediate aftermath of a major disaster or emergency, decisions about deploying personnel and logistics – as well as setting the overall priorities and objectives for the incident – require careful coordination and engagement by participants at all levels of government. The emergency management profession has invested significant resources in developing, promulgating, and implementing incident management systems that comprehensively address, in a coordinated fashion, the demands created by emergencies of all types. It is not surprising, then, that efforts to engage in disaster response by those “outside the system” are viewed with skepticism, if not outright hostility.

In fact, stories about the intervention and/or involvement of elected officials – both from the media and privately among response professionals – invariably note that these officials operate independently, impose their own priorities on the unified coordination group (UCG), or ignore established organizational structures to achieve specific goals. From the media’s perspective, these actions are sometimes viewed positively, as examples of politicians “cutting through red tape” to address the real needs of disaster survivors. However, from the perspectives of many emergency management professionals, the actions of elected officials cause confusion and slow effective response operations, especially when officials dedicate resources to the wrong priorities.

Leadership, Actions & Common Goals

There is no doubt that some elected officials recognize the opportunity for free publicity presented by disaster incidents, particularly the ability to easily access and take advantage of extensive media coverage. Members of Congress, who have limited statutory authority to impact immediate disaster response activities, often fall into this category. As is the case with any event that captures national interest, elected officials feel the need to express their opinions, demonstrate leadership, and show that they are taking action. Whether or not these actions are helpful depends on the elected officials’ true commitment to providing assistance to survivors versus their desire to be seen during the incident.

Assuming, however, that elected officials truly are trying to help, emergency management professionals may still underestimate or undervalue the politician’s potential contribution to effective response and recovery operations. For at least one category of elected officials – the senior elected executive(s) in the impacted area, such as the mayor, governor, and even the president – engaged and continuous involvement is not only helpful, but also critical to success. The first reason for their criticality is straightforward: responders cannot implement the vast majority of emergency laws, regulations, and actions without an initial finding, or declaration, by one or more senior elected officials. These officials must be convinced, by a comprehensive assessment of the situation on the ground, that extraordinary measures are required to preserve life and protect property from the impacts of disasters. Still, the active involvement of elected officials should not end with the issuance of a disaster declaration.

Sustained political leadership and support may provide enormous benefits to the UCG as decision-making becomes more complex: success depends on multiple actors to perform specific duties within a specified timeframe. In such cases, only the senior elected official at each level of government has the authority and political power to ensure that all actors and organizations are working toward a common set of goals and outcomes. U.S. governors are particularly critical in this agenda-setting role. As the chief executive within a disaster-impacted state, the governor has both a moral and political responsibility to ensure that his or her constituents are receiving all the help they need and are entitled to by law.

Therefore, governors should be fully engaged in all UCG activities, if only to provide emergency management professionals with the “political cover” they need to take actions that may benefit one group over another, or to set response priorities that may face criticism from the media. Ultimately, it is the governors – not the emergency professionals – who will pay the price at the ballot box if their response and recovery efforts fail to meet expectations.

Doctrine & Substantive Participation

In order to re-set the emergency management profession’s relationship with elected officials, emergency management organizations at all levels of government should review, assess, and revise – as necessary – incident management doctrine, training, and exercises to reflect the active and sustained engagement of political leadership. The potential benefits of adopting this approach can be enormous. In 2004 and 2005, eight hurricanes – Charley, Frances, Ivan, Jeanne, Dennis, Katrina, Rita, and Wilma – impacted the state of Florida.

These storms caused hundreds of billions of dollars in damage and plunged millions of Floridians into darkness for months. Airports, businesses, highways and millions of homes had to be rebuilt. Jeb Bush, Florida’s governor in 2004-2005, spent a significant amount of his time commanding the state’s response from a conference room at the state emergency management operations center in Tallahassee. Governor Bush’s cooperation and partnership with the state’s incident management system, and his hands-on approach to incident management, resulted in near-universal praise for the state’s handling of two years of unprecedented storms.

Current incident management doctrine, such as the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and the National Response Framework (NRF), dedicate limited text to the roles of governors and mayors, and all but ignore these officials when illustrating recommended organizational structures. Doctrine must reflect the constitutional governmental structures that frame emergency operations, and must clearly show the primacy of elected officials in the decision-making process. Similarly, all incident management training should include a module on the Constitution and intergovernmental relations, outlining a clear explanation of why elected officials are ultimately in charge.

In addition, exercise planners must continue to ensure the substantive participation of elected officials in exercises of all types, thereby institutionalizing the presence of political decision-makers at all stages of response and recovery. Through regularized interaction in exercise environments, emergency managers can better understand the multitude of factors that drive political decision-making, and elected officials can determine how and when their involvement in disaster response will result in the greatest benefits to disaster survivors.

Programs such as the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security (CHDS) Executive Education Seminar have worked exclusively on enhancing the capacity of top government officials to successfully address new homeland security challenges. CHDS Mobile Education Teams (MET) bring subject matter experts directly to senior elected officials to deliver tailored Executive Education Seminars, which enhance the capacity of these top government officials to successfully address new homeland security challenges. The nation should continue to fund and advocate similar programs to prepare elected officials for worst-case scenarios.

“Go big, go fast, be smart,” is an often-quoted saying of the Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate when he is asked about his philosophy regarding disaster response and the delivery of logistics to impacted areas. However, with respect to measuring the success or failure of disaster response efforts, the administrator’s questions speak directly to the issue of elected official engagement: “Is the mayor happy? Is the governor happy? Did the response embarrass the president?” If emergency response personnel can answer yes to the first two questions and no to the third, then it has been a good day. 

Jason McNamara
Jason McNamara

Jason McNamara is senior director for emergency management programs in CNA’s Safety and Security Division. CNA is a nonprofit research and analysis organization located in Arlington, Virginia. From 2009 to 2013, he served as the chief of staff for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.



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