December 2020: Disasterology
This newsletter is a compilation of recent disaster ~things~ that I think are cool, important, or otherwise of interest to people who are intrigued with disaster (broadly defined).
There’s a little something for everyone!
The State of Emergency Management
The state of emergency management is getting all our work done before the holidays so we can take an actual break (which is why this newsletter is about two weeks early).
So far this month the Semeru volcano erupted leading to evacuations in Java. In North Carolina there was an attack on the power grid, seemingly to shut down a Drag show (?!?!), that left tens of thousands without power for almost a week. Then in a moment that made even me say, “what the heck” a second damaging tornado went through New Orleans this year. This one was one of nearly a dozen that went through Louisiana and Mississippi.
Removing FEMA From DHS
The removal of FEMA from DHS, and its restoration as an independent cabinet-level agency is a precursor to our ability to reform emergency management. I discuss this issue frequently. I want to revisit it now because some recent news has suggested there may be a glimmer of hope on the matter.
In November Jared Moskowitz was elected to represent Florida in the House. This was BIG news for emergency management because it meant that we would have an emergency manager in Congress. Moskowitz served as the director of Florida’s emergency management agency and previously worked for Ashbritt. There was a question of whether Moskowitz intended to take on anything approaching emergency management reform but even if not, simply having someone who understands what emergency management is could prove to be invaluable in terms of oversight and committee work.
This month Tom Frank reported that Moskowitz does intend to take on emergency management policy and specifically,
“Moskowitz said one of his top priorities in Congress for emergency management is removing FEMA from the Department of Homeland Security and reestablishing it as an independent agency that reports directly to the White House. FEMA became part of DHS when the department was created in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. “FEMA needs a direct line to the president,” said Moskowitz, who had reported directly to DeSantis. “FEMA needs to be built for speed.”
Reader, I screamed!!
Anytime I’ve raised this point to someone in a position to do so (i.e., testifying in Congress and other similar meetings) I’ve received what approaches laughter, even if they are sympathetic to the cause.
DHS’s death grip on FEMA is frustrating because it doesn’t seem to stem from a belief that having the agency in DHS makes emergency management, or for that matter homeland security, more effective. To me, it seems like a power grab. If FEMA leaves, then shouldn’t the Coast Guard get to leave? The Secret Service? To them, it must seem like a slippery slope.
If you are unfamiliar with the argument that FEMA should be removed from the Department of Homeland Security, here’s the history I wrote out in one of my old newsletters:
Prior to 9/11, FEMA was a cabinet-level independent agency. In the wake of 9/11 US emergency management was turned upside down and backward. One of the major changes was the creation of DHS under which 22 agencies from across the federal government were subsumed– including FEMA. Emergency management experts and disaster researchers were pretty unanimous in their concern about this decision in particular. Former FEMA director, James Lee Witt, testified in Congress saying that he would not have been successful in his tenure if there had been “layers of federal bureaucracy between myself and the White House”.
Just months later Hurricane Katrina and the Levee Failure occurred and all the warnings of emergency management experts came to fruition. Disaster researchers and emergency management experts again went to Congress and told them how these changes had contributed to the failed response in New Orleans. Dr. Kathleen Tierney testified in Congress citing “FEMA’s loss of autonomy, authority, and resources after its merger with DHS” and infamously wrote “The Red Pill”.
Despite the fanfare around the Post-Katrina Emergency Reform Act it still left the majority of post 9/11 changes in place, including the location of FEMA within DHS. In 2008 the International Association of Emergency Managers again called for the restoration of FEMA to an independent agency and in 2009 a bill was introduced in the house: “An Independent FEMA: Restoring the Nations Capabilities for Effective Emergency Management and Disaster Response”. Despite bipartisan support in Congress, it was not passed.
That’s fine. We will persist! Last year James Lee Witt again testified in Congress. In his testimony, he again called for the reform of our federal emergency management system and included, “establishing FEMA as an independent agency and not part of the Department of Homeland Security”.
In sum, there is widespread support among emergency management practitioners and researchers that this is a change that is needed to make emergency management more effective and efficient. There is no evidence that the move into DHS made emergency management better, and plenty of evidence that it has made it worse.
Certainly, a breakup from DHS would be a bumpy road but given the increasing risk across the country, I’d argue it is better to do it sooner rather than later.
Important Disaster Media Coverage This Month
Federal funding for natural disasters fails Kentucky counties that need it most. Louisville Public Media
Wildland Firefighters on the Front Lines. Sierra Magazine
Florida lawmakers force homeowners to buy flood insurance. E&E
Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature are about to leave Floridians at the mercy of insurance companies. Seeking Rents
How Democrats got climate spending in everything from NASA’s budget to the CHIPS Act. Time
An intel analyst tried to prevent the Jan. 6 attack – but DHS failed to act. Yahoo News
The Road Home program shortchanged low-income homeowners in Louisiana. New data proves it. Nola.com
Weird Disaster News
In disaster movie news, we have an update on the Twister sequel. On an unrelated note, here’s an asteroid impact game you can play around with.
The End Bits
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In case you signed up for this newsletter without knowing who I am (a bold choice!) you can read my book Disasterology: Dispatches From The Frontlines of The Climate Crisis to catch up! You can read a USA Today review here, order it here, or get it as an audiobook here. You can also find more from me on my blog, listen to this episode of Ologies, or follow me on Twitter and Instagram where I impulsively narrate my every thought. And now TikTok.
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