Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff and FEMA Administrator Paulison sat down yesterday with HLSwatch.com, Rich Cooper of SecurityDebrief, and John Solomon of In Case of Emergency Blog to discuss the Department’s preparedness efforts as hurricane season approaches. The dominant theme was devolution: states and individuals can and should do a lot more to prepare themselves for emergencies and to manage for the first 72 hours without federal support if necessary.
A lot was learned from Hurricane Katrina in which local and state response capabilities were overwhelmed and the federal government was caught flat footed. Paulison explained yesterday that the previous framework wherein the state would respond after the local authorities failed, and then the federal government would engage only after the states failed was proven to be flawed.
The new paradigm gets the Feds involved from the outset, but within limits. Moreover, DHS now expects states and individuals to do a lot more for themselves than was previously expected of them. For example, individuals are expected to self-select out of the government support efforts if they can help themselves. We heard the Secretary recap situations when people in Louisiana and Florida lined up for emergency food and water supplies from FEMA when they had the money and means to go to the open grocery stores and buy it for themselves.
Chertoff probably didn’t mean to imply that these hurricane victims were exploiting the government selfishly. This phenomenon may actually reflect a type of information vacuum. We did not discuss in detail the sort of communications efforts that may inform victims that other options exist than FEMA’s free supplies.
We did discuss another information/communications program that Chertoff and Paulison believe should be shouldered by the states. The Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) was piloted by DHS last year as a means of delivering warning and emergency response information to blind and deaf people in areas endangered by hurricanes. The program was praised, but when the pilot ended the Department did not re-up the contract. This is the responsibility of the states, according to DHS. At a cost of roughly $1 million per year per state, Chertoff suggested this was minimal for states to pay given the obvious benefits of the program. I think he’s right.
Of course, the feds have a significant responsibility in helping to minimize the impact of natural disasters. There are some things DHS just can’t devolve to states and demand of individuals. Paulison described the “prescripted mission assignments” that DHS, Defense, and other agencies drafted to preload authorities and responsibilities for more timely federal engagement in emergency response. The Department also lined up pre-signed contracts with private sector entities to provide supplies where needed. For example, Home Depot could deliver water from one of its nearly 2000 locations, likely to be closely positioned to a crisis zone.
There is no question that emergency response and preparedness are the responsibilities of the federal government, states, and individuals. Clearly a lesson this DHS leadership learned from Katrina was that states and individuals can do a lot more the next time around. Its also clear that the Administration that presided over the Katrina response is going to have a difficult time communicating a “do-it-yourself” strategy. Fortunately, the kinds of proposals we heard yesterday are not a stretch. Encouraging the capable to get out of line for a handout so that FEMA can focus on the truly needy is an American value that just about anybody will embrace. Let’s hope the message isn’t overshadowed by the messenger.