Above: Governor Christie, President Obama, Administrator Fugate
For many years the emergency manager’s mantra has included, “Emergency management will never win an election, but it can certainly result in losing one.” This is usually recited by the EM priesthood within ear-shot of mayors or governors. (In the Vedic traditions a mantra is a sound, syllable, word, or group of words that is capable of causing transformation.)
The truism, even the Truth, at the heart of the traditional mantra is that the effectiveness and more broadly the vigor of a disaster response — good, bad, or whatever — is usually personified in the leader of the time. Rudy Giuliani and George W. Bush emerged from 9/11 as heroes to many. Ray Nagin and George W. Bush never recovered from Katrina.
It will be interesting how post-Sandy — combined with post-9/11 and post-Katrina — may amend the mantra.
At least in the short-term, vigor has usually seemed more important than effectiveness. Effective or not, the response to 9/11 was energetic, active, forceful, intense. It was the perception of inactivity in the immediate aftermath of Katrina that indicted those then at the helm. The photo of President Bush doing a flyover of New Orleans in Air Force One took its totemic meaning from a preexisting sense of passive detachment. He did a flyover of Ground Zero too. That’s not what we remember.
In the context of a major disaster a leader is vicariously vigorous (or not). The leader is acclaimed or blamed largely for the vigor or non-vigor of others. Giuliani was undoubtedly vigorous, but his was also a dramatic personification of heroism demonstrated by thousands of others. Some have argued President Bush was very engaged in Katrina operations and unfairly tarred by the less-than-vigorous performance of others. Others offer the President suffered the karma caused by his neglect (or worse) of FEMA.
Partly due to the mysterious alchemy of perceived vigor, one of the results of Sandy may be increased attention to preparedness. The “big ones” — that seem to be unfolding with increasing frequency — are beyond the capacity of the most robust response. As evidence, consider Breezy Point or the Battery Brooklyn Tunnel. Serious and sustained attention to mitigation is becoming a precondition for any response that hopes to appear vigorous, even more so if effectiveness is a goal.
Ommm… Mitigation is preparedness for response.
Ommm… Mitigation accelerates recovery.
Ommm… Mitigation is the path to enlightenment (and re-election). OMMMMM…