The recent report by DHS Inspector General Richard Skinner about the Federal Emergency Management Agency and its progress to institute reforms called for in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina underscores that federal preparedness not necessarily equate to national preparedness. Skinner has spent more than 16 years of his professional career in FEMA and now DHS and seems to understand the challenges in preparing America for the full range of threats that we confront in the 21st Century.
This IG Report underscored the magnitude of Katrina – 1,800 dead, 300,000 homes destroyed, 1 million people displaced and 81 billion dollars in damages amounts to an unparalleled disaster in our national history. Though subtly stated, this report should help reinforce to Congress and the next Administration that future successes in similar events are dependent, in large measure, on assets and capabilities over which the federal government has limited direct control. Local communities, states, the private sector and of course our citizens have equally important roles alongside those of the federal government to make a nation better prepared to confront the realities of a broad range of natural, man-caused and technological threats present in the 21st Century. Skinner points out, appropriately, that assessing FEMA’s progress is a challenge because of the shared nature of its mission and the lack of broader assessment criteria that transcend the levels of government and the private sector.
As we sit in the shadows of the next Administration, the fury of mother-nature, the fanatical actions of people and the vulnerabilities of technology should remind us that another domestic crisis looms – we just don’t know what it is and when it will come. Our success or failure in mitigating the effects of this reality is dependent on our national capacity for improving America’s preparedness. DHS and FEMA have critical but not exclusive responsibility for advancing national preparedness. Thus, leaders in Washington have the responsibility to look for investments in national – not simply federal – solutions for addressing gaps and shortfalls.
To this end, the debate about America’s preparedness should not be exclusively tied to the management performance of FEMA and it parent organization the Department of Homeland Security. Assessing their progress is important and is clearly critical to a holistic view of America’s preparedness. Let’s not debate if the risk we face is from nature, man or technology. The threat presented by all three is very real, so our preparedness must be agile in adaptability, progressive in thought and substantial in scope.
Future Washington dialogue about how to best prevent, protect, respond and recover across the full range of our national risk profile would be well served to look beyond the Beltway for answers. Changing federal organizational charts or adding more money for federal operations alone will not be nearly as beneficial as looking to communities, states and the private sector for successful management models and applying them nationally. Just as national preparedness is not all federal – neither are all solutions to achieving it.