The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee dealing with emergency management recently held a hearing where the need was emphasized to redefine how America prepares for and deals with catastrophic disasters.  Of particular note was the thoughtfulness of those Members and witnesses who focused the dialogue beyond discussions of federal government structure and mission.

To this point, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate and Dave Maxwell, representing the National Emergency Management Association, both underscored the need for a more comprehensive approach to America’s preparedness for catastrophic event.  Striking to the testimony and questions was a clear theme that all emergencies and disasters, including so-called catastrophic events, are not inherently limited to being functions of emergency management.  In fact much of the discussion centered on how to better leverage, during and after a disaster, the full range of national, federal, state, local and private capabilities that support routine day-to-day housing, social service, infrastructure and other core services essential to the daily life of any community or state. It is these same core capabilities for the routine that must be retooled to also meet the needs caused by a crisis, especially for a catastrophic disaster.

This is the type of progressive thinking that, if translated into tangible results, will raise America’s preparedness.

Yet undercurrents remain in Washington that advocate structural realignments for FEMA or broad new federal authority for catastrophic disasters.

To be sure, as Administrator Fugate and others insisted,  FEMA and other federal agencies can and must do better with employee training to support disaster relief, delivery of services and consistent interpretations of existing federal law and regulations in order to better meet the needs of victims and the communities and states where they reside.  The same is true across many local, state and private sector organizations where in the absence of consistently experiencing disaster events, they may not possess the full breadth of understanding and capabilities to effectively confront the challenges caused by a catastrophic event.

A clear goal should be to ensure that the knowledge and capabilities to support disaster response are both a core function and capability across all facets of federal, state and local government programs, whether or not their primary day-to-day mission is directly connected to emergency management.

This will require a much more comprehensive policy debate and implementation strategy than has been held to date since Katrina, especially across Congress and all agencies of the Federal government.

Let’s be clear: To the victim, any disaster is catastrophic.  But in the context of our national emergency management system, most disasters are not.  There is clearly the need to ensure that there is sufficient flexibility for the federal government to take the actions necessary to protect U.S. interests, especially if a catastrophic disaster poses a clear risk to our national security.  But as both a practical matter and in the context of preserving our core national values during a catastrophic disaster, the federal role must be carefully defined and judiciously applied and not trample on the Constitution.

Administrator Fugate is early in his tenure to craft not only a vision for FEMA but to work with his colleagues to craft a new national approach to preparing for disasters of all shapes and sizes.  As he indicated during this hearing, FEMA is not the team for catastrophic disasters…it is part of the larger team, albeit with the critical coordination role.

Demagoguery associated with the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA and their performance during Katrina unfortunately becomes an impediment to successfully elevating the debate about catastrophic disaster readiness to a discussion about a national comprehensive approach, which Craig and others have eloquently stated.  Let’s focus the emergency management debates on national needs and not Washington interests.

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