By Keith Stefanelli
Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s plans changed quickly Wednesday afternoon. Early in the day, he tweeted about his friendly wager with British Columbian Premier Christy Clark in preparation for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals between the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks. By the evening commute, though, he was entrenched in the response to a fatal tornado outbreak in Central and Western Massachusetts that caused extensive damage and claimed the lives of at least three people. With parts of the state still experiencing watches and warnings, the Governor gave a press conference at the State House in Boston, calmly telling people what he knew, what he didn’t know, and what the people of Massachusetts should do if tornadic activity headed their way. Tornados, after all, can create cognitive dissonance for New Englanders who are instead used to dealing with powerful nor’easters and the occasional tropical storm. Shortly after his State House address, the Governor made his way 20 miles west to the underground State Emergency Operations Center and, flanked by his top public safety appointees, briefed the press once again. The Governor then continued his westward journey, reaching some of the most heavily affected communities in time for the 11pm local news broadcasts. Early Thursday morning, he again addressed the local media and was later joined by Senators John Kerry and Scott Brown for an impact assessment.
In this early stage, the Governor and his public safety team have done an admirable job at communicating the right mix of empathy and professionalism that is needed during difficult times like these. Governor Patrick got to the Western Massachusetts city of Springfield about as quickly as he could, and he has continued to provide information, comfort, and hope to those affected. “We’ve got a real mess on our hands here,” the governor said to a large gathering of media on Thursday. “But we are all in this together. We’re going to do everything to help folks get to that better tomorrow and we’re going to get there together.”
As a former disaster responder in Massachusetts, I’ve seen the Governor and some of his top appointed public safety officials make critical decisions with incomplete and sometimes inaccurate and conflicting information. The lessons learned from an ice storm in late 2008, historic flooding in March 2010, and a burst pipe that threatened the water supply of millions of people in the greater Boston area last spring, all helped prime the Governor and his team for this moment. And so far, it shows. This all made me wonder, though: What if Governor Patrick had lost the 2010 Gubernatorial Election, and Massachusetts had a new Governor and new team of politically appointed public safety officials fresh off of a January inauguration? It didn’t happen this time, but what if the next Black Swan event of statewide or national significance occurs on the Inauguration Day of a new Governor or President? And all of this begs the larger question: What is the role of elected officials in promoting disaster resilience, and how prepared are they to fulfill that role?
Unfortunately, much of our guiding response doctrine, including the National Incident Management System (NIMS), does not adequately address this. To be sure, elected officials are generally not subject-matter experts in emergency response and thus should rarely be given control over tactical decisions. Those are better saved for local operational practitioners with requisite experience and knowledge. Elected officials are, however, elected by the people of their given jurisdiction and it is their responsibility to lead their constituents through good times and bad. Elections – as the saying goes – have consequences, and emergency responders have an obligation to recognize that fact. NIMS, though, goes as far as suggesting locations where elected officials should be during incidents – indoors, away from the incident (see page 14). I certainly don’t advocate for a jurisdiction’s executive to be added to the Incident Command System’s organizational chart, but it is important for elected officials to be more systematically integrated into emergency preparedness and response efforts from the beginning of their terms, so that we’re not relying on chance as to whether or not they understand how they fit into the effort to help communities bounce back.
By quickly committing economic and political capital to a disaster area, an elected leader can enhance community resilience by showing the affected population that others are invested in their recovery, incentivizing them to invest in it themselves. Two iconic photos of President Bush illustrate this point. In one, he is seen standing on top of a pile of debris at Ground Zero, addressing emergency responders directly and conveying legitimacy and accountability to the entire country. In the other, he is seen flying over New Orleans in Air Force One, seemingly disconnected from the population affected by Hurricane Katrina. Both images reinforced the perceptions (accurate or not) of the President’s level of involvement in the respective incident.
There are a number of things that elected officials can do before, during, and after an incident that will directly impact a community’s ability to return to normalcy in as short a time as possible. The behavior of elected officials at the beginning of a response can help set the tone for the response and recovery phases, and contribute to overall community resilience. Governor Patrick and team will no doubt face challenges in the coming days and weeks. But let’s hope their actions over the past few days help to kick off a robust recovery effort for the people of Central and Western Massachusetts.
Keith Stefanelli is a Disaster Resilience Scholar at ICF International and The George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute, where he is currently pursuing his Master of Public Policy degree. He was previously the Associate Director of Planning and Preparedness for the American Red Cross of Massachusetts Bay, where he acted as the Red Cross liaison to the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency and the Chair of the Massachusetts Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster network.