Terrorism and Natural Disasters
By William C. Nicholson
In the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks on our nation, much has
changed for emergency responders and emergency managers in the
UnitedStates. The Homeland Security Act of 2002 significantly
revised the national approach to terrorism and all other emergency
events. It created the Department of Homeland Security, which
absorbed the much smaller Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Suddenly, FEMA's mission of mitigation,preparedness, response and
recovery was up for grabs, since new money was flowing to this
area. Ignorant, politically connected newcomers replaced
professional staff at FEMA, even as key functions were outsourced to
contractors, again based on political connections.
FEMA has historically been the nation's first defense against all types
of hazard. As written, DHS' mission in the HS Act is all about
For DHS as a whole, previous emphasis on preparation for "all hazards"
emergency preparedness and response fell out of favor. Funding
decisions illustrate that traditional emergency management priorities
take a back seat to terrorism under the Bush administration. In
2004, Federal grants supporting states' antiterrorism plans had jumped
to more than $3 billion from
$221 million in 2001. During the same period, FEMA's principal grant
program to state and local emergency management (Emergency Management
Performance Grants) was cut by Congress at White House urging by some
$90 million, to $180 million.
Natural disasters caused 82% of insurance losses in 2003, compared with
18% of losses from all man made events, including terrorism, oil
spills, chemical releases, and all other non-natural occurrences.
Yet federal funding continues to flow to terrorism efforts. EMPG
funds must cover preparedness for the wide variety of non-terrorist
events - like hurricanes, tornados, floods, earthquakes, and oil spills
- yet they received fund levels only 6% of those for terrorism, despite
the much higher losses from
Historically, some of the nation's most cost-effective expenditures
have been for mitigation, a term that applies to removing or lessening
the effect of likely risks. The Bush administration has slashed
and discarded mitigation programs, including Project Impact, a model
mitigation program created by the Clinton administration, reportedly
because they did not come up with the approach themselves. Levee
improvements are a classic example of mitigation. Secretary
Chertoff's reorganization plan for DHS unwisely strips preparedness
responsibilities from FEMA, and does not even mention mitigation.
Here in North Carolina, FEMA in 2004 refused the state's request for
standby generators for emergency support facilities. The Bush
administration cut in half funding for a proven mitigation program that
saved approximately $8.8 million in recovery costs in just three
eastern North Carolina communities following 1997's Hurricane Floyd. In
Louisiana, FEMA rejected flood mitigation fund requests in 2004.
Concentrating on terrorism funding at the expense of other forms of
mitigation and preparedness repeats what are generally agreed to have
been mistakes made by FEMA in the 1980's. At that time,
preparation for a nuclear war devoured over 75 percent of emergency
management resources, with the result that state and local resources
were inadequate for significant natural disasters. Hurricanes
Hugo, Iniki, and Andrew showed in horrific detail how rapidly state and
local capacities could be overcome. FEMA's response for the federal
government proved to be poorly organized and tragically slow.
The response following Hurricane Katrina shows that we still have a
long way to go. Clearly, a maximum terrorist event using weapons
of mass destruction is a significant threat that deserves major
preparedness efforts. We must be vigilant against this
risk. Still, as Hurricane Katrina demonstrates, providing funding
for terrorism to the virtual exclusion of other, more likely events, is
a tragic mistake that can cost lives.
William C. Nicholson