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 terrorism.

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
such events. 

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
-based in part on chapter 3 of the forthcoming book Homeland Security Law and Policy.
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Emergency Response and Emergency Mangement Law.
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