Two recent commentaries on the BP oil spill have indicated a major shift is needed in how the US responds to major disasters. On September 9, I caught the end of an NPR interview with Thad Allen, retired U.S. Coast Guard Admiral. He said, “You have to generate unity of effort.” He went on to say, “We will never have another major event in this country that does not involve a major public participation, whether it’s Web-based, social media, through non-governmental organizations or faith-based organizations. We have to figure out a way to better integrate all those resources, passion and commitment that exist out there. Because if we don’t, they’re going to be disaffected and you’re going to break down that unity of effort you’re trying to achieve.”
He also alluded to challenges to federalism saying, “Having worked this oil spill and Hurricane Katrina, there are fascinating issues of federalism here and the respective roles of state and local governments and the federal government.”
I find it curious that anyone can expect a bureaucracy to respond nimbly and effectively to a disaster.
It took the BP oil spill to convince Shirley Laska, University of New Orleans sociologist, otherwise. In an article posted in the Public Entity Risk Institute newsletter (October 2010 PERIscope), she writes,
“. . .my conviction about the key role of the federal level of government in response to a major disaster/catastrophe has been shaken. I thought as others that the challenges might have been idiosyncratic to the particular administration that had been in power and the reorganization/diminishment of the capacity of FEMA as a result of the pendulum swing to responding to terrorist attacks as the prime risk focus of our government the decade Katrina occurred. However, that analysis has not held up with the BP oil event. A different political party controls the administration; FEMA is not the lead federal agency in this one and there have been five years to repair the federal capacity for non-terrorist disaster response.
If you had taken the Katrina “script” and simply replaced the name with the “BP blowout,” the observations and thus the negative assessment would almost have been identical. “Who’s in charge? Where is the organization of the response? Why is a response taking so long?” Delay in response harms people unimaginably and also kills people – through life-threatening rescue delays, through recovery trauma, etc. A delayed activity is a failed activity. It is not just a term whose harm can be neutralized once the activity finally occurs. “How can it be that the basic elements of an “average” response were so difficult to achieve?””
Are there solutions? David Brooks, New York Times columnist, headed an op-ed on June 17, “Trim the ‘Experts,’ Trust the Locals.” One of Dr. Laska’s policy prescriptions for better response is to incorporate engaged citizens in the response—community stakeholders and local governments.
It just so happens that that is the starting point of the UVM (AFRI) biosecurity project currently underway,