The Big One: Our Big Gap – Emergency Management, Once Removed, September, 2015

The Big One: Our Big Gap – Emergency Management, Once Removed (1)

By Jim Mullen

DisasterThe recent New York Times article about the potentially devastating impact of a major earthquake sparked the predictable reactions: some bemoaned the repeated warnings would continue to go unheeded and forecast grave consequences, while others argued that there were programs in many jurisdictions that address personal and family readiness.

Of course, there are government led and often with private industry participation, exercises that allow the government to practice its response capability. In 2012, Washington EMD carried out the Evergreen Exercise Series which was the culmination of more than two years of planning, tabletop exercises, and strengthening activities of logistics programs, and for the first time allowed for operationalizing a cross border agreement with British Columbia and Alaska for mutual aid, and even included a groundbreaking “exercise” conference call with Governors Gregoire (WA) and Parnell (Alaska) and Premier Clark (BC) where they reviewed the need for even closer cooperation. The conclusion of this agreement, called the Pacific Northwest Emergency Management Arrangement (PNEMA) remains one of the prouder accomplishments of my tenure at the state, but actually putting it into operation and exchanging staff for the exercise was very significant. We can do it. Beyond response, the Evergreen Exercise Series included a very detailed examination of the challenges we would face in recovering from a massive quake, and established the critical need for establishing, in advance, a comprehensive recovery or restoration framework that included both governments at all levels, private industry, social services and the general public. We even prepared a draft restoration framework with organizational charts that covered most if not all of the areas that will require immediate attention following a major or catastrophic earthquake in our state.

Our grand design was for that 2012 exercise to spur a follow on exercise in 2016 that would review the progress made in planning for response, distribution of supplies, coordinated decision making between state and locals as well as the federal resources we could expect. Under the name, “Cascadia Rising”, that exercise is scheduled for 2016. Since I have limited knowledge of the preparations for that exercise, I can only hope that some of the areas where we found ourselves lacking in 2012 have been addressed. For example, we saw that the state financial system was woefully unprepared for the immediate requirements to move dollars around – rainy day funds often thought to be robust would be exhausted rapidly. This was addressed after Evergreen 2012 by state budget personnel, but there are other recovery and restoration issues that need to be identified and discussed. One can assume that the national mutual aid system (Emergency Management Assistance Compact – EMAC) between states could bring thousands of experienced emergency workers into the state (a la Katrina) and our state personnel system will be mightily overtaxed to service those personnel.

house on fireThe greatest gap may be in the absence of the state’s leadership. This is not new: the previous Governor’s staff and even the Governor were advised personally by me and others that a recovery structure that was as strong as our disaster response system needed the backing of the state’s governor. Then Governor – Elect Inslee was briefed immediately after his election, and more extensively a second time with his key staff present that executive leadership to promote recovery or restoration post disaster was vital to truly preparing for the aftermath of a major earthquake. A draft organizational framework was prepared and circulated among staff of both governors. But thus far there is little evidence that this is a priority for the state.

Neither the current nor the previous governor is insensitive to safety of the public; both are very strong supporters of emergency management but the focus for chief executives is often limited to events that are occurring right in front of them. They and their staff are often in a reactive rather than a proactive mode because that is the nature of the challenges they face every day. It is the job of their subject matter experts to continually point out the threats and hazards that may lurk around the corner, however unwelcome those possibilities may be to contemplate and to propose methods for minimizing future problems. A framework for restoration of our economic and social equilibrium can engage legislators, elected executives, legal counsels, business and social leaders in a process that may address at least some of the massive challenges that a major earthquake can bring.

Or, leaders can remain smug in the realization that nothing has happened that they and their team have not been able to manage. But, what would they say when a snarky reporter poses the question post disaster, amidst a ponderous recovery: “Governor/County Executive/Mayor, this earthquake did not occur without warning. We have in fact been warned – many times. When did you realize this could happen, and what did you do about it? What was so important that a least a portion of your Administration’s time could not be spent addressing this threat?”

What is lacking is the resolve of leaders to “think about the unthinkable” with respect to how we will restore our communities and our state, our economy and our social order, and our environment after it has been catastrophically damaged. What gets fixed first? What is abandoned? How will we pay for it?

We can’t know how much time we have to get serious about this, but neither can we trust that it will happen on someone else’s watch.

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