Book Review: U.S. Emergency Management in the 21st Century: From Disaster to Catastrophe

Book Review: U.S. Emergency Management in the 21st Century: from Disaster to Catastrophe. Edited by Claire B. Rubin and Susan L. Cutter. New York: Routledge. 2020.  ISBN: 978-1-138-35465-5 (HBK). 265 pp. (

Reviewed by Donald Watson, author of Design For Flooding: Resilience to Climate Change (2011) and editor of the web-based resource, “Organizations Addressing Resilience and Sustainability.” 

The question that frames this timely and important book is posed on its opening page: “Are the current public sector emergency management systems sufficient to handle future disasters given the environmental and social changes underway.” Coeditors Claire B. Rubin and Susan L Cutter state two concerns that prompt this question: the escalation of catastrophic disasters of the last decade (2010-2019), alongside mixed results of emergency management systems currently in place to deal with them.

“We are not prepared,” is the gist of their answer. This critique and ways to improve our preparedness are substantiated in ten chapters by nineteen authors and coauthors. The volume’s great value is in its state-of-practice review of successes and failings, including what we know has worked, the essential stepping stones for improving our nation’s emergency preparedness.

Each of the chapters of the book supports conclusions that deserve reading by policy makers, planners, and emergency management professionals, that (1) economic damage due to natural hazards is dramatically increasing, (2) catastrophic events are occurring in shorter succession, (3) current efforts to curb these disasters are insufficient.

The introductory chapter by Claire B. Rubin provides a brief overview of challenges of the increasing magnitude and incidence of record-breaking disaster events from  2010-2019. In Chapter 2 Tipping Points in Policy and Practice, Susan L. Cutter reviews changes in federal policies in emergency management since 2010, asking if these have advanced or regressed. The Obama-era FEMA administration advocated for “whole community” participation in recovery programs, as well as for future climate accounting in adaptation planning. Obama Executive Order EO 13690 (2015) established higher flood resilience standards for federal infrastructure investments, a requirement voided in the deregulation sweep of the Trump administration. The review gives credit to improvements in emergency readiness initiated by private-sector philanthropy (e.g., Rockefeller Foundation 100 Resilient Cities), private-public partnerships (Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force Competition “Rebuild by Design” and U.S. HUD CDBG National Disaster Resilience Program), and science outreach to communities (Resilient America Roundtable Reports from the National Academies Press).

In Chapter 3 As Tornado Outbreaks Become More Deadly, Major Changes Happen, coauthors Lucy A. Arendt, Jane Cage, and Renee White offer a detailed briefing of the three tornadoes (Tuscaloosa-Birmingham AL, Joplin MO 2011 and Moore OK 2013.) It enumerates lessons learned, limitations of weather radar technology, need to extend tornado hazard areas due to debris field, extensive damage and deaths in older buildings, lack of codes, and lack of agreement about solutions (e.g., to shelter inside or outside?). It credits Joplin’s success with the “whole community approach” and gives special mention to the effectiveness of rapid debris removal and volunteer resources.

Chapter 4 Hurricane Sandy and the Vulnerability of High-Density Geographic Areas: The New York Experience by Donovan Finn describes unique aspects of the Sandy response and recovery, given the region’s density, business and economy. The chapter focuses on New York City, the largest city in the U.S. with a population density of 27,000 people per sq. mile. Post-Sandy recovery emphasized workforce development and resilience-focused neighborhood planning. The entire metropolitan area from CT to NJ is now witness to a portfolio of major infrastructure projects, initiated by Rebuild by Design, exemplifying prototypes of large-scale urban disaster recovery and climate resilience.

Chapter 5 Hurricane Harvey: Issues for Urban Development by Ashley D. Ross is a fully annotated chapter of the hurricane’s impact on Houston TX, August 2017, called the most significant tropical cyclone event in U.S. history with 48 inches of rain in four days. Flooding impacted approximately 30% of properties of which 10% experienced flooding inside their homes, 58% of which were outside the FEMA 100-year floodplain. The damage illustrates the liabilities of development within flood-prone areas incentivized by NFIP coverage, issues with dam and reservoir releases (during Harvey without warning), and resulting socioeconomic impacts. The author’s recommendations include flood-map modeling to anticipate future land-use changes.

Chapter 6 Hurricane Irma Sept. 10, 2017 and Cascading Impacts by Christopher T. Emrich and coauthors describes the impacts of Irma that made landfall across the Florida Keys in September 2017, the strongest and costliest Atlantic hurricane on record with 42 deaths and $50 billion in damages. Approximately 2.6 million residents registered for FEMA Individual Assistance Program (compared to 1.7 registrants after Hurricane Katrina 2005). Irma exposed gaps in emergency management (special needs, available shelters), lack of awareness about disaster preparedness, poverty as major obstacle, job and business losses, power outages and other vulnerabilities of Florida’s infrastructure (backup communications system destroyed). Recommendations include greater focus on vulnerable populations, planning to fully address our uncertain climate future, and leveraging the resilient capacity of local communities.

Chapter 7 California Wildfires by David Calkin, Karen Short, and Meg Traci provides an overview of high-loss wildfires in the State of California, the state with the largest coordinated wildfire response system in the world. The chapter documents damages in the 2017-2018 seasons, principally in wildland-urban interface areas including the town of Paradise, victim of the Camp Fire (2018), and in terms of insured losses the most expensive natural disaster in the world in 2018. The level of devastation can be correlated to increases in development in or near California wildlands. The authors make the case for prescribed burning…“as in historical landscapes…largely shaped by indigenous peoples’ use of fire.” They advocate the 2009 National Cohesive Wildfire Management Strategy (NCWMS) which offers a national vision for wildland fire management emphasizing stakeholder collaboration and resilient, fire-adaptive landscapes.

Jenniffer M. Santos-Hernández, Ashley J. Méndez-Heavilin, and Génesis Álvarez-Rosario, coauthors of Chapter 8 Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico: Pre-existing Vulnerabilities and Catastrophic Outcomes, point to pre-existing vulnerabilities, especially economic, following 1992 NAFTA phase-out of the island’s tax haven status. Puerto Rico was ravaged by the double punch of September 2017 Hurricanes Irma and Maria. The chapter details the disruptions to lifeline systems of energy, communications, transportation, health, housing, and economy, with longer-term losses of population. Notable was the role of neighbors helping neighbors, the first to respond and only help available for days and longer (with power and roads out). The chapter concludes with a resonant note that may be a measure of resilience of any community: “Ultimately tightly knit and cohesive communities may have more capacity to absorb the shocks of extreme events or disasters.”

Chapter 9 Loss Reduction and Sustainability by Melanie Gall provides especially timely research for emergency planners and policy makers. It describes issues of data collection and disaster loss statistics. The author’s tabulation [Fig. 9.1] illustrates the wide variation between SHELDUS™ (Spatial Hazard Events and Losses Database), which include geological hazards compared to NOAA NCEI (National Centers for Environmental Information) data, which is limited to hydrological, meteorological, and climatalogical events. The differences between data reporting that may result are illustrated by 2017 Hurricane Maria statistics: “NCEI reports 20 fatalities…although studies using excess mortality calculations—a standard methodology common in estimating heat-related fatalities—assert much higher fatality counts of around 2,975 up to 4,645 fatalities.” [p. 213]. The chapter commends the FEMA requirement for communities to create and maintain hazard mitigation plans per the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000, a pre-qualification to maintain eligibility for federal mitigation dollars. It also commends integration of hazard mitigation and emergency management into comprehensive community planning, citing the Honolulu 2016 Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resilience and its planning template.

In the concluding Chapter 10 Summary and Looking Backward and Forward, co-editors Susan L. Cutter and Claire B. Rubin ask, “Are the deficiencies and distortions of the U.S. emergency management system short-term aberrations or significant lasting changes?” [p. 234] They offer an accounting of what has gone right, including efforts following Hurricane Katrina to engage the communities most impacted, to foster and use research findings, collaboration between emergency management professionals and universities, FEMA’s National Planning Frameworks, Strategic Foresight Initiative (2011), and efforts to improve the reservist cadre.

Their list of positives stops at 2016. The authors thus reach the political divide between the Obama administration vs. the Trump administration’s national emergency planning, which they find wanting and alarming. They cite present-day turnover and reductions in FEMA senior staffing and other federal failings documented in GAO reports on Puerto Rico, hurricanes and wildfires. They conclude [p. 237], “The Federal Government no longer is a reliable partner for disaster planning or response and recovery implementation.”

In a concluding discussion of governance structures for recovery and resilience, the authors are supportive of improvements effected by FEMA (2008-2018) and critical of the reduced federal role in the present administration. In fairness to the latter, they state the principles of FEMA’s new strategic plan (2018-2022), with its three goals to reduce losses from natural hazards:

1   Build a culture of preparedness for state and local governments including capability and investment in pre-disaster mitigation;

2   Ready the nation for catastrophic disasters whereby FEMA focuses its efforts and resources on the largest of events with the assumption that state and local are better prepared under the first goal, and

3   Reduce the complexity of FEMA [p. 248]

The strategic goal to extend emergency preparedness capability down the chain of support to states and communities can only benefit the nation’s preparedness if it strengthens the national coordination capacities at the same time. Any strategic plan and the policies and programs that it supports will have to show results. It would do well to recognize and apply the lessons learned and the recommendations of the chapters in this book.

Since the time that the authors completed their work on this book (July 2019), catastrophic natural disaster events continue in the U.S. and around the world, unprecedented in severity and incidence, at a rate outpacing even the best of our emergency management provisions. This book—along with others that document international case studies such as Johnson and Olshansky’s After Great Disasters: An In-Depth Analysis of How Six Countries Managed Community Recovery 2017 [Recovery Diva review July 10, 2018]—provide lessons learned and basis for emergency management and resilient planning to succeed. We continue to be indebted to the editors and authors of these books for the high standard of scholarship and research devoted to that mutual task.


1 thought on “Book Review: U.S. Emergency Management in the 21st Century: From Disaster to Catastrophe

  1. Pingback: The Federal Government is no Longer a Reliable Partner in Managing Disasters – Hazard Doc

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