Proposed Change in Federal Funding of Disasters

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Article titled Debt Deal Reopens Debate on Climate Catastrophes appeared in the NY Times, August 10, 2011.

A provision tucked into the debt ceiling legislation is rekindling debate about the nation’s ability to pay for soaring catastrophe losses as coastal development and carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise.

The nation has struggled for years to find an effective way to help communities rebuild homes, businesses and infrastructure after natural disasters. Now, in a collision between downward federal spending and an upward presence of catastrophes, Congress is moving to pre-fund disasters.

The last-minute legislation approved by Congress last week to raise the debt ceiling creates a disaster fund that will carry billions of dollars for recovery in hard-hit areas. The fund is a money-saving effort proposed by the president’s bipartisan fiscal commission last December in its report “The Moment of Truth.”

The fund could reduce stress on the deficit by preventing the need for emergency supplemental appropriations made in the wake of a crisis. Those unplanned expenses are not included in the budget, so it amounts to new debt

Four New Issuances of Interest this Week- update

  • Presidential Policy Directive (PPD)#8 the full text document (6 pp.)  was issued on April 8th; click here to access it. So far (April 9) the only discussion of the meaning and implications of this document is taking place on the Homeland Security Watch blog; the blog posts there are generating some interesting commentary.
  • FEMA Strategic Plan for 2011-2014 and FEMA’s Capstone Doctrine (dated Nov. 2010) are available here.

U.S. Readiness for a Catastrophic Event — not too certain

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I listened to part of the Senate hearing yesterday, details and testimony can be found here. It was not exactly reassuring to hear the recently retired Inspector General of DHS enumerate the problems and issues known for years and complain about the slow pace of change and remediation.  More details about the hearing were provided by, March 18th, in their article titled: Senators question U.S. preparedness in wake of Japan’s crisis.

Members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Thursday questioned which federal agency and individual within the federal government would take the lead in responding to a catastrophe like the one gripping Japan.

“Is it really clear who’s responsible for what if, God forbid, we had the kind of multiple catastrophes that Japan is experiencing right now?” the committee’s ranking member, Susan Collins, R-Maine, asked the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, at a hearing.

There was no clear answer, as FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said that the response would depend on several factors, such as where the disaster occurred and whether local first responders survived. For example, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would lead efforts after a disaster at a nuclear-power plant, Fugate said. FEMA, on the other hand, would be responsible for coordinating evacuations around the plant.

Overall, Fugate said, FEMA has made “significant progress” in preparing to deal with a catastrophe, but “we have much work to be done.”

But FEMA does not yet have an adequate system to assess what kind of capabilities exist in states and cities across the country to handle disasters, said William Jenkins, the Government Accountability Office’s director of homeland-security and justice issues.

Fellow blogger, Phil Palin, was quite disappointed in the quality and utility of the discussion, as he noted in his posting on Homeland Security Watch yesterday. I suggest you spend 5 minutes reading Phil’s comments and skip the couple of hours it would take to watch the video clip of the hearing.

I realize only a week has gone by since the start of the disasters in Japan, but it would be nice to see some signs of concern and action from Congress and FEMA about dealing with a catastrophic disaster. Yesterday was not one.

Assessment Report on FEMA’s Emergency Support Function Roles and Responsibilities

A newly released report from the Office of the Inspector General at DHS, reviews all of the Emergency Support Functions (ESFs).  While generally positive, ESF #14 did come in for some criticism. In my view the OIG did not dig deeply enough; I think the recovery process is fraught with deficiencies. From the report summary:

FEMA generally has fulfilled its Emergency Support Function roles and responsibilities. Specifically, the agency manages mission assignments, executes contracts, and procures goods and services for its Emergency Support Function activities. However, the agency can improve its coordination with stakeholders and its operational readiness.

FEMA should be coordinating with stakeholders for all Emergency Support Functions. For example, there was little evidence that support agencies are regularly included in planning meetings for an Emergency Support Function mission, even though agency officials said that such coordination would be beneficial. The agency must coordinate these activities with all relevant federal departments and agencies, state and local officials, and private sector entities to effectively execute the Emergency Support Function mission.

FEMA also should be fully prepared to provide community assistance after a disaster. Specifically, it is not conducting long-term recovery exercises, and one Emergency Support Function does not have clearly defined procedures to identify and deploy needed recovery services to disaster affected communities.

The report contains 11 recommendations that, when implemented, should improve FEMA’s efforts to meet its Emergency Support Function roles and responsibilities.

On Dec. 10, CQ Homeland Security commented on some of the content; their comments on the recovery aspect are as follows:

“FEMA also should be fully prepared to provide community assistance after a disaster,” it said.

For example, the report found that for post-disaster funding, FEMA has 36 full-time public assistance grant program employees, with 1,200 disaster assistance employees ready to supplement them in an emergency. However, the inspector general noted that as of February, 43 percent of the emergency staff were deployed to previous disasters, 15 percent were available and 42 percent were listed as “unavailable.” FEMA has said those numbers are inaccurate, though, as about 50 percent of the reserve staff typically make themselves available when an emergency hits.

And, while the report noted that FEMA already holds many hearings with its partners in response, the inspector general found that a few communications gaps still exist. For example, when it comes to communications restoration, “FEMA needs to consistently hold meetings with stakeholders and complete required reports from the regions to ensure continued coordination with stakeholders and to assess emergency communications capabilities and needs,” the report said.

This additional information does not make me any more optimistic about recovery. In my opinion ESF #14 is not well-conceived, so I do not find details about implementation satisfying. Recovery is far more comprehensive and complex than ESF 14 suggests.  Additionally, the final version of the National Disaster Recovery Framework still has not been issued.

New Exec. Order for another Gulf Coast Task Force

President Barack Obama in the Oval Office 1/30/09.

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Frankly, I am having trouble keeping all the study groups and task forces re the Gulf Oil Spill straight in my mind. Today the President issued an Executive Order for a new one. Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force. Here are some details from on Oct. 5th.

On the day President Barack Obama signed an executive order setting up his new Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, the task force chairman, told more than two dozen environmental leaders in New Orleans that it’s up to Gulf Coast residents to set the agenda for the commission.

The task force was recommended by Navy Sec. Ray Mabus last week in his own report to Obama on how to move from responding to the oil spill to recovery of the coast’s ecology and economy.

Gas Pipeline Safety — another neglected hazard comes to the forefront

Another example of 20/20 hindsight. The pipeline safety issue has a lot in common with the deep sea oil drilling matter: regulations dominated by industry for their benefit.  ProPublica just published Fatal Pipeline Accident Turns Attention to Nation’s Aging Pipelines

…the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration [in the Dept. of Transportation], the federal agency that regulates 2.3 million miles of oil and natural gas pipelines, largely relies on standards written by the oil and gas industry. It has about 100 inspectors, leaving industry a great deal of latitude with inspections. (Even after the blast, state utility regulators ordered PG&E  to inspect its own network of gas pipelines.)

And according to The Washington Independent, federal regulators are required to inspect only about 7 percent [6] of the country’s natural gas pipelines. That percentage is based on how populated the surrounding area is, and not the actual conditions of the pipelines.

Apparently, the needed improvements to the regulatory system are known.

New Report – Urgent Recommendations re Gulf Coast Resilience

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Before the Next Katrina: Urgent Recommendations for the President & Congress on Gulf  Coast Resilience; Center for National Policy, August 27. In a compelling new report, authors Steve Flynn and Sean Burke address a few new problems, namely, the likelihood of a major hurricane affecting the same Gulf Coast area impacted by the B.P. Oil Spill and how to clarify, coordinate, and reconcile the two federal response systems that pertain.  The Oil Spill response and now the recovery process are proceeding under the authority of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, but a major hurricane is likely to get a Presidential declaration under the Stafford Act.  The authors do an excellent job identifying problem areas and issues that should be address before another big hurricane reaches the Gulf Coast this season, which could be quite soon. See this C-SPAN interview.

“Unity of Effort” recommended by Thad Allen for major disasters

Reflecting on his major role after Hurricane Katrina and the BP Oil Spill Disaster, Adm. Allen recommends “Unity of Effort.”  Allen says unity is key to tackling natural disasters such as Gulf spill, covered by (CT).

Coordination not always easy, but it’s a must… The country needs an “agile and flexible” government to respond to disasters such as the Gulf oil spill and Hurricane Katrina… “The more we can create that unity of effort, the better off we’ll be,” said retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad W. Allen…  The problem is, Allen said, it is not easy to get officials in federal, state and local governments to work together, along with players in the private sector and non-governmental organizations. They are organized differently, with diverse responsibilities, jurisdictions and viewpoints.  “Even though it isn’t easy,” …”we have to get better at it.”

Allen said he thinks social media and the Internet can link the parties together to solve seemingly impossible problems.

It would be interesting to know more about his expectations for these new mechanisms to improve unity of effort. NOTE: The two authors of this blog also maintain a new blog on social media and disasters called iDisaster 2.0.

Oil Spill Panel Speaks Out – August 25

In light of the extensive investigation by the Washington Post (noted earlier today in this blog) and the work of the formal investigation panel, harsh assessments are beginning to come out. U.S. spill panel question drilling policy, Reuters news, August 25.

The BP oil spill  in the Gulf of Mexico was a massive “failure” in oversight for the oil industry and the U.S. government, the co-chairman of the White House oil spill commission said on Wednesday.  *** regulators and offshore drillers were aware of the possibility of a major well blowout, such as the one that caused the BP spill, but ignored the risks.

This disaster represents an enormous and shared failure of public policy,” Graham said at the commission’s second public meeting.

Minerals Management Service – Gulf office scrutinized

An in-depth article about the peculiar culture in LA regarding oil drilling and the man who dominated the Gulf Office of the Mineral Management Service. In addition to showing the failings of the MMS, the article also notes a huge failure by Congress — badly written legislation that resulted in a loss of federal income amounting to $60B.  Plenty of candidates to blame for the recent disaster!

Minerals Service Had a Mandate to Produce Results, NY Times, August 8.

In some states, drilling has been seen as a threat to native cultures. In Cajun country, it opened a door to the middle class — even as a typical offshore schedule (two weeks on, two weeks off) let workers still fish, hunt and farm.

“The industry didn’t destroy the old culture — it saved it,” said Diane Austin, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona. What it did largely destroy, through cash and cunning, was significant political opposition. Local groups have typically been weak and small — no match for an industry that Mr. Oynes calls the “900-pound gorilla.”