Social Problems Perspectives, Disaster Research and Emergency Management: Intellectual Contexts, Theoretical Extensions, and Policy Implications Thomas E



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3. Like the horizontal community level networks that function to prepare for, respond to, recover from, and mitigate against, vertical inter-governmental networks addressing emergency management functions can best be coordinated through multiple strategies that emphasize partnership of team building, and trust, rather than bureaucratic orientations and actions reflecting intimidation, direct orders, or secrecy.

As reflected in our constitution, there are clear separations of powers both among the three co-equal branches of government, i.e., executive, legislative and judicial, and across the intergovernmental system. This decentralized structure provides the highest levels of protection and security against all hazards, although specialized federal units, with narrowly defined tasks such as the National Hurricane Center or U.S. Geological Survey, are required so that timely information can be provided to policy makers across the intergovernmental system.

In part, the numerous failures during the response to Hurricane Katrina reflected the wrongheaded policy shifts promoted by DHS such as NIMS and the ICS. Moynihan’s (2006) detailed analysis of the House and Senate reports on Katrina documents this in detail.

“There is weak empirical evidence on the validity of these claims, but the DHS has promoted the ICS approach as applicable to all types of crises. This is a contestable proposition, and even a cursory examination of different types of crises suggests contingencies that will affect the efficacy of hierarchical networks.” (p. 3).


So despite mandates from DHS in 2004 wherein NIMS, including ICS, and the National Response Plan (NRP) became national policy, the response to Katrina had many failings. Moynihan’s (2006) summary is on target.

“The network response was diminished by capacity problems of key members, whose resource problems led to inadequate numbers of personnel who were poorly prepared for their tasks. These capacity problems also weakened coordination, as did a lack of understanding about new crisis management policies that provided the rules by which networks response were to be guided. These policies called for hierarchical controls over the network of crisis responders, but were unfamiliar to many responders, and never properly implemented during Katrina. As different network members struggled to complete their tasks, trust between network members also declined, weakening another key network coordination mechanism.” (p. 1).


As many of us have emphasized (e.g., Perrow 2007, pp. 117-119; Drabek 2006b; Dynes 1994), management models rooted in the principles of bureaucracy have limited applicability to the emergent multiagency networks that characterize post-disaster responses. As Moynihan (2005) put it in his analysis of the responses to the Exotic Newcastle Disease in the state of California in 2003, “Networks are a nonhierarchical approach to the management, reliant on horizontal relationships, information, expertise, and trust to direct a self-organizing process . . .” (p. 7). Furthermore, by the time Katrina hit in August of 2005, staff morale within FEMA had plummeted. And as Perrow noted, this had far reaching consequences. “. . . the low morale of upper managers who were not political appointments would spread to lower management, and then to employees in general. In an organization with low morale, sticking to the rules to protect your career may be better than breaking them even if the rules are inappropriate.” (Perrow 2007, pp. 117-118).

Brinkley’s (2006) magnificently detailed description of “the great deluge”, i.e., Katrina, provides careful documentation of the coordination and communication failures that so terribly wounded the intergovernmental system. His conclusions are on point and provide another specific illustration of why I disfavor the current policy drift. Certainly, the flawed Katrina response reflected many factors, and depending on where one sits, alternative explanations are more or less appealing.

“The one that rings truest, though, is that cronyism riddled FEMA and its contractors in the Bush administration, making incompetence and not racism the key to the response. As Lieutenant Commander Duckworth, noted, the bureaucracy ‘was to blame.’” (Brinkley 2006, p. 618).
While I personally believe that both racism, like sexism and ageism, and bureaucratic incompetence were operative, the strained intergovernmental system also was a key factor as Brinkley noted.

“At the end of the first week after Katrina, Bush tried in every way possible to pressure Governor Blanco into ceding control of troops in her state, along with, effectively, responsibility for the course of the response. It was the sort of political fight that Bush was used to winning, but Blanco, for her part, stood up to the President. . . . It was a battle largely hidden from the public, but in winning a battle royale with the President, Blanco changed the second term of George Bush, leaving him open to other attempts to curtail the sweeping power he assumed for himself. . . . The country could always bounce back from a natural disaster, and the hurricane was a natural disaster. But the Great Deluge was a disaster that the country brought on itself.” (Brinkley 2006, p. 619).


4. As with all other disasters, responses across the full life cycle of future catastrophic events, including those resulting from actions taken by terrorists, enhancement of the capacities of local and state governments should be given priority.

If one accepts the premise that catastrophic events are qualitatively different from other disasters, as Quarantelli, (2003, p. 3) for example has proposed, it may seem to follow that the primary enhancement required is at the federal level. Reflecting a false image of local chaos and inability to respond, some have proposed policies that reflect high levels of centralization of authority, especially regarding certain hazards. Clearly, the risks of future pandemics like the influenza outbreak of 1918 (Barry 2005), and terrorist attacks from domestic or internationally based groups are real. And the range of actions that might be required is substantial.

Fortunately, some actions (e.g., “Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act” [S.3678]; signed on December 19, 2006) have been taken to address preparedness issues in recognition of the “. . . uncertain but urgent threat . . .” (National Governors Association 2006, p. 1) represented by a pandemic influenza outbreak with far more lethal potential than the 1918 killer event. “Once a pandemic happens, we will divide forever the progress of our nation as pre-pandemic and post-pandemic.” (NGA 2006, p. 1).

Despite such efforts, however, a lack of trust and increased conflict has emerged within the intergovernmental system. I am indebted to my brother-in-law for alerting me to a recent Washington Post article that illustrates this point all too well.

“A decision by the Bush administration to rewrite in secret the nation’s emergency response blueprint has angered state and local emergency officials, who worry that Washington is repeating a series of mistakes that contributed to its bungled response to Hurricane Katrina nearly two years ago.

State and local officials in charge of responding to disasters say that their input in shaping the National Response Plan was ignored in recent months by senior White House and Department of Homeland Security officials, despite calls by congressional investigators for a shared overhaul of disaster planning in the United States.

‘In my 19 years in emergency management, I have never experienced a more polarized environment between state and federal government,’ said Albert Ashwood, Oklahoma’s emergency management chief and president of a national association of state emergency managers.” (Hsu 2007, p. 1).

As with hurricanes or tornadoes, specialized federal agencies must be tasked with the functions of monitoring and warning. But coordination and control of other activities, including response and recovery, should rest primarily within the local and state government layers. Certainly, specialized planning for highly improbable events, as Clarke (2006) has discussed, should be completed especially within the federal level where horizontal coordination is most difficult given the size and complexity of the agencies involved. Neither the scope nor the complexity of such challenges, however, should be accepted as rationale for greater centralization of authority at the federal level in the name of effectiveness, efficiency, or security. But as Harrald noted, Bush appointees appear “. . . to be guided by a desire to ensure centralized control of what is an inherently decentralized process. . . . Response to catastrophic events requires collaboration and trust in a broad network of organizations.” (Hsu 2007, p. 1).



5. While the federal military has had an increased presence in many aspects of disaster life cycles during the past six years, this role should not be expanded further.

Several scholars (e.g., Anderson 1969, 1970; Drabek et al. 1981) have documented the many roles the federal military have played in disasters of various types. Recently, especially after Katrina, some have called for increased shifting of resources and responsibility to various sectors of the military (Tierney 2006, p. 410). In part, this reflected certain conflicts and coordination difficulties as the Select Committee of the U.S. House report documented in detail. For example, “. . . Northern Command does not have adequate insight into state response capabilities or adequate interface with governors, which contributed to a lack of mutual understanding and trust during the Katrina response” (p. 221). Such matters appear to reflect tensions that go far beyond this single event, however. As the House Committee noted, citing an article in the Wall Street Journal, the state controlled National Guard leadership has seen this matter to be of great concern.

“Admiral Keating who heads U.S. NORTHCOM, a newly created military body overseeing homeland defense, has told lawmakers that active-duty forces should be given complete authority for responding to catastrophic disasters. . . . The head of the Washington State National Guard, General Timothy Lowenberg, suggested in e-mails to colleagues that Admiral Keating’s suggestion amounted to a ‘policy of domestic regime change. Wall Street Journal, December 8, 2005.” (SBCIPRHK 2006, p. 221).
Less politicized was the conclusion reached by Clayton (2006) who examined policy shifts and needs related to “Incidents of National Significance.” His conclusion is an example of the type of analysis required.

“Despite recent calls for the contrary in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it would be antithetical to the U.S. system of governance and its philosophical underpinnings for local responsibilities and response to be ‘federalized’ too early and for the DoD to assume the lead agency for responding to Incidents of national Significance. Legislating change and establishing specific requirements in law for cooperative DHS, DoD and state training and exercises would establish minimum requirements for regional planning and preparedness and, ultimately, better response. It is time to better shape the efforts and responsibilities of the federal agencies with reality and codify, train, and exercise them so that the national response capability reflects the professionalism of state and local agencies.” (Clayton 2006, Abstract).


Upon completing a detailed assessment of the military response during Hurricane Katrina, the staff of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) (2006) concluded that “. . . disaster plans and training exercises involving the military did not sufficiently incorporate lessons learned from past catastrophes to fully delineate the military capabilities that could be needed to respond to a catastrophic natural disaster.” (p. 3) Reflecting this conclusion, they titled their report as Hurricane Katrina: Better Plans and Exercises Needed to Guide the Military’s Response to Catastrophic Natural Disasters.

Recognizing that Department of Defense (DoD) was aware of various problems and was “. . . beginning to take actions to address the lessons learned . . . (p. 31), the team, never the less, concluded that the issues “. . . . are often complex, cross agency boundaries, and are, in some cases, long standing.” (p. 31). Hence, four recommendations were offered calling for clarification in roles, especially with National Guard units designation of milestones, and “ . . . the development of detailed plans and exercises to fully account for the unique capabilities and support that the military is likely to provide to civil authorities in response to the full range of domestic disasters, including catastrophes.” (p. 35).

The response to the “draft” report by the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Paul McHale, dated May 5, 2006, Appendix III of the GAO report, pp. 48-49) is informative. Among the key points of most relevance to my observation above (#5) are these.

“We request you make several changes in the draft report. In general, our comments fall under two broad categories. First, the report calls for greater DoD role during domestic disaster response. While we agree with the general thrust of your recommendation, striking the appropriate balance between the military’s primary warfighting role overseas and the need to support civil authorities at home is a difficult, but fundamental issue. . . . The goal is to enhance the capacity of other agencies and state and local governments to perform their assigned responsibilities during domestic disaster response, with the continued ability to call on U.S. military support when required by the circumstances.

. . .

In addition, as Lieutenant General Honoré points out in his May 1, 2006, letter to you (attached), the title of the draft GAO report is misleading in that it does not recognize DoD’s extensive planning and exercise schedule prior to August 29, 2005.” (p. 48).


Twenty days after the McHale letter, the GAO contact person, Ms. Sharon Pickup (2006) (Director, Defense Capabilities and Management) released a “Statement for the Record” to the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities, Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives. Her statement referenced the above report, outlined the key findings, and emphasized two ideas of most relevance here. That is: 1) “Many of the challenges faced in the response point to the need for better plans and more robust exercises . . .” (p. 3), and 2) “. . . substantial improvement will require sustained attention from the highest management levels in DoD and from leaders across government.” (p. 5).

Reflecting on the six year anniversary of their final report (2001, U.S. Commission on National Security) calling for a greater priority on homeland security, Gary Hart and Warren Rudman emphasized their views that the National Guard should be primary in this responsibility. In testimony before the House Appropriations subcommittee (1/30/07), both expressed regrets that the detailed and “lower-profile recommendations” they had made six years ago were ignored including “. . . a key recommendation that the National Guard be used as the backbone of homeland security.” (Sprengelmeyer 2007, p. 8). Hart commented, “. . . we all know where the National Guard is today.” “It’s not securing the homeland.” (p. 8).

Lawrence J. Korb, a former assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration, expanded on his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee (April 17, 2007) in a co-authored paper (Korb and Duggan 2007) to document Hart’s observation in much more detail. For example, regarding troop and equipment shortages during the Katrina response, they put it this way.

“Contrary to official statements by the Bush administration, a dearth of ready troops was also to blame. Had a substantial number of essential Guard units been readily available, logistical gaps that occurred during Katrina operations would have been mitigated.” (p. 5).


But as they note, subsequent responses reflect continuations of such shortages due to the failed policies in Iraq. For example, after the 2007 tornado in Greensburg, Kansas, Governor Kathleen Sebelius pointed out that “. . . the state’s National Guard has only about 40 percent of the equipment it is allotted because much of it has been sent to Iraq.” (p. 5). And other states reflect the same deficiencies.

“Sadly the problems plaguing the Kansas Guard are not unique. The Guards of California, Florida, Arizona, New Jersey, Idaho, Louisiana, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon and Arkansas also have less than half the equipment they need to deal with natural disasters.” (Korb and Kuggan 2007, p. 5).


6. The profession of emergency management will be enhanced through university and college level degree programs that must grow both in number and quality.

As noted above, there are now over 100 emergency management degree programs with another 100 in development. (Blanchard 2006). Like all other professions, however, the intellectual tools required for the art of practicing emergency management is not confined to a single academic discipline. Hence, these programs are nested and administratively within a variety of departments and colleges at the present time. Regardless of their administrative home, the theories, methods, and findings from all the social sciences are most relevant. And this includes the social problems perspective on disaster research, I outlined in the first section of this paper. For it is within this perspective that basic issues of inequality, vulnerability, corporate power and concentration, and the like, can effectively be brought into these classrooms. Failure to examine “root causes” of disaster at these levels of analysis, will limit the depth of emergency management education. Such limitations in quality can allow these courses to drift into becoming training grounds for future bureaucrats rather than enlightened professionals.

Increased drift toward more bureaucratic, militaristic, or engineering and other physical science emphases within emergency management programs, is a potential direction with which I disagree. A footnote (#6) in Merton’s (1961) “Epilogue” makes the fundamental point and further illustrates why a social problems perspective is most relevant.

“Although they occasionally waver in their judgments of ‘physical problems’ – i.e. the usual array of nature-made catastrophes—as constituting social problems, Fuller and Myers conclude their excellent contribution to a sociological theory of social problems by setting forth much the same position adopted here. For example: ‘While the earthquake itself may involve no value-judgments, its consequences inevitably will call for moral judgments and decisions of policy. People will not agree on how much should be spent in reconstruction, how it should be spent, or how the funds should be raised.’ Richard C. Fuller and Richard R. Myers, ‘Some Aspects of a Theory of Social Problems,’ American Sociological Review, Vol. 6 (February, 1941), p. 27.” (Merton 1961, p. 705).


Currently two important challenges must be confronted by faculty responsible for such programs. First, the capacity for social criticism must be strengthened and protected. A social problems perspective may help this, but the matter should be addressed explicitly. Students and faculty should be encouraged to critically examine past, current and proposed emergency management policy changes.

As I have emphasized elsewhere (e.g., Drabek 2006a,c, 2007), inadequate development of a capacity to critically review emergency management policy, both existent and proposed, is the greatest weakness in current college and university programs. We would be wise to remember the observations of many theorists who have made this general point over the years (e.g., Gardner 1965). Indeed, such requirement, as Tom Paine stated so succinctly shortly after our nation’s birth, is the duty of every citizen. “The defects of every Government and Constitution, both as to principle and form, must on a parity of reasoning, be as open to discussion as the defects of a law, and it is a duty which every man owes to society to point them out.” (Paine 2003, p. 263; original publication 1792). And a few pages later, as he explained to La Fayette why he added “part the second” to his initial essay, i.e., “Rights of Man” he offered this sentence which has an eerie relevance to today’s political climate. “Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think.” (p. 266).

Second, the interface with homeland security courses, emphases, and programs should be examined critically. As I have elaborated elsewhere (Drabek 2007), different perceptions of “the problem,” assumptions about it, and focal tasks, reveal important cultural differences that preclude simple integration of emerging programs. What is most clear is that integration can not be accomplished by administrative fiat or simply adding one or the other name to a program area. Careful and thoughtful analyses will be required. In many cases, program integration efforts will reflect culture conflict and in some, simply may not occur. Such future outcomes will reflect governmental policy changes, disaster events, pressures from professional associations and other such external forces. As Barry’s (2005) informative history of the medical profession, like others (e.g., Wilson and Oyola-Yemaiel 2002; Moore 1970; Hall 1975), clearly document, such pressures, conflicts and adjustments reflect common processes documented for numerous professions.

Sustained funding to encourage and nurture emergency management courses and programs, however, must be increased. Similarly, there must be parallel enrichment of disciplinary, multidisciplinary, and interdisciplinary disaster and hazard research activity so as to provide a continuing array of study findings and theoretical analyses that form the core intellectual foundation for these programs (e.g., see Mileti 1999, pp. 255-265; Committee on Disaster Research in the Social Sciences 2006, pp. 282-285).



7. The assumptions, tasks, and policies that define “homeland security” must be examined critically from a broad social problems perspective.

As revealed by the organizational charts that were created initially, and continue to evolve, there are many tasks that comprise “homeland security”. Reflecting the public outrage that followed the 9/11 attacks and the earlier proposals, e.g., Hart-Rudman 2001 (U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century), Congress initiated the largest government reform in our history by establishing the Department of Homeland Security. One of the early statements issued by the White House in June, 2002, indicated that the new cabinet level secretary, would be responsible for five core units (Office of Homeland Security 2002): 1) Border and Transportation Security; 2) Emergency Preparedness and Response; 3) Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Countermeasures; 4) Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection and 5) Management. Each of these areas involved transfers of personnel from existing agencies like the FEMA into core area 2 and the Coast Guard into area 1.



Of course, activities by other agencies were to be coordinated better even though they were outside this agency. Most important among these was the matter of mitigation as it pertained to the terrorist threat. As later documented by the 9/11 Commission (NCOTAUTUS 2004) important cultural barriers among the several intelligence agencies resulted in structural stovepipes that severely reduced interagency information sharing. Flawed intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction (WMD) used to justify the preemptive attack on Iraq, precipitated another structural adjustment designed to insure better coordination among the various agencies. Thus, the creation of the Director of National Intelligence presumably has improved the effectiveness of the multiagency network responsible for this critical task.

What do social problems perspectives add to an analysis of the homeland security dimension of emergency management? Consider the parallel to crime. Social problems texts emphasize historical patterns in criminal activity, changing legal definitions of what constitutes a criminal act, and the ebb and flow of policy designed to mitigate. These and the analysis of related issues provide a basis for recasting criminal activity from the actions of evil people to larger social issues of structural patterns of inequality, failing schools, job exportation, and other matters reflecting the “society as patient” orientation. While adding more locks to apartment doors, like purchasing guns for classroom teachers, may seem logical to many, especially within the context of a particular traumatic event, such actions do not address the root causes of crime.

Similarly, recall my earlier comments regarding social problems perspectives on suicide. While most Americans will never benefit from these assessments and their linkages to “root causes”, by the spring of 2007, some popular media publications were introducing these ideas. For example, in a discussion of increased threat perceptions regarding future terror attacks, Newsweek reporters (Hirsh and Yousafai 2007) quoted Pakistani Foreign Minister Mian Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri regarding White House criticism of their failure to reign in terror training facilities. Kasuri’s response may have been totally political, but at least it pointed to directions beyond military solutions. “Let’s be honest. There are a lot of people all over the Muslim world, from Indonesia to Somalia, who are hostile to what they regard as American foreign policy. You need to tackle the root causes.” (p. 37).

Racism is deeply embedded in American society. It, like the matter of immigration, has a long history and reflects the evolution of complex policy changes that too often have been adopted to treat specific symptoms. As bandaids on an infected cut, they cover over the obvious, but fail to address the infection that places the patient at risk. So too, proposals to build higher and longer walls along our southern border with Mexico, do not reflect the complexity of the history or the economic and social dynamics that comprise “the immigration problem.” As McCorkel (2006) pointed out in her review of Maril’s (2004) case study of the U.S. Border Patrol, there is a “. . . profound disconnect between official policy and the complex environmental, political, and interpersonal realities of the border.” (p. 177). Somewhat like many emergency managers trying to implement or justify certain homeland security terrorism initiatives, these agents try to do their jobs in a professional manner. But “. . . a lack of resources and inadequate training meant that agents frequently worked their shifts alone, many with limited ability to communicate with the Spanish-speaking immigrants they apprehended.” (p. 177). Consequently, both the “. . . agents and the immigrants they encountered [were put] in positions of great vulnerability” which in turn “. . . exacerbated problems of mutual distrust.” (p. 177).

My point is this. The homeland security dimension of emergency management must be placed within a much broader strategic framework. One of the few who have addressed this need is Gary Hart (2006). He clearly acknowledges that there are terrorist groups that must be identified and destroyed before they can hurt people. Parallel to local, state, or federal law enforcement personnel, our anti-terror “forces,” in the broadest sense of that term, must have the resources required to get the job done. But creating “a spear” or “a shield” to use Hart’s language, are only two aspects of what is required. And so, building on Hart’s critique, I have recommended that university faculty encourage students to adopt my social problems perspective. With it they can step back and ask more fundamental questions. “What are the sources of insecurity?” For as Hart reminds us, “Freedom requires security. An insecure individual or an insecure nation cannot be said to be truly free.” (p. 173). And because terrorism is a strategy designed to increase fear, those who would use this strategy must be stopped. But there are additional sources of fear and insecurity that also threaten the nation. For some it is the fear of losing a job, others being caught in the cross-fire of gang violence. And for millions of elderly it is fear of abandonment, payment of drug bills, and even enough food to maintain a body weakened by parts that simply are wearing out.

“It is the source of considerable wonder that those most eager to sacrifice some freedoms to create a shield, or spear, against terrorism are unwilling to demonstrate equal zeal in attacking other sources of insecurity to create a cloak of security.” (Hart 2006, p. 175).


Hence, we would do well, as Hart (2006) recommends (p. 175) to ponder the wisdom of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In his 1941 State of the Union speech he specified four freedoms: freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom of speech, and freedom of worship. And so instead of defining homeland “security” in an overly narrow way, emphasizing our military and law enforcement shields and multiple blankets of protection resulting from initiatives in airline passenger scrutiny, port container surveillance, or higher walls in Arizona or California, we need to focus more strategically on today’s parallel to Roosevelt’s insight.

“Our new four freedoms should be freedom of the commons, freedom of livelihood, freedom of a sound environment, and freedom from fear.” (Hart 2006, p. 176).

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