Oregon Legislators Evaluate Post-Disaster Governance

In the wake of a catastrophe, an effective recovery effort requires a functioning government -- an issue a number of legislatures are addressing.
by | May 5, 2011 AT 3:00 PM

Compared to catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill, the recovery efforts in the wake of the tornadoes that whipped across the country in April flew under the radar.

The violent outbreak of tornadoes ravaged states in the South, East and Midwest, killing over 300 people  people and leaving hundreds missing in the country’s deadliest disaster since Katrina. But the good news is that, in the aftermath, the response by the government hasn’t looked anything like other recent recovery efforts by local, state and federal agencies. Case in point: It took less than two days for President Obama to touch down in Tuscaloosa, Ala., the hardest-hit area. Per the New York Times:

Many expressed mild frustration about limits on their access to damaged homes, the pace of road clearing and power restoration, and traffic jams caused by roadblocks and nonfunctioning signals. But most agreed that government and charitable agencies were coping as effectively as feasible with immediate demands for shelter, food, water and medical care, along with search and rescue operations.

The article goes on to report that FEMA pushed the need for a federal emergency declaration even before Alabama submitted a formal request. The federal agency has since played a supporting role to state and local officials, as it should be, said W. Craig Fugate, FEMA’s administrator. “It’s inappropriate, I think, for people in Washington to take over what is a primary state response,” Fugate, a former Florida emergency management director told the Times.

But this is where the lines get blurry. These disasters come without warning and act without mercy. Citizens look to state and local leaders for guidance, but what happens when a catastrophe gets its claws on a capital?

That’s been a critical question in Oregon. The state’s Constitution requires the Legislature to meet in Salem. But last week, lawmakers voted in favor of a measure to revise the Constitution to avoid a government breakdown in the face of a major disaster. House Joint Resolution 7 would give the governor more power to spend general fund and Oregon Lottery money where ever necessary without legislative approval, and allow the Legislature to meet virtually – by ham radio or satellite phone -- with a smaller quorum if need be.

The fear, of course, is that whoever’s in charge during a crisis could abuse that authority and create economic havoc that goes way beyond the natural disaster. But that’s a risk worth taking. Oregon is a land of many faults, and right off the Pacific coast sits a subduction zone similar to the one that provoked the catastrophe in Japan. A huge earthquake could crumble bridges and Highway 101, making travel into Salem virtually impossible.

"It's not [saying] the sky is falling," Rep. Deborah Boone, D-Cannon Beach told The Oregonian. "We just need to recognize it and be prepared for it when it happens."

In recent years, various states have pushed disaster-related legislation to make sure recovery efforts don’t get lost in the storm. In its last legislative session, for example, Texas passed several measures to aid in recovery efforts, including bills to pump money into the state's Disaster Contingency Fund and create a communications coordination group to link state and local emergency management agencies.

This is what emergency managers do. But disasters may require different types of action, which should force public officials to ask all the “what if” they can think of to plan an effective recovery. In Alabama, for instance, lawmakers are pushing for final approval on a bill that would shorten the school year for school systems damaged by the tornadoes. In the event of an emergency, good governance means not only responding quickly to a disaster, but being able to manage the recovery effectively. It’s not the most comforting conversation to have, but ignoring these questions could make the damage worse.