The 5 Emergency-Management Steps Every Incoming Governor Needs to Take Right Now

Disasters aren't scheduled, and they can easily upend your new administration's agenda.
by | December 15, 2010

Eric Holdeman

Eric Holdeman is a GOVERNING contributor and a columnist for Emergency Management magazine.

The reality of governing is probably beginning to sink in for newly elected governors. There are legislative priorities to be established, personnel appointments to be made and budget deficits to be dealt with. In addition to all that, these new governors should keep one other issue in mind: Disasters are not scheduled, and they have a nasty habit of interrupting your administration's priorities.

In 1993, newly sworn-in Gov. Mike Lowry of Washington State had just such an experience, with what came to be known as the Inauguration Day Windstorm.

After only being in office for a few days, western Washington was pummeled with a windstorm that caused power outages for the majority of people living in the Puget Sound region. The newly minted governor visited his state's Emergency Operations Center (EOC) that night. It was in an old single-story World War II-era building. After getting a briefing on the situation, Lowry asked to use the restroom facilities. He was handed a flashlight, since there wasn't enough generator power for the entire facility. This was his initial orientation to the substandard EOC he had inherited from his predecessors and the overall level of disaster preparedness of his emergency management agency.

To avoid a scenario like the one above, there are five things every new governor should to do immediately after — or preferably before — taking the oath of office, in order to be prepared for when disasters strike:

1. You and the key members of your staff need to receive a briefing from your emergency management agency. Key aspects of this briefing should include:

a. What are the disaster hazards that pose a risk to the state, and what's the extent of the risks involved with those hazards? For instance, it's not just California that has an earthquake hazard, and New York City will be decimated by a hurricane at some point in the future.

b. What is the composition and quality of your state emergency management program? How does it compare in budget and number of staff with other states? Is your state emergency management program capable of coordinating the state response and recovery efforts?

c. What is the status of local emergency management programs throughout the state? If they are unable to serve their communities during disasters, the impact will be felt by state agencies.

2. Determine how emergency management and homeland security is integrated, if at all, within your state organization. Many state emergency management agencies are essentially becoming federally funded grant programs, as there is a continuing drawdown on state resources for emergency management functions. Identify the impacts when those grant funds begin to decrease in 2012, as they are projected to be less robust beginning then.

3. Receive other briefings from state departments on their roles and responsibilities in emergencies and disasters. These include the National Guard, State Patrol/Police, Public Health, Human Services, and Transportation departments. These agencies, along with Emergency Management, are your key resources when disasters strike. Know their capabilities and limitations. How are these agencies coordinating before there is a disaster? How do they interact when there is a disaster?

4. Appoint or reappoint the Emergency Management director. Avoid the temptation to put someone into the position who does not have any experience in emergency management. Remember what the impact of having Michael Brown was in heading the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) during Hurricane Katrina. Don't repeat that mistake!

5. Ask for an immediate orientation for yourself and your key staff. This orientation should include:

a. How notifications of emergencies and disasters are communicated to the governor's office.

b. The steps required to declare a disaster and what your emergency powers and authorities are during a proclaimed disaster.

c. How the disaster recovery process works. What type of state programs or funds exist (if any), and how does the FEMA disaster recovery reimbursement system work? Familiarize yourself with the challenges that accompany seeking and obtaining these funds.

As President Obama has found out, winning the election can be a lot easier than governing. Just as he owns the Federal response to the Gulf oil spill, you too will own any disaster that happens on your watch. It may never happen, but an ounce of preparedness on your part and the part of you senior staff can make the difference in how you are perceived when leading during a crisis.

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