'All disasters are local,' except for when they're not

It's time for a national response to our national emergency


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By Francisco Sanchez and Kelly McKinney

"The thing we need to get people to understand is that when you're dealing with an infectious disease outbreak, it's the country that's involved, so we need to respond as a nation, not in a fragmented way." -- Dr. Anthony Fauci 

As President-elect Biden prepares to assume command of the ongoing pandemic response, we are calling for a long-overdue upgrade to our existing national disaster system. The system we have in the United States is based on the "home rule" concept of government that enables cities and counties to manage their own affairs without interference from their states. Over the past fifty years, home rules laws in most states have been used to delegate to local governments – some thirty thousand across the country – the primary responsibility for disaster response.

Jonathan Omens takes a nasal swab from a patient after a COVID-19 test at the county's COVID-19 testing site at the San Diego County Credit Union Stadium in Mission Valley. State and local governments are still struggling to get their hands on enough testing supplies to be prepared for the next major wave of infections.
Jonathan Omens takes a nasal swab from a patient after a COVID-19 test at the county's COVID-19 testing site at the San Diego County Credit Union Stadium in Mission Valley. State and local governments are still struggling to get their hands on enough testing supplies to be prepared for the next major wave of infections. (Photo/K.C. Alfred via TNS)

This means that your local elected official is responsible to know what is going on in her neighborhoods, especially with respect to her most vulnerable citizens – the poor, the sick, seniors, and people with disabilities. When disasters strike, this responsibility becomes even more vital, and the local government is charged with leading a response that addresses the urgent unmet needs of all of its citizens.

States and the federal government play an important role. One or both can be requested to act, or "activate," when the impacts of any disaster exceed the ability of the affected community to respond. This system – emergency managers describe it as "federally supported, state-managed and locally executed" – works extremely well, except when it doesn't. Few will disagree that it isn't working well now. 

The reason the system isn't working now, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, is because the disaster, "the virus in this case, doesn't know the difference between the border of Louisiana and Mississippi or North and South Carolina." 

It is for this reason and this disaster, as well as for future catastrophes, that we are calling for an important change, one that unites local and state governments and spans the nation. This new and improved disaster system would ensure that science, not state, local, tribal or territorial political considerations, drive decision-making and collective action.

As with many things during disasters, the key is leadership. The change starts with FEMA assuming its rightful role as the nation's disaster coordinator. A newly-inaugurated President Biden should formally designate FEMA as the lead agency for an integrated national approach. He can do this by elevating the FEMA Administrator to the President's Cabinet, as provided by law. By making FEMA responsible to streamline the federal response, we can eliminate the parallel response structures at all levels of government – federal, state and local – that are causing such confusion and wasted resources.

Our new national approach should include collective action around all of our existing urgent priorities, including a National Contact Tracing program, a national alert-level system for COVID-19 and even a national vaccination program, all with consistent goals and measurable objectives that would be tracked and visible to all. A national COVID-19 testing program in the spring, for instance, would have allowed us to set standards for a consistent approach and collective action everywhere.

As local emergency managers we are, and will continue to be, the foundation of our disaster system in our communities. But we need answers to our questions, the same questions all of our constituents are asking. The approach we advocate here does not abandon, but reinforces, the "all disasters are local" model that has worked well for fifty years across the vast majority of disasters in this country. But without clear leadership and guidance from Washington, our opportunity to emerge quickly from the current catastrophe could be lost.

About the authors

Francisco Sanchez is the Deputy Emergency Management Coordinator at Harris County (Texas) Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Management.

Kelly McKinney is the AVP of Emergency Management + Enterprise Resilience for NYU Langone Health in New York City.

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