Look, I don’t think anyone was expecting Trump’s cabinet appointees to be a diverse group of people who care about science. So, the past few days haven’t been a surprise.
From an emergency management perspective, I have been watching for the nomination for three main agencies – The Department of Homeland Security (under which is FEMA), the EPA (for obvious climate change related reasons), and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (because of recovery programs). Other departments are important for emergency management but I would argue these are The Big Three.
Kay Goss wrote a great piece on the importance of Presidential leadership for emergency management. Much of what she said is applicable to the importance of leadership in each of the departments that yield influence over key facets of emergency management – personal experience with disasters, a basic knowledge of emergency management, hiring qualified people, and a clear vision for their role in the broader emergency management system. From what I’ve been able to find none of the three have any background in/ experience with/ knowledge of emergency management.
There are three general, overarching components that I look to when I casually assess the “emergency management system”: 1) The actual hazard risk for the country, 2) how our hazard risk interacts with the built environment (you can think of this as resilience), 3) our capacity to recover from that disaster*.
Each of these dimensions fluctuates over time. Sometimes one is more or less than the others. The past eight years we’ve been seeing an increase in hazard risk (primarily because of climate change) but resilience and our capacity to recover has overall been pretty steady. (Take this at face value… it’s really complicated and this is a blogpost and I really need to be working on my dissertation so just trust me, okay guys?) So, not a great situation, but we’ve been holding everything together.
What concerns me is that over the next 4 years I would expect our hazard risk to continue to increase while our resilience and capacity to recover will decrease. That is a very bad combination. Our risk increases and our ability to deal with it decreases. Again, this is very bad.
Our hazard risk will continue to increase. Any and all hope to stop (let alone reverse) climate change seemed to be nail shut at the appointment of Scott Pruitt, a person who not only doesn’t want to take any actions to slow climate change, but actually wants to do things that will increase the onset of climate change.
There are all kinds of examples to give here but for the sake of time let’s focus on one – infrastructure. Our infrastructure is failing all around us. For two decades America’s infrastructure has received a D rating. Infrastructure is of concern for emergency management for several reasons, 1) Bad infrastructure can cause disasters (think Minnesota bridge collapse), 2) Bad infrastructure can interact with the natural environment and cause disaster (think levees failing during Hurricane Katrina), 3) Bad infrastructure is more likely to not be able to withstand natural hazards (think New York City subway system post-Sandy) which means that first responders won’t be able to use that infrastructure to get to people who need help, 4) When infrastructure doesn’t withstand disasters it means that a LOT of money and a LOT of time and resources needs to go into fixing it, 5) While the community is waiting for the money and construction to end they are often brought to a standstill – businesses and individuals rely on public infrastructure and without it have a difficult, if not impossible, time undergoing recovery. You might be thinking… well great! Trump has committed to big infrastructure projects within his first 100 days. No – the crux of his plan is to incentivize private companies to invest in big infrastructure projects (including an energy pipeline expansion which every single emergency manager that has any understanding of risk should oppose). There are a lot of critiques to be made here but for our purposes, Ronald Klain writes, “desperately needed infrastructure projects that are not attractive to private investors — municipal water-system overhauls, repairs of existing roads, replacement of bridges that do not charge tolls — get no help”. It is also unlikely that any of these infrastructure projects will take into account any mitigation efforts or consider the impact of climate change. In fact, some of these projects could make things worse than if they just left everything how it is now.
I’ve already written about some of the issues specific to the ability of individuals and households to recover. That is all still true. As we experience more disasters our capacity to help communities recover seems to decrease. There aren’t enough organizations, volunteers, and funding to help everyone.
Look, there are still a lot of unknowns here. We don’t know what Ben Carson thinks about funding recovery housing programs or what those programs might look like. We don’t know much about what John Kelly thinks about anything besides immigration and homeland security (i.e., what he views the role of FEMA to be). You know, Al Gore is a pretty persuasive guy, maybe he’ll be able to talk some sense into Trump. The problem is that by the time we know these things it will be too late to stop them. We need to impress upon Carson that recovery programs are fundamental for communities that undergo recovery. We need to ensure that Kelly understands FEMA can’t have any budget cuts, that they need to increase mitigation and preparedness programs, and that they need his full support during response. And, we need to somehow find a way to block everything Pruitt tries to undo. Now, it’s not quite clear to me yet how any of that is going to happen… I thought I’d just put it out into the universe (i.e., the internet) in case anyone had some brilliant ideas.
For now, as far as I can tell, the only good news is that at least Ben Carson’s spiritual advisor was a carpenter.
*I know some of you will argue that resilience encompasses two and three. I’ve separated them out for the purpose of explaining to a general audience. Some of you will also argue about what resilience even means and I agree.