Elected officials face all kinds of governance challenges – balancing budgets and trimming or expanding citizen services, to name two of the most obvious ones – but nothing compares to the ordeal of leading a community through a disaster. Despite all of the havoc and pain that disasters wreak, they also create tremendous opportunities for development and growth. Following is a brief report on the challenges and opportunities related to a disaster that occurred in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, in June 2006 when 8-10 inches of rain fell during a period of six days.
Every state has an Emergency Operations Plan (EOP) in place that not only identifies the probable circumstances involved in various emergency situations but also assigns the responsibilities for dealing with such situations. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) also have a framework established for responding to such events. It is essential that, to effectively and efficiently access the disaster assistance needed, a community’s elected officials understand not only the layers of responsibility involved but also the conditions these protocols create.
The first and one of the most important guidelines to understand is that state and federal disaster resources usually are deployed only when the magnitude of an event exceeds local capabilities – and then only at the request of a local government. If local elected officials and their emergency-management staff cannot quantify the damages suffered and/or articulate the community’s needs – using the unique language spoken in the emergency-management arena – a community will suffer.
A Very Hard Lesson to Learn
Susquehanna County learned that lesson the hard way – because state emergency-management officials did not immediately realize the severity of the situation we were trying to report to higher levels of government, it was assumed that we were not as bad off as the counties surrounding us in our part of the state. It cannot be stressed enough how important it is to communicate through proper channels, using correct terminology, to access help.
Personal factors also come into play, of course. Being an elected official requires that decisions be made in the best interests of a community, but not necessarily in the immediate best interests of one’s own neighbors, and friendships may suffer as a result. If a home is damaged, for example, to the point where it must be repaired in compliance with codes and ordinances set forth in accordance with the National Flood Insurance Program – or it must be condemned – turning a blind eye to the situation does no one any favors.
Painful as it is to tell a neighbor that his or her home must either be condemned or elevated above the floodplain, ignoring the severity of damages could jeopardize future disaster assistance for the entire community. For that reason it is imperative to resist the temptation to simply return to pre-flood condition. Disasters create opportunities: (a) to rethink land-use ordinances, building codes, and future economic development plans; and (b) to rebuild in a way that improves and protects the social and economic quality of life of the entire community.
Obviously, the challenges of being a public servant during a disaster are compounded by personal losses that might be suffered. The June 2006 flood damaged my own home, for example – although not as badly as the homes of several neighbors. While I felt that my responsibility to the county outweighed my responsibility to my own home and family, and conducted myself accordingly, my husband and sons were cleaning our home and looking for property that floated away. It was emotionally exhausting juggling public responsibilities and the instinct to look after my own family.
One might think that decisions made and/or actions taken during a disaster are executed swiftly, but that would be wrong. Over and over, residents expressed a desire to jump into creek beds with backhoes to clear debris or dredge channels, all in violation of the environmental laws and regulations of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Although it boggles the minds of flood victims (and of elected officials as well), the fact that a disaster has occurred does not mean that permits or processes are waived or accelerated.
Conditional Reimbursement, Unconditional Frustration
In 2000, Congress passed a law requiring all of the nation’s various governmental jurisdictions to develop hazard-mitigation plans as a condition of receiving certain disaster-recovery funds. Susquehanna County had no such plan in place at the time of the flood, and therefore had to act very fast to redress this oversight – or risk losing recovery funds for those residents left homeless by the flood. There was no getting around this requirement, and residents were justifiably angry.
Fortunately, as it turned out, FEMA’s programs provide for an administrative allowance that may be used to hire experts to support recovery projects. FEMA also offers other grant programs that can be used to fund the development of mitigation plans. Recognizing the need for an expert fluent in FEMA’s programs, Susquehanna County hired a disaster-recovery specialist, a former FEMA employee, to steer the county through what to most local officials was unfamiliar terrain. The disaster-recovery specialist, drawing fees mostly from administrative allowances, has cost the county very little out of pocket – and, in addition to preparing the county’s all-hazards mitigation plan, has secured more than $2 million in grants and appeals for the county.
The lesson is obvious: When in doubt, find an expert to navigate the disaster-recovery process.
As the county’s homeowners and businesses continue to put themselves and their properties back together, it is impossible not to think about the next flood. Susquehanna County has endured four floods since 2004, and a total of 22 major floods over the past forty years. The next flood, therefore, is not a matter of “if,” but “when.” Having learned our lessons from the June 2006 flood, and having a hazard-mitigation plan now in place, the county will be much better prepared for the next disaster, whenever it may strike.