Addressing Key Policy Issues Before the Next Catastrophe

During a major disaster, saving lives and protecting the environment while ensuring public safety are all-encompassing priorities. As a catastrophe unfolds, decision makers at all levels of government are faced with a myriad of questions and/or issues that must be quickly addressed and resolved to return a sense of normalcy to the devastated region. Additional challenges would be presented if the catastrophe was the result of a terrorist attack using a weapon of mass destruction (WMD).

Regional recovery planning over the past several years has surfaced a number of key policy issues that have yet to be resolved. Although not a comprehensive list, four policy-related issues – economic redevelopment, waste management, fatality management, and prioritization of cleanup – are key concerns that must be addressed prior to an event to provide clarity and information to federal officials, state, local, and tribal jurisdictions, the private sector, and nongovernmental organizations to assist in their catastrophic planning and recovery efforts.

Economic Redevelopment

Restarting the economic engine of a community that has been devastated by a catastrophic event is the key to recovery. In its most basic terms, “no jobs” equates to “no recovery.” For a WMD terrorist event, recovery is further complicated by lack of a well-defined financial safety net for local governments, businesses, and residences. The Stafford Act for Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance (originally signed into law in 1988), insurance, and a range of other financial mechanisms are in place to help communities, businesses, and homeowners rebuild from a natural disaster, but these mechanisms do not apply in the case of terrorist-related events.

If a terrorist attack with a WMD were to happen today, nongovernmental and faith-based organizations would collect and distribute financial and other resources to support residents, but local governments and businesses would be largely without access to funds to rebuild and kick-start businesses. Although it is reasonable to assume that government would step forward in the face of a WMD attack to support recovery, the absence of a clearly articulated policy for financial assistance impedes recovery planning and slows down recovery.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency should take the lead by: (a) discussing potential remedies with state and local emergency managers, critical infrastructure owners, and a range of business leaders recommending amendments to the Stafford Act; or (b) developing other mechanisms to provide the requested financial resources to retain as many local residents and businesses as possible and accelerate business restart.

Waste Management

Within waste management are also a variety of policy-related issues to address. For example, there is general agreement that waste management or debris management plans must be developed to address collection, treatment, shipment, and disposal of waste contaminated with Bacillus anthracis (anthrax) to avoid delays in cleanup in the event of a wide-area bio-terrorist attack. Waste management is a highly regulated industry yet questions remain regarding the regulatory classification of waste contaminated with Bacillus anthracis spores. In order to provide clarity, Environmental Protection Agency needs to resolve the waste classification questions to allow appropriate waste/debris management plans to be developed that are compliant with regulations at all levels of government.

Fatality Management

For many municipalities, any large-scale WMD incident resulting in hundreds or even thousands of mass casualties will overwhelm the system. For some, a disaster involving even 30 casualties could overwhelm the fatality management system. Although many look to the military to provide support, there are limits on the extent the military could provide core fatality management functions.

Given the limits of national capacity, a clear strategy involving local, state, federal, and military officials, coroners, and medical examiners should be developed that articulates how managing the casualties will be addressed. This strategy would also assist local and state planners in their catastrophic planning activities. The capacity built at major metropolitan areas under FEMA’s Regional Catastrophic Preparedness Grant Program have made great strides in regional collaboration and can be a source to further address this issue.

Prioritization of Cleanup

Multi-agency coordination allows multiple jurisdictions to coordinate following a catastrophic event across a broad range of functional areas – fire, law enforcement, public works, public health, etc. Although some municipalities have developed this mechanism to ensure functional areas are effectively integrated through a collaborative approach, few have been tested. Many jurisdictions include privately owned infrastructure that is critical to the recovery of a region, yet many of these private sector owners are not clearly identified as being part of the effort. During a large WMD event, it can be assumed that there will be multiple jurisdictions vying for limited resources. However, the following questions still remain:

  • Who sets priorities for cleanup and restoration for a region, and what are the decision criteria to set priorities?
  • What occurs and what is the process for resolving issues when state and federal cleanup priorities differ from local and private sector priorities?

Responders and emergency managers should not meet each other for the first time at the scene of a disaster. Likewise, collaboration is needed well in advance of a disaster for addressing and resolving critical policy issues. Unnecessary delays equate to adverse impacts on public health, the economy, and the environment.

Significant contributions to this article were made by Steven Stein of the PNNL’s Northwest Regional Technology Center for Homeland Security.

Steven Stein is the Director of PNNL’s Northwest Regional Technology Center for Homeland Security, where he works with the State and Local Emergency Management, Public Safety, and U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Operational Field Organizations. The overriding objective of the Center is to enhance the partnership between the federal, state, and local organizations in the region and DHS to better articulate and prioritize technology needs and to accelerate deployment of new and emerging technology solutions regionally and nationally.

Ann Lesperance

Ann Lesperance is the director of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s Northwest Regional Technology Center for Homeland Security (NWRTC). She is on a joint appointment to Northeastern University-Seattle where she leads efforts to build the master’s program in Security and Resilience Studies and Urban Informatics. In this role, she was awarded a Faculty Affiliate appointment with Northeastern’s Global Resilience Institute. Additionally, she was invited to join the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine Committee on Applied Research Topics for Hazard Mitigation and Resilience. The committee identifies applied research topics, information, and expertise to inform the science of natural hazard mitigation and resilience and enables applications of science, data, and technology. In all her roles, her primary focus is developing partnerships and programs to accelerate the demonstration and deployment of new homeland security technologies. To accomplish this, she works with state and local emergency responders and public safety officials to understand and prioritize their operational needs and requirements. She builds regional coalitions of emergency management professionals to partner with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science & Technology Directorate, the Department of Defense, and other federal agencies and manages program implementation in the field. She is a recognized leader in response, recovery, and resiliency issues and brings this expertise to concurrent projects, assessing the technology landscape, connecting with stakeholders, and envisioning the future for first responders and emergency management.



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