How FEMA can avoid disaster if the Trump administration changes its policies

18 May 2017

Aaron Clark-Ginsberg, Postdoctoral Researcher at Stanford University, Stanford University

Recently, Brock Long was nominated to take the helm as the new director of the United States' Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The authors share their insights and recommendations for FEMA’s new leadership.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has made important progress in becoming a world-class disaster management agency over the past 20 years. Its progress, however, may be threatened by some of the policies President Trump has spoken of pursuing. Reducing entitlement programs can increase citizens’ vulnerability to a disaster; relaxing environmental regulations can intensify the effects of natural hazards; privatizing emergency management can make it harder for the poor to access services; and ignoring climate change can reduce the effectiveness of mitigation investments.

Here are eight areas in which FEMA must avoid significant changes in order to remain effective:

1. Focus on hazards with the greatest impacts— not the ones that scare us the most. When FEMA was incorporated into the Department of Homeland Security, DHS was focused on addressing terrorism and received minimal resources to address natural hazards. This contributed to FEMA’s poor response to Hurricane Katrina. While FEMA’s ability to manage risk has since improved (e.g. its response to Hurricane Sandy in 2012), DHS budgets remain heavily focused on security. But terrorism poses far smaller risks compared to the greater and growing risks posed by natural disasters. A better investment of taxpayer money would rebalance resources to reducing the risk of “normal” natural hazards.

2. Realize that disaster mitigation is more effective than response. FEMA’s Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration mitigation activities save approximately $1.6 billion annually in flood losses, and target high-risk areas that house a disproportionately greater number of poorer people. Cutting back, privatizing, or moving away from a needs-based mitigation approach could substantially increase risk.

3. Address the socio-political causes of disaster risk. Many employment, housing, health, environmental, and social processes shape disaster vulnerability. Unequal access to basic goods and services is a root cause of vulnerability and risk. For instance, the disastrous Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland, California, was partly the result of young people living in unsafe accommodation because they could not afford basic housing. Reducing access to affordable housing could drastically increase vulnerability to disaster.

4. Avoid creating new risks. Large-scale construction, economic, and environmental changes are never risk-neutral, and certain communities in the U.S. have borne the brunt of the practices of others. Policy changes related to land use should be assessed for their effect on risk, just as they’re assessed based on their environmental impacts. While FEMA does not have a mandate to perform such assessments, it should provide expertise to assist municipalities and states in this area.

5. Recognize hardships and work to gain the trust of populations at risk. FEMA organizes community-based programs and works to make them accessible to those with disabilities and those who are not native English speakers. However, these programs assume that people have the time and means to participate in planning and preparedness exercises. In 2011, 1.5 million households in the U.S. lived on less than $2 per day, per capita on cash income. FEMA’s effectiveness also requires the trust of local people. If the new administration implements policies that further divide populations by race, national origin, or religion, establishing trust will become more difficult. FEMA needs to redouble efforts to reach out to poor and marginalized groups of people, including minority populations, documented or undocumented immigrants, and refugees.

6. Recognize that disaster management must be decentralized, but also comprehensive and coordinated. Disaster risks transcend governmental jurisdictions and sectors, and require working across levels and in trust-based partnerships. A narrow focus that includes one hazard at a time, or that doesn’t coordinate between jurisdictions, undermines this public safety mission. Different agencies and different municipalities need to work together. If one agency is weakened or downgraded, risks can emerge that can affect the operations of another agency. FEMA needs to support these agencies to manage risk.

7. Recognize that people know the neighborhoods where they live. They are the local experts. FEMA’s community approach points in the right direction. However, the trust needed to empower local communities and speed their recovery can only be earned through awareness and integration of local needs. If the new administration is not successful in convincing people that it is a “government for all Americans,” the challenges of generating trust will certainly increase. FEMA and other stakeholders need to explore contingencies to build trust irrespective of the national environment.

8. Keep in place its cadre of technically proficient disaster risk professionals at all levels. When Congress overhauled FEMA in 2006, it included a requirement that the agency’s administrator be a professional emergency manager. Funding research and training institutions is also critical, as they help build the emergency analysts and managers of the future. This technical proficiency includes addressing climate change and other areas of scientific knowledge and expertise.

Certain policy changes over the next four years could have a profound effect on risks and disasters — but much can be done to secure the progress made by FEMA and its state and local partners.


This post was co-authored with Benigno Aguirre, University of Delaware; Tom Birkland, North Carolina State University; Katherine E. Browne, Colorado State University; Susan L. Cutter, University of South Carolina; Anthony Oliver-Smith, University of Florida; Charles Perrow, Yale University; and Ben Wisner, Oberlin College. It was first published on the blog of Stanford University's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Affairs. You can view the original version here, and an article-length version here.

Aaron Clark-Ginsberg, PhD, is a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University. Aaron’s research focuses on the governance dimensions of disaster risk reduction and resilience. From 2012 to 2014 he worked as Concern Worldwide’s Disaster Risk Reduction Documentation Officer, where he traveled to 10 countries to review and document Concern's DRR programmes. He is currently examining the policy options for improving critical infrastructure resilience in the United States.

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