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Urban challenges and opportunities for FEMA during the Trump administration

Urban challenges and opportunities for FEMA during the Trump
Aaron Clark-Ginsberg, Stanford University
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
Ben Wisner, Oberlin College
27 January 2017
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has responsibilities for urban risk
management in cooperation with States and municipalities. This document suggests eight
principles FEMA employs or at least attempts to employ for urban risk management in light of
the possible policy changes during the tenure of the new administration. Some policy decisions
have the potential to affect disaster risk in the United States and have direct and indirect impacts
on FEMA’s operations in urban spaces. For instance, reductions in public entitlement programs
can increase vulnerability and reduce capacities to cope and to recover among the poorest and
most marginalized urban residents. Relaxed environmental regulation can intensify hazards and
cascading hazard impacts. Policies based on denial of climate science will likely accelerate the
impact of climate-related hazards in some highly exposed urban areas within the administration’s
four-year term. Devolving risk management more fully to state level can make it more difficult to
manage trans-boundary risks. Privatizing prevention, response, and recovery can make it more
difficult for the poor to access the services they need. Blocking federal funding to Sanctuary
Cities can reduce their ability to manage emergencies effectively. Xenophobic rhetoric and
aggressive pursuit of an anti-immigrant policy will likely drive undocumented residents
‘underground’ and make them less accessible to care providers in cities and reduce illegals’
participation in emergency preparedness programs.
FEMA needs to structure its approach to urban disaster risk management in a way that protects
established good practices and addresses changing risks. This document presents a vision of
FEMA’s role in urban risk management under the new administration. It first outlines FEMA’s
responsibility for local risk management. It then describes eight principles for good urban risk
management, explaining why those principles are important, how they can be employed, and
giving positive and negative examples to illustrate.
Good urban risk management must be delivered in a way that is
1. Needs based;
2. Mitigation centered;
3. Addresses root causes;
4. Prevents disaster risk creation;
5. Ensures inclusiveness;
6. Works across levels and sectors in a decentralized, comprehensive and coordinated way;
7. Acknowledges capacity, knowledge and skill at all scales, especially the local; and
8. Technically proficient.
There are cases where FEMA is already delivering risk management in cooperation with
municipal and state authorities and civil society organizations in these ways. These are
highlighted. In others, it represents a new direction in which the organization should move,
especially in response to possible high level policy changes under the new administration and the
consequences of these policies, both intended and unintended.
Policymakers, practitioners, and others working on disaster mitigation and response can use these
principles as a guide for focusing and structuring programs to better engage in urban risk
management and to avoid roll-back of positive achievements and need-focused and inclusive
working methods.
FEMAs current responsibilities for urban disaster risk management
FEMA’s vision of urban risk management can be understood through a review of a number of
documents including Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (P.L. 93-
288)1, the federal law that provides FEMAs authority to intervene in emergencies; Publication 12,
FEMA’s capstone doctrine; A Whole Community Approach to Emergency Management3, which
outlines how FEMA should engage with individuals and communities; the Draft Interagency
Concept for Community Resilience Indicators and National-Level Measures4, which provides an
overview of how the organization currently conceptualizes resilience; and Crisis Response and
Disaster Resilience 20305, a document exploring trends in disaster risk management.
FEMA defines its overall mission as “to support our citizens and first responders to ensure that as
a Nation we work together to build, sustain, and improve our capability to prepare for, protect
against, respond to, recover from, and mitigate all hazards”. To do this it works across the disaster
cycle, and has specific Preparedness, Protection, Response, Recovery, and Mitigation mission
areas with associated departments. While some of FEMA’s activities are designed as part of state
and national level risk management, FEMA also has commitments at local level, which is defined
in the Stafford Act (p2) to include municipalities, cities, and towns. For example, FEMA supports
Community Emergency Response Teams, citizen volunteer teams that function as first responders
to major disasters6, provides certain property owners the ability to purchase insurance through the
National Flood Insurance Program7, and through the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program8
provides grants to communities to implement natural hazard mitigation activities. As seen in its
Whole Community Approach to Emergency Management FEMA also understands that individuals
and communities have different risk profiles based on their unique vulnerabilities, capacities, and
exposure to hazards and acknowledges that it needs to adapt its approach in light of these
differences. Faith-based organizations must obviously be an integral part of such a Whole
Community Approach; however, if the new administration fails to build trust among Muslims in
the US and among Christians committed to supporting a Sanctuary Movement, FEMAs efforts
could be weakened.
The eight principles for good local risk management
A large amount of knowledge and experience of disaster risk management has accumulated over
the past 40 years to the point where it is safe to say that today we have a good sense of how to
effectively manage disaster risk9. Indeed, one can extract from this experience eight overarching
good practices that FEMA attempts to various degrees to employ in its risk management activities
in urban areas.
1. Needs based
Resources for disaster risk management must be allocated based on need—specifically the needs
of those most at risk—not on other factors like political or economic expediency or media
salience. As part of this it is important to focus on the hazards that represent the greatest risks,
and deliver aid in ways that addresses those with the greatest needs. Special attention needs to
continue to be focused how race, gender, age and disability intersect with socio-economic class in
determining need.
FEMA must focus on the hazards with the greatest impacts. When FEMA was initially
incorporated into the Department of Homeland Security, it had only minimal financial and
organizational resources to address natural disaster risks. Instead, resources were focused on
addressing terrorism. This lack of resources contributed to FEMA’s poor response to Hurricane
Katrina. 10 In response to this Congress passed the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform
Act in 2006 to restructure FEMA. While FEMA’s ability to manage risk has since improved
the organization was widely commended for its response to hurricane Sandy in 201211 —budgets
are today still focused disproportionately on security.12 Rather than further rebalancing the DHS
budget so that FEMA is better able to work on reduction of risk from ‘normal’ natural hazards, it
is possible that the new administration will skew funding yet further toward issues of
undocumented immigration and security.
FEMA must also operate in ways that recognize that some people have more needs than others
depending on their socio-economic position, access to resources and support – all important
elements defining levels of vulnerability and resilience. At this writing, FEMA requires a Benefit
Cost Analysis (BCA) for its Hazard Mitigation Assistance grants13. BCA is an important tool for
9 See e.g Mileti, D. (1999). Disasters by design: A reassessment of natural hazards in the United States. Joseph Henry
Press.; Wisner, B., Blaikie, P., Cannon, T., Davis, I. (2004). At risk: natural hazards, people's vulnerability and disasters.
2nd ed., Routledge; Weick, K. and Sutcliffe, K. (2007). Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in an Age of
Uncertainty. 2nd ed. Jossey-Bass; Perrow, C. (2011). The Next Catastrophe, Part 2. Princeton; Tierney, K. (2014). The
social roots of risk: Producing disasters, promoting resilience. Stanford University Press.; Wisner, B., Gaillard, JC,
Kelman, I., eds (2012). The Routledge Handbook of Hazards and Disaster Risk Reduction. Routledge. Publishers.
10 The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned
determining intervention cost effectiveness, but does not measure cost effectiveness from the
perspective that the loss of the same assets would have a much larger impact on the poor than the
rich, but instead treats impact the same across populations. Unless the BCA is adjusted for social
need, it is not a needs-based approach. The government of the United Kingdom, on the other
hand, assesses the cost effectiveness of its impacts according to the ‘relative prosperity’ of
individuals, understanding that as income grows, satisfaction from an additional unit of
consumption declines14. Another example is how a social vulnerability index was used in South
Carolina (also in Louisiana, and West Virginia) during floods as an apolitical way to determine
where recovery resources could best be used based on the most vulnerable with the most
Two possible moves by the new administration are likely to affect continued improvement of
FEMA’s need-based approach. First, anti-entitlement, anti-welfare attitudes may stand in the way
of adding social weighting to its BCA approach. Second, in the face of likely budget pressure
produced by a huge reduction in corporate tax rates, the whole of the Hazard Mitigation
Assistance grant program may be cut or shifted as an unfunded mandate to state governments.
The administration is also likely to increase privatization and outsourcing of FEMA services.
Privatization often leaves those with fewer economic and political resources and the confidence
and ability to demand entitlements at a distinct disadvantage.16 Private companies seek to
minimize their costs as part of maximizing their profits, so will develop programs in ways that do
not cover those with the greatest needs. Efforts to increase privatization may result in
correspondingly larger numbers of people excluded and rendered invisible, undercutting needs
based assistance. FEMA and other government agencies have developed skill and commitment to
monitoring the performance of private contractors with vigilance since Hurricane Katrina. There
may be budgetary or political pressure on them to relax their scrutiny as part of the overall
administrations anti-regulatory stance.
Much can be learned from FEMA’s past experience with response and recovery, for example,
following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the repeated flooding (e.g. 1986 & 2017) of the Russian
River in northern California. There are structural barriers for the poorest and most marginal
people to access some kinds of FEMA assistance. To begin with many people do not have flood
insurance.17 People who do not have the means to obtain a professional damage assessment may
not be able to apply for a FEMA buy out. Poorer and more marginalized families find it difficult
to navigate FEMAs complex bureaucracy to receive post-disaster assistance.18
2. Mitigation centered
Benjamin Franklin famously wrote “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. Indeed,
mitigation — what FEMA defines as “sustained action taken to reduce or eliminate long-term risk
15 Emrich, C., Sanderson, J. and Cutter, S. (2016). The social vulnerability index (SoVI®) as a decision support tool in prioritizing
disaster recovery efforts, in S. Flynn, The South Carolina Deluge: Lessons from a Watershed Disaster A Center for Resilience Studies
Assessment, pp. 41-51, Boston, MA: Northeastern University Center for Resilience Studies,
16 Perrow, C. (2015). Cracks in the “Regulatory State”. Social Currents, 2,3: 203-212. Ivory, D., Protess, B., & Bennett, K.
(2016). When You Dial 911 and Wall Street Answers. The New York
18 Browne, K. (2015) Standing in the need: Culture, comfort, and coming home after Katrina. University of Texas Press.
to people and their property from hazards”19 costs substantially less than response 20, and also
saves lives and protects community structures and areas of cultural significance. For these
reasons, it is important to mitigate risks rather than merely to respond. FEMA lists enabling
disaster risk reduction nationally as one of its five strategic priorities of its 2014-2018 Strategic
Plan21. Preparedness and risk reduction measures taken at neighborhood scale such as Citizen
Emergency Response Training builds upon and can reinforce existing social networks. Its
Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration (FIMA) is a critical program designed to ensure
against and mitigate the risks of flooding. By focusing on mitigation, FIMA is estimated to save
the US approximately $1.6 billion annually in flood losses.22 FIMA also targets high-risk areas —
areas that house a disproportionately greater number of poorer people and seeks to maintain
program affordability even while working toward solvency. Cutting back, privatization, or
moving away from a needs-based approach of such a program could have substantial impact on
flood risk.
FEMA currently spends a large amount of its budget on response compared to mitigation.23
Recognizing the important role of mitigation FEMA should continue to work to allocate money
toward mitigation.
3. Addresses root causes
A wide variety of employment, housing, health, environmental, and social processes impact
people’s vulnerability to disaster risk and their capacity to resist stress and to recovery.24 What
they all have in common is the issue of access. Who has access to adequate housing, health care,
opportunities to work and earn and access to social assistance when necessary? Access is
governed to some extent by the market and falls into the domain of the private sector. Some
access is provided publically. The balance between public and private could change with the new
administration. What will become of current programs that provide public services like housing,
health care, and job training if there is significant budget reduction through privatization? How
will changes impact vulnerability of groups of residents to harm triggered by hazard events?
The Oakland, California warehouse fire disaster in December 2016 is a stark example of the link
between housing and disaster. In many cities, young people are unable to find affordable housing
and resort to living in unsafe shared accommodation. Macro-economic and social policies affect
housing access, health care availability and employment. Other federal policies affect climate
change. International scientific consensus is clear that climate change is already intensifying
some hazards.25 FEMA also recognizes that climate change is increasing natural disaster risk, and
is actively working to incorporate climate change adaptation into its programs.26 Even under
22 2014-2018 FEMA Strategic Plan p 27
25 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2012)
administration that denies the science supporting this international consensus, FEMA needs to
continue to assist municipalities to maintain their focus on reducing the risk from climate-related
risks. Decisions that affect urban risk occur both within and outside urban zones. Cities depend
on a steady supply of food, water, and electricity; the resources needed to produce and to deliver
these flows must be protected. Climate-related hazards—an array of sudden, high impact and
slow onset, pervasive natural processes—are bound to be central to the security of the US food27
and clean water supply28.
4. Prevents disaster risk creation
Land use changes including private and public investments in the urban built environment should
be subject to Hazard Impact Analysis just as they usually are vetted in terms of their
environmental impacts and compliance to various municipal and state regulations. FEMA at the
national scale has not yet been mandated to do this, but it could provide expertise to assist
municipalities and states. Large-scale construction, landfill, and other changes in the cityscape are
never risk-neutral. Such changes either reduce risk (while achieving other economic and social
purposes) or create risk for some and opportunities for others (‘winners and losers’). This does
not just apply decisions about management of the built environment; all decisions affect risk,
from policy decisions such as how to structure health services to political and economic decisions
that favor certain groups of people over others. Certain communities in the US have bared the
brunt of the destructive environmental and political practices of others; practices that have been
allowed by relaxed regulations and structural inequalities.29 This has given rise to the concept of
‘environmental justice’; operationalized not merely used rhetorically by the Environmental
Protection Agency in a manner that dovetails with FEMAs Whole Community Approach. Indeed,
going even further, activists and academics have written about environmental racism, the
purposeful location of hazardous land uses and activities in areas where residents are
predominantly low-income minorities. The new administration clearly shows hostility to such
interpretations; however, a rights and justice approach needs to be applied in urban disaster
management work.
5. Inclusive
In 2011, 1.5 million households in the U.S. with three million children lived on less than $2.00
per day per capital cash income. They had fallen completely below any safety net or statistical
poverty scale.30 This sort of extreme poverty can be traced to the mid-1990s welfare reform
changes at the federal scale. What new changes are likely to come under the new administration?
How will it affect the ability of families to protect themselves and their children from impacts of
extreme natural events? FEMAs community based programs such as its Community Emergency
Response Teams assume that people have the time and means to participate in forums,
discussions and neighborhood planning and preparedness exercises. However, extreme poverty
and marginalization put these assumptions in doubt. FEMA and its municipal partners need to
redouble efforts to reach out to poor and marginalized groups of people.
29 Hedges, C. and J. Sacco (2014). Days of destruction, days of revolt, Nation Books.; Lerner, S. (2010). Sacrifice zones: the front
lines of toxic chemical exposure in the United States, MIT Press.
30 Edin, K. and Schefer, E. (2015) $2.00 a Day: Living on almost nothing in America. Boston: Mariner Books;
In addition, if the new administration tries to implement policies that divide urban populations by
race, national origin or religion, one can only expect that community-based participation in
disaster preparedness planning will only become more difficult. Marginalized groups are often
wary to seek assistance from government agencies: during the Northridge earthquake,
undocumented immigrants—who contribute more to taxes than they take in public services31
did not seek support.32 FEMA has worked hard to make its programs accessible to those with
disabilities and those who are not native English speakers, and low-income migrant and seasonal
farmworkers, among others.33 In fact, after the 9-11 disaster, FEMA and New York city and state
authorities allowed the relatives of illegal Guatemalan and Mexican low-wage workers who were
victims in the Twin Towers to access services in a neutral space operated by a Catholic Church
based cultural outreach program called Tepeyac.34 FEMA needs to increase its effort to reach out
to minority populations, immigrants, and refugees in our cities even with the potential of top-
down pressure to ignore or, worse, to facilitate the identification and expulsion of members of
such groups.
6. Works across levels and sectors in a decentralized yet comprehensive and
coordinated way
Disasters risks are complex, transcending single governmental jurisdictions and sectors, meaning
that good risk management is contingent upon working across various levels and in trust-based
partnership with many kinds of stakeholders.35 The public safety mission is undermined by a
narrow bureaucratic focus that includes one hazard (say flooding) but excludes another (for
example, water quality). Waterways can flow through multiple municipalities, requiring
coordinated flood management between cities. FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers, and other
agencies are clear about this. However, pre-existing pollution of water supply can create or
exacerbate health risks in a flood event, and the flooding can add to the municipal burden of
protecting water supply and public health. Fracking has been found to contribute to contaminated
drinking water36, and the Flint water crisis was brought on by lack of maintenance of water
infrastructure. Clearly, there are complex linkages between natural hazards and anthropogenic
hazards. The latter are subject to regulation and action by current government agencies. The
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has Environmental Response Teams to help respond to
release of hazardous substances.37 Will the incoming administration downgrade or even attempt to
eliminate many of EPA’s functions? If so, in the face of reduced regulation, how will FEMA’s
mission be made more difficult?
FEMA works with many stakeholders to manage risk. It actively engages with the private sector
and considers the sector a key player in disaster mitigation, response, and recovery. For instance,
electric utilities played a crucial role in restoring power following hurricane Sandy in 2012;
31 Lipman, F. J. (2006). "Taxing undocumented immigrants: Separate, unequal and without representation." Tax Lawyer, Spring: 06-
32 Bolin, R., & Stanford, L. (2006). The Northridge earthquake: Vulnerability and disaster. Routledge.
33 Stafford act p 49
34 Wisner, B. (2003) Tepeyac: Case study of institutional and social learning under stress. International Journal of Mass Emergencies
and Disasters 21, 3: 57-66,
35Tierney, K. (2012). "Disaster governance: social, political, and economic dimensions." Annual Review of Environment and
Resources 37: 341-363.
FEMA has since redoubled its efforts to work with this critical sector.38 It also works with the
nonprofit sector, and has outreach programs in place to engage with key civil society stakeholders
like the Red Cross, Salvation Army and municipal coalitions of smaller organizations like local
churches. At governmental level, it engages with federal agencies such as the Housing and
Development on joint projects, as well as with state and local municipalities. It works to assist
coordinating the governance of risks that transcend jurisdictions.39
FEMA’s activities, although broad, can be enhanced by continued engagement with stakeholders
on the elimination of disaster risk creation. Presently, FEMA does not work with other
departments to ensure that their policy changes do not create risk. For instance, FEMA has not
weighed in on how changes in wage structures might affect the economic resilience of
communities or on how changing environmental regulations could impact natural hazards. FEMA
needs to engage in these policy decisions to ensure that policy changes ideally reduce disaster
risk, and at a minimum do not create new risk.
7. Acknowledges capacity, knowledge and skill at all scales, especially the
People know the neighborhoods where they live. They are the local experts. FEMA’s community
approach is a good basis upon which to tap this local knowledge in order to develop hazard maps,
lists of vulnerable people such as elderly shut-ins, and to catalog the local resources people have
for self-protection for a period of time such as 72 hours following an earthquake. However, this
sort of dialog between municipal preparedness planners and FEMA with local residents requires
trust. If the new administration is not successful in convincing all urban dwellers that it is a
“government for all Americans” what will happen to such trust? FEMA and other stakeholder
need to explore contingencies to maintain trust locally at the municipal scale even in a national
environment that is xenophobic.
8. Technically proficient
We have knowledge on how to manage disaster risk and build resilience. It is important that we
use that knowledge effectively. FEMA is working to build a cadre of technically proficient
disaster risk professionals at all levels. When Congress overhauled the organization in 2006 in
response to the lessons learned from the failures of hurricane Katrina, it included a requirement
that the agency’s administrator be a professional emergency manager. FEMA also provides
training to empower people to manage risk, offering courses through training institutions such as
the Emergency Management Institute and the TEEX Extension Service out of Texas A&M40. All
of its Community Emergency Response Team volunteers also receive basic emergency
management training, and act as emergency response ambassadors in their neighborhoods. Other
organizations outside FEMA also play a valuable role in building emergency management
knowledge. This includes four-year universities—the Natural Hazards Center at the University of
Colorado41, for example, offers numerous courses on disaster management— and at teaching and
39 FEMA has written about this in a mitigation best practice case study on collaborative community resilience across multiple
community colleges—such as the emergency management certificate offered by Coastline
Community College42. These public and private nonprofit educational institutions provide a
valuable service and should be maintained. One outcome of a large budget deficit produced by
cutting the corporate tax rate is that support for such educational institutions will be reduced.
Worse still, if the parent university declares itself a sanctuary for undocumented students, the new
administration may cut funding. These valuable education programs must be protected.
Technically proficient also means based on the best scientific evidence. We know that climate
change is having widespread impacts on risks, including risks in urban areas43, and FEMA is
working to address risks in a climate sensitive manner. We need to continue to base our approach
to disaster risk management in a way that incorporates climate change, the best governance
principles, and other areas of knowledge.
The new administration could impose many policy changes over the next four years that could
have a profound impact on urban risks and risk management. As the lead agency for preventing,
preparing, and responding to disasters, these changes could have major impacts on FEMA’s
mission. The eight principles presented in this document represent the best practice for urban risk
management. We offer this preliminary discussion of them as encouragement for a deep
discussion among FEMA permanent staff and their counterparts in municipalities, cities and
towns across the country. A good deal can be done to ‘disaster proof’ the progress made by
FEMA and its urban partners over the past decade, to retain or even to revive its best practices,
and to resist the dismissal of science.
43 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2012)
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