Home Crisis Management Emergency and Disaster Response: Is the U.S. Better at It Now?

Emergency and Disaster Response: Is the U.S. Better at It Now?


By Richard Pera, Dean of the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University

If you ask someone from Louisiana to characterize the federal government’s response to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, you would likely receive a viscerally negative reaction. Indeed, commenting on the post-Katrina response from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a spokesperson for Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco uttered these now famous and often-quoted words in a New York Times article: “We wanted soldiers, helicopters, food, and water… They wanted to negotiate an organizational chart.”

Fast forward seven years for a very different assessment of the federal government’s response—this time to Superstorm Sandy, which devastated the New Jersey coast. During an interview on NBC’s “Today” show, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie praised the federal response: “The President has been outstanding and so have the folks at FEMA.”

This was a remarkable turnaround.

During these intervening seven years, much work was done to implement lessons learned, including the 2006 Post-Katrina Emergency Reform Act , which “significantly reorganized FEMA [and] provided it substantial new authority to remedy gaps that became apparent in response to…Katrina.” Since 2009, under the leadership of Secretary Janet Napolitano, significant strides were made to improve management of emergencies and disasters, including promulgation of Presidential Policy Directive 13 (PPD-13), which details “Emergency Services” as one of 16 “Critical Infrastructure Sectors.”

So, is the U.S. really better at responding to emergencies and disasters?

I recently posed this question to Mr. William Tarry, former Acting Under Secretary of Homeland Security for Intelligence and Analysis and Chief Intelligence Officer for the Department of Homeland Security. Rather than “slam-dunking” the dichotomy between Katrina and Sandy, Tarry expressed a fair and balanced view: “Improving… We have seen tremendous progress.”

He went on to say that Napolitano sought to bring all capabilities to bear in the aftermath of emergencies like Superstorm Sandy:

“While it is managed by FEMA, it is really a department-wide function.” According to Tarry, Napolitano created a “reserve corps” of volunteers across DHS which could be surged rapidly during any emergency; Superstorm Sandy was the first time this capability was utilized.

Tarry also highlighted “non-traditional” support to emergency response, including use of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms to support operational management of the environment: “Within the Office of Intelligence and Analysis, we worked very closely with FEMA to bring our ISR capabilities and how we manage ISR for border security into that environment.”

When asked if FEMA operated more effectively inside DHS than as an independent agency, Tarry remarked:

“I can’t imagine FEMA being any place else…I think that they belong there. I think they have integrated well. [FEMA head] Craig Fugate has done an absolutely marvelous job whether it was the Boston Marathon event, Superstorm Sandy, or any other disaster…”

Tarry concluded by saying that, while there is more work to be done, DHS has made “light years of progress over where we were 10 years ago…The thing that brings it all together is providing security to our nation regardless of what event caused the concern at the time.”

Please view the four minute interview segment below:

Dick PeraAbout the Author: Richard Pera has more than 30 years of Navy and intelligence community experience, having most recently served as director of the Defense Intelligence Resource Management Office of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in Washington, DC. Prior to joining DIA, Pera served in a variety of senior assignments, including director of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance on the Navy Staff and director of global information acquisition at the Office of Naval Intelligence.


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  1. Dean Pera,

    Your article brought back some memories for me. While I wasn’t directly affected by Katrina my family was in the cross hairs of Sandy. I was able to join them in Manasquan, NJ within a few days after the storm made landfall in order to assist them in cleaning up and dealing with the aftermath. I can honestly say that the coordination regarding the first few days of immediate cleanup was extraordinary. I witnessed high school students on the back of deuce and halfs driving down the streets handing our water, MRE’s, blankets, cleaning supplies, etc. The one thing that I noticed was that the youth volunteers of Manasquan, NJ played an integral role in post relief efforts. I also witnessed neighbors opening their houses to other neighbors who were more severely affected by storm damage. From my observation this was an honest case of neighbors helping out their neighbors. This experience only enhanced my belief that post catastrophic outcomes are primarily correlated to the efforts of the local populace. The local citizen’s commitment to preparation, heeding guidance and warnings, and participating in the community oriented clean up effort certainly was an attributing factor to mitigating any further problems. These are just my opinions based on my experience from being on the ground.

    Thank you for sharing your insight,
    Justin Kuhns

  2. Justin, thank you for your thoughtful comments and recounting your experience after Super Storm Sandy. “Local citizens commitment” and “neighbors helping neighbors” truly are powerful and important ways to mitigate disasters. Dick Pera


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