EIIP Virtual Forum Presentation — April 09, 2008

Emergency Management
The American Experience, 1900 – 2005

Claire B. Rubin
President, Claire B. Rubin & Associates

Amy Sebring
EIIP Moderator

The following version of the transcript has been edited for easier reading and comprehension. A raw, unedited transcript is available from our archives. See our home page at http://www.emforum.org

[Welcome / Introduction]

Amy Sebring: Good morning/afternoon everyone. On behalf of Avagene and myself, welcome to the Virtual Forum! We are glad you could join us today.

Today's topic is "Emergency Management: The American Experience, 1900 - 2005," a new book recently published by the Public Entity Risk Institute (PERI). An accompanying publication, the Century Timeline, is also available.

Now, it is my pleasure to introduce today's guest, the editor of the new book. Ms Claire B. Rubin, M.A. is a social scientist with 30 years of experience as a researcher, practitioner, and academic in the fields of emergency management and homeland security.

She is the President of Claire B. Rubin & Associates (http://www.clairerubin.com), a small business specializing in disaster research and consulting located in Arlington, VA. Ms Rubin also is a Visiting Research Scholar at the George Washington University, Institute for Crisis, Disaster, and Risk Management, in Washington, D.C.

She is a co-founder and currently the Managing Editor of the Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (JHSEM) (http://www.bepress.com/jhsem), which is in its fifth year of publication.

Claire is no stranger to the Forum, and we are delighted to have her with us again. Please note, if you have not done so already, you may want to listen to the podcast telephone interview with Claire that is linked from our home page for some additional background.

Welcome back Claire and thank you for being with us today. I now turn the floor over to you to start us off please.


Claire Rubin: Hello everyone. I would like to talk briefly about the recent book, Emergency Management; The American Experience, 1900-2005, for which I served as editor. It was sponsored and published by the Public Entity Risk Institute. See: http://www.riskinstitute.org

Since the book research is completed and available in a low-cost paperback, I will not try to summarize it here. Instead I will point out some patterns and trends and offer some additional observations about the findings. The book provides descriptions of an independent, non-political analysis of the outcomes of almost 20 major disaster events in the last 105 years. I am pleased that it won the 2008 Book Award from a section of the American Society of Public Administration.

After the book was completed, I produced a graphic to highlight some of the basic findings, patterns, and trends I discerned. The Century Time Line chart provides a graphic summary of the 105 years covered in the book. See: http://www.disaster-timeline.com/docs/CTL-Secure.pdf

The final segment of this talk will be to discuss some of the ramifications of this body of work for future disaster planning.

Background. I have about 30 years of experience in the field of emergency management, and in recent years, I have focused on documenting - graphically and in text - the history of emergency management in the U.S. The Disaster and Terrorism Time Line charts cover just the most recent decades of disaster history. You can browse the charts at: http://www.disaster-timeline.com

The book and the century chart are built on the same analytical model used for the earlier time line charts. The book uses historic examples of major disasters (of all types) to analyze the response and recovery processes, systems, and organizations at the national level. The major trends and pattern changes are illustrated in the Century chart, most notably the big shift in approaches to Emergency Management by the federal government in the first and second halves of the 20th Century.

Although knowing history is often helpful, sometimes it gets in the way of more imaginative thinking about new threats and needed new solutions. Both Emergency Management and Homeland Security are relatively new fields, and some basic facts and figures about past events may clear up some misconceptions and factual errors. Hopefully, the book will prove useful as a basic reference.

The book takes a chronological approach, describing a selected set of major and catastrophic disaster events that we call "focusing events."

  • It focuses on response and recovery experiences and organizations.
  • It highlights the gradual involvement of the public sector in EM.
  • It uses case studies to illustrate changes in public policy and public administration.

The 24 focusing disaster events we studied included three categories: Natural Disasters, Man-Made/Accidental Disasters, Man-Made/Deliberate (terrorism and sabotage).

Three underlying research questions were:

(1) Why did the federal government get involved in emergency management?

(2) Why and how has that role changed? And

(3) What role should the federal government have in major and catastrophic disasters in the U.S?

During 19th and Early 20th centuries, natural disasters were viewed as "acts of God." Response and recovery was done by the victims, helped by family, community, church, and sometimes, by local civic organizations. Government was only marginally involved. There was no expectation of federal disaster assistance to individuals and families, or for public infrastructure. Disasters were dealt with locally, mostly. But, several large-scale events raised awareness of extensive, long-lasting devastation to victims and communities.

From 1900-1950, some major disasters affected large areas and sizeable urban populations, e.g. Galveston and San Francisco. In the first half of 1900s, limited attention was given to developing local, "formalized" government response systems. The federal government was only marginally involved, but it chartered the American National Red Cross (1905) to provide humanitarian assistance. (This was the one national organization that has been in place for more than 100 years.)

From 1950-2000, there was a sharp growth in scientific knowledge (technical, social, behavioral sciences). Federal government became more involved in response and recovery from major disasters. State/local governments and citizens rapidly increased their expectations of the federal role. EM began to be regarded as the "quintessential" public service at all levels of government by citizens.

So far in the 21st Century, government at all levels is heavily involved in all four phases of EM. The threshold for federal involvement is lowered for most types of major threats and hazards. In recent decades there has been increasing emphasis on mitigation and prevention, with less attention paid to the recovery phase.

2008:Some Observations and Reflections- 3 current concerns.

Some general observations from reviewing a century of history are: first, that the pattern of reactive responses -- only getting galvanized for action after a major to catastrophic event -- has shown that existing systems and programs are inadequate. More anticipatory thinking and strategic planning are needed.

The second is how much we used to know and do, but have lost. Over the years I have seen many quite workable and useful projects that were killed for no good, observable reasons, or simply bypassed or forgotten. Lack of evaluations, assessments, and long-term planning result in gaps and losses of knowledge and expertise.

Now to three concerns:

Point #1: The migration of responsibility for EM during the 20th century resulted in outcomes both intended and unintended:

Lead responsibility for response actions has gone from ad hoc, i.e., personal and local (community or neighborhood organizations) to more formal organizations and systems, (largely governmental).

The trend has been from highly personalized response to more powerful and financially capable organizations/agencies with more sustained attention to disasters, which also are more abstract and remote.

In old days, FEMA and Red Cross personnel worked one-on-one with victims who lost their homes. Today, those victims have to call an 800 number and speak with a remotely-located person to file a claim.

Parallel to the trend from highly personalized toward more remote and abstract responses, is a trend from compassionate assistance by givers, to a sense of entitlement on the part of victims, and recently extended to the abuse of federal disaster payments. Most recently, individuals, contractors, and localities looted huge amounts of federal funds in the post-Katrina environment (according to a GAO report). The continuum from gratitude to larceny is quite alarming.

POINT #2: Achieving a balance of ad hoc and prescribed actions:

Pre 1950, ad hoc efforts to respond to disasters before the federal government got involved had serious flaws - e.g., response and recovery assistance were inefficient, uneven, inequitable. But the ad hoc responses sometimes had the advantages of spontaneity, flexibility, imagination, and innovation.

Post 1950 the pressure grew for more federal involvement, more permanent organizations/ agencies, and more and more federal money and assistance. Yet we have lost some of the self-sufficiency and resilience that Americans displayed in the first half of the 20th century.

All disasters are local (at least to start with), but local resources are usually not adequate for all disasters. Therefore, intergovernmental and inter-organizational relationships are essential to preparedness, response and recovery, and the nature, quality, and quantity of those interactions are essential to effective EM. [Note that the importance of effective intergovernmental relations is a fact I noted in a monograph on recovery published in 1985; some lessons just do not take!]

How to strike a balance among the key domains participating in disaster response and recovery - public (civil), private, non-profit, military? In the future, individuals, businesses, and communities need to take back more of the responsibility for themselves. More self-reliance by every individual and institution would be desirable.

POINT #3: Capturing and sharing experiential knowledge; applying that knowledge over time:

FEMA and other mission agencies need to do more to capture, organize, and share emergency management knowledge. Specifically, it needs to do more to identify and acknowledge existing programs, to evaluate them, and determine which are effective (and cost effective) and which are not. Until that is done, the agency is not adequately capturing, applying, or perpetuating hard-earned knowledge and experience. A companion step would be to create the attitude and atmosphere needed for FEMA to be a learning organization.

An essential ingredient for successful emergency management action is good information. Although we face more threats, hazards, and risks these days, we also have better scientific knowledge, more technological know how, and more trained personnel. But we could do better, far better, re efficient and effective collaborations, information flow, and utilization.

"...knowledge is not a reflection of the world that can be refined and bottled. In fact, we're learning what the theorists have been saying for a generation: Knowledge is a negotiation, an agreement, something that is between us. Something that is never done, something that reflects our interests and starting point as much as it reflects the way the world is." [Source: David Weinberger in Everything is Miscellaneous.]

Facts, Information, and Internet-based Resources do not equal knowledge gained or internalized sufficiently to be actionable.

Conclusion: We need to work to restore the effectiveness of the emergency management system in the U.S. in order to regain the trust of citizens in government and other organizations that was lost in 2005 due to the major failures of the EM systems in all sectors. In particular we need to do better in capturing and sharing the lessons learned, best practices, and wisdom gained and used in the past. Failure to do so has extremely serious results, as we have witnessed in the past few years.

Amy Sebring: Thanks very much Claire. Now, to proceed to your questions or comments.

[Audience Questions & Answers]

Isabel McCurdy: Claire, why was man-made terminology used versus Human caused?

Claire Rubin: No special reason.

Colette Whelan: It seems we definitely need a balance between the adhoc and the governmental response. I agree with you that we have created a very paternalistic attitude among our citizens; there is a greater sense of entitlement. As a result, people working in the preparedness realm are tasked with getting individuals and businesses to look at being more self sufficient and teaching them that there will not be a knight in shining armor, at least not for a while, and that there is an onus on locals to respond just like before. Does your book address this issue?

Claire Rubin: The book addresses it only indirectly, mostly in the last chapter. We made it a point to cover the history and not to add editorial comments.

Steve McGee: Early 1900's = few formal systems. Now = almost too many systems to keep track of; duplication in the extreme. What can be done about this?

Claire Rubin: I agree that we need to get back to more simple, more common sense, and more spontaneous ways of doing things. We have overly complicated most everything!

Burt Wallrich: Do you think that people's anger about the lack of effective and compassionate governmental response after Katrina might have contributed to the unlawful actions of some residents?

Claire Rubin: Yes, I do. They certainly had reason to be disappointed in their government and in the Red Cross. But if you do not pay attention to what local government is doing and spending, and do not volunteer at the Red Cross, then you reap what you sow.

Abigail Borron: As a social scientist, do you feel priority attention needs to be given to underserved/marginalized audiences, especially as we attempt to address the shortcomings of disaster management and education?

Claire Rubin: I tend to think about the governmental sector rather than impacted groups. The EM capabilities and preparedness thinking needs to go on at every level.

Avagene Moore: Claire, the first two chapters that cover more of the early history prior to so much federal involvement hit me very hard. I was shaken by the realization that we have not overcome the basics of communication, coordination and collaboration. From your perspective as a researcher with years in EM, do you have any suggestions for remedying these basic issues?

Claire Rubin: I have to admit that after reviewing more than one century of disaster experience, one does tend to get discouraged if not depressed. We have in fact made progress, and it is important not to overlook the achievements, but more needs to be done.

Ray Pena: Thank you Ms. Rubin. What do you mean by "Emergency Management came to be regarded as the 'quintessential' public service at all levels of government by the American people."?

Claire Rubin: Bill Waugh, disaster researcher who is at GA State, coined that term. It essentially means that public officials and citizens think of EM as an essential government service. These days no one can imagine the government, including the federal government, not being involved. But in fact the feds has only a marginal, ad hoc, and after the fact involvement until after 195o.

Dag von Lubitz: Succinct, to the point, and as the book - jolly good! Re. the book: for all who are here today, reading it, if you have not done so yet, is an absolute must. Not only does the book address a massive gap in professional literature (worldwide, actually) but also it is a splendid read, and intellectual pleasure. For those who teach: the book provides essential course material. For those in Federal/State/Local government: get the procurement officer to order a vast number of copies, than make an executive order that ALL personnel are to read it within a week!

Claire Rubin: Thanks, Dag.

Kailash Gupta: Why do you still call Natural disasters, when nature does not have any role in causing disasters, it only creates hazards. It is the human beings who create vulnerability. Aren't all disasters are human made?

Claire Rubin: I agree with you, but we still used the familiar terminology in discussing the historic events.

Dave Nichols: Claire, do you think that FEMA has begun to take on too much responsibility in the new NRF?

Claire Rubin: Hard to say what the new NRF will mean until a few real time disasters test it out. But, in the Century Time Line chart we show all of the sectors of society that have had a role in EM: local public and private, state, military, federal and it is clear that all sectors need to get more involved and reverse the devolution to the Federal government having the lion's share of responsibility.

Amy Sebring: Claire, while waiting for some additional comments or questions you mentioned that one of the things needed is longer term planning. As far as I can tell, we have YET to have a long term National Preparedness Goal articulated by anyone despite Executive Orders. Do you think we need this and it might help?

Claire Rubin: I agree, and I worry about that lack of foresight. Last week I attended a Round Table at the National Academy of Sciences where the topic was climate change. Sorry to say, mostly researchers and mid-level federal officials were in attendance. I wish I had confidence that some long-term strategic thinking were going on at the federal level re sea level rise, climate change, and more intense hurricanes.

Rex Shelburne: How can we shift the spotlight of media attention from what FEMA and the federal government is doing to what the state and local governments should be doing?

Claire Rubin: Good question and I am not sure what can be done immediately. I think a change of mindset and attitude is needed. All sectors, public, private, and non-profit would have to arrive at a consensus. For one sector to drag its heels or refuse to enhance its role would be tragic.

Paula Gordon: Claire, thanks so much for your monumental contribution to the field. My comment has to do with catastrophes and disasters that are unprecedented. I think that many labor under the false assumption that such disasters can in effect be fully anticipated and totally managed no matter what their size or character. I try to address the implications of this fallacy in my typology of emergencies at GordonHomeland.com. My contention is that most planning does not realistically consider what happens when all of the major elements of the critical infrastructure are in a state of failure. Would you agree?

Claire Rubin: Failure of imagination regarding some of the high consequence events is all too real. I believe books like Mission Impossible and others cover the limitations of current thinking fairly well. [Mission Improbable: Using Fantasy Documents to Tame Disaster, by Lee Clarke. See: http://www.press.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/hfs.cgi/00/13745]

Dag von Lubitz: Long term planning may now be affected by the government change, and changes to patterns of thinking. Your ideas, Claire?

Claire Rubin: If you mean the new administration that will take over in 2009 could mark a promising change, I hope so.

Steve McGee: Speaking of Executive Orders, why have I yet to see network forensics included into disaster management plans like University of Limerick's FLUX to track Federal (non) distribution of funds e.g., the SWIFT system? (Addressing the looting of funds statement.)

Claire Rubin: Sorry, I am not familiar with those systems.

Larry Lovering: I have not read the book (yet), but can you comment on the response, federal, state and private during the 1938 New England Hurricane? It seems that the burden was on the private sector to coordinate the response and rebuilding.

Claire Rubin: We did not include that one in the book. Having grown up in New England, I used to hear stories about it. But it did not get included among our focusing events.

Amy Sebring: I would like to comment on Paula's comment/question. From personal experience with Metropolitan Medical Response System planning requirements for nuclear/radiological, I found a lack of the kind of recognition she refers to. There will be a Senate Homeland Security Hearing on nuclear response on April 15th. [See Senate Homeland Security Committee -- Nuclear Terrorism; Confronting the Challenges of the Day After at http://hsgac.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?Fuseaction=Hearings.Detail&HearingID=695d538e-8679-4baf-a060-6ea66a77be41]

Dag von Lubitz: Paula, there will be a few papers coming out in "Disasters" (Blackwell) that quite direclty address these problems.

Ray Pena: Do you think, as I do, that the role of the Emergency Manager is or should be to enhance the participation of every individual, every group and every community in the emergency management process?

Claire Rubin: Yes, I would agree with you. Locally (Arlington, County VA) I participate in the Community Emergency Response Team and Citizen Corps and I think such groups could be helpful and serve as educators.

Steve McGee: How can states and local governments increase their participation when the Executive Branch massively cut their budgets up to 67%?

Claire Rubin: They will have to spend more of their own money and Think Harder!

Roger Fritzel: Claire, not yet having read your book, I don't know if you discuss the 1918 Flu Pandemic, or anything about the pandemic planning that has been going on the last two years or so. My question: do you agree that lack of participation in strategic planning at the various levels, and in various sectors, stems from the lack of realization how large scale disasters overwhelm local, and even regional, emergency services?

Claire Rubin: We do talk about the 1918 Flu and hopefully the discussion makes it clear that such a threat could occur again. In those days, the Red Cross had the lead and not the feds, so the response was quite different. We have made big advances in medical science also.

Amy Sebring: Claire I found the closing Chapter a little discouraging, in that it seems we are doomed to repeat our reactive approach. However, perhaps a bright spot is that the Senate was insisting to the President that he send them only qualified nominees for FEMA. Do you think this will help, IF the Senate sticks to it?

Claire Rubin: We are not destined to repeat our mistakes, but if we do not take some steps to capture lessons learned and best practices, and work harder at sharing knowledge and experience, it will happen. Retention of hard-earned knowledge and expertise is essential to getting out of the rut. There is a relatively small cadre of smart and experienced people, especially staying in government service for a long time. We have to enlarge the talent pool and encourage more longevity in office. More competence within government and less reliance on contractors, at the federal level.

Dag von Lubitz: This comment will cause a storm here but...Claire, what would you think of FEMA being conceptually structured as DoD? The latter devises general concepts, but, ultimately wars are fought at the company level, and we seem to, generally, win them. At the moment we simply have an organization with a massive task, and one that is in an organizational chaos. Dennis Shrader was absolutely right when talking of coordination of effort!

Claire Rubin: Personally, I do not think DoD provides the right model for what is needed at FEMA. And I do not think the small, independent agency stages is the answer to what is wrong now either.

Isabel McCurdy: Claire, can you expand on your comment '"small, independent agency stages"?

Claire Rubin: I meant the stage of FEMA's life, the first roughly 25 years, when it was an independent agency. Such an agency with less than 2,000 staffers probably could not have successfully dealt with H. Katrina, even in its heyday.

Amy Sebring: Claire do you have an opinion on removing FEMA from DHS? Or do the authors?

Claire Rubin: I do not think removing it is the answer to the present problems. It is easier to say what probably will not work, than what will. I wish that when DHS was created and FEMA was included, that someone had the insight to ask either the National Academy of Sciences or the National Academy of Public Administration to convene a group of experts for advice. That still needs to be done.

Dag von Lubitz: Claire, re retention of past knowledge: should the Center for National Preparedness not be doing precisely that? To my mind their role as not only a training organization, but also a concept developing and analyzing organization, ought to be enhanced and encompass some of the functions you are talking about.

Claire Rubin: I think it will take many organizations and many individuals working hard to create knowledge bases and offer them to various constituent groups. I do not see a single source doing the job.

Kailash Gupta: From the American experience, what can the Emergency Managers of poor Asian countries learn?

Claire Rubin: Our U.S. organizations, plans, response systems were created in reaction to the major to catastrophic events that have occurred in this country. Some of our institutions and systems may be useful to other countries, but it is essential to realize that we have done a piecemeal job of creating systems, mainly in reaction to past failures. Other countries, like New Zealand, have taken more proactive and imaginative steps to create their strategies and systems.

Chuck Hartwick: Do you feel that FEMA just throwing money at local and state governments is going to make them any more prepared?

Claire Rubin: Like communication there has to be a sender and a receiver of information, funds etc. Unless it is made clear what States and localities are expected to do with the money and then held accountable for expenditures and accomplishments, we are wasting money.

Paula Gordon: Claire, do you see the organizational and professional culture gap between the fields of homeland security and emergency management narrowing at all?

Claire Rubin: Good question. I think the gap is still there, and probably will remain, but there is more conversation and perhaps a few more bridges over the gap now as compared with 4 years ago.

Lloyd Bokman: Claire, retention and sharing of knowledge will hopefully be better in the future with university degree programs providing a means to do so. Also, local CERT and Citizen Corp programs that you mentioned provide basic knowledge. But in an earlier comment you said the to move the emphasis from the feds and a dependence on a central authority to a more local one would take a major mind shift. Do you have any thoughts on what might cause that mind shift to eventually occur?

Claire Rubin: I wish I did have a prescription for that ailment. I think a new Presidential administration and some fresh thinking, smart political appointees could help. Somehow, it needs to be made clear what our common goals and missions are in the coming years, when we see new and menacing threats of all kinds and need to be more imaginative and agile to deal with them.


Amy Sebring: That's all we have time for today. Thank you very much Claire for an excellent job. We hope you enjoyed the experience once again and we really appreciate it. Please stand by just a moment while we make a couple of quick announcements.. If you are not on our mailing list and would like to get notices of future sessions and availability of transcripts, just go to our home page to Subscribe.

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Thanks to everyone for participating today and all the excellent questions! We stand adjourned but before you go, please help me show our appreciation to Claire for a fine job.