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- Print Page: Federal emphasis on terrorist threat frustrates local disaster response officials (10/20/05)
DAILY BRIEFING October 20, 2005
Federal emphasis on terrorist threat frustrates local disaster response
By Shane Harris, National Journal
The distance between the Homeland Security Department, where the nation's
national disaster-preparedness plans are crafted, and America's cities and
counties, where the plans are put to the test, can be measured many ways.
It's about 2,800 miles, for example, from the department's Office for Domestic
Preparedness in Northwest Washington to the King County Office of Emergency
Management in Renton, Wash., a suburb of Seattle. On a map of the lower 48
states, the feds and the Washington state emergency planners couldn't be much
farther apart. And that's fitting, because King County is also philosophically
miles apart from Uncle Sam on how to protect its citizens from the gravest
threats, and on what those threats actually are.
Federal and local officials ask a simple question: What should we worry about
more? Federal officials say that it's the terrorists, who strike without warning
and can wreak large-scale physical, economic, and political damage on the
country, and even on America's standing in the world. The locals say that it's
natural disasters, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes, which
can cause the same level of harm and are bound to occur on a somewhat regular
For Eric Holdeman, the director of emergency management in King County, the
answer is obvious. His region sits near a seismic fault line and an active
volcano, and it's prone to crippling ice storms and ravaging wildfires. Yet when
he talks about natural-disaster readiness with Homeland Security officials, who
control Holdeman's access to millions of dollars in grants that he needs to
protect King County, he says he hears the same response: He's worrying about the
wrong threats. In the post-9/11 world, he -- and everyone else -- should be
ready for terrorism.
"It's terrorism only," complains Holdeman, a former Army infantry officer with
almost 15 years of experience in disaster management. Homeland Security
officials have "an obsession with terrorism that has caused them to operate the
department and direction for the nation with blinkers on."
Federal officials are fed up with hearing that refrain, and nowhere do they hear
it more than at the Office for Domestic Preparedness. ODP has one of the least
enviable jobs in the federal government -- ensuring that every state, local,
tribal, and territorial government within the United States can defend itself
against a major disaster.
The office pumps out billions of dollars in grants for emergency equipment, such
as chemical-protection suits and radios. It trains first responders in
mock-disaster drills, testing their mettle against imaginary hurricanes or
subway bombers. It writes national preparedness standards that states and
localities are supposed to meet.
ODP, in short, is the instrument with which the Bush administration implements
its national homeland-security strategy, town by town, county by county. If the
office fails, then, by extension, the Homeland Security Department fails. Four
years after 9/11, ODP relentlessly delivers a mantra that has become a refrain
of its own: The world has changed, and we have to change with it.
"People have faced catastrophic hurricanes since the beginning of time.... But
9/11 changed our world," says ODP spokesman Marc Short, a political appointee
who joined the office last year after graduating from business school. "The
federal government has devoted a lot of resources to preparing for natural
disasters" that affect local areas, Short says. But 9/11 was a "seminal event"
that made it the federal government's job to plan a national response to a
That's a fundamentally new role for the federal government. Historically, it has
deferred to states and localities on disaster preparedness. But Hurricane
Katrina reminded the nation that a natural catastrophe can become a national
problem, with far-reaching consequences for many layers of society. "People are
looking at this as 9/11 without the terrorists," says David Heyman, the director
of the homeland-security program at the Center for Strategic and International
Studies in Washington. "And they're [asking] fundamental questions about our
preparedness and our ability to respond in a crisis."
The bickering and finger-pointing that has followed the convoluted governmental
response to the hurricane finds all sides -- federal, state, and local --
questioning their own and each other's readiness to handle all kinds of
calamities. This is not a new argument. The fight over how to prepare, and for
what, has been playing out ever since the Homeland Security Department opened
its doors nearly three years ago. The federal government's insistence that
terrorism poses the greatest threat to national security, and most state and
local officials' belief that terrorism concerns should not completely overshadow
other preparations have fueled the flames ever since.
ODP, a relatively tiny agency staffed by about 250 people, is the central player
in this drama. In 2003, it moved to Homeland Security from the Justice
Department, where it had administered terrorism-preparedness grants. The Federal
Emergency Management Agency, which also moved to Homeland Security, had managed
natural-disaster planning. But the Bush administration has shifted many
preparedness tasks to ODP and left FEMA as a response agency, the one that leads
the rescue and cleanup.
ODP is the one place in the federal government that pays attention exclusively
to state and local first responders -- police officers, firefighters, emergency
medical personnel. Since 2003, the agency has distributed more than $9.5 billion
in preparedness grants and trained tens of thousands of first responders.
Communities desperately need ODP's grant money to carry out the administration's
aggressive homeland-security strategy, which calls upon local jurisdictions to
have in place as many as three dozen "target capabilities." These capabilities
include detection of chemical or biological agents in public areas; trained
urban search-and-rescue teams; and standing economic-recovery plans. State and
local disaster-management officials don't want to turn the grants away. But,
they say, the ODP money comes with a catch: Most of it can be used only for
Most ODP grants and first-responder training programs are indeed designated for
terrorism preparedness. "Almost three of every four grant dollars appropriated
... for first responders in fiscal year 2005 were for three primary grant
programs that had an explicit focus on terrorism," the Government Accountability
Office reported in July. The funding levels, which Congress sets, are also
skewed toward terrorism preparedness. Those three primary grants received $2.4
billion this fiscal year. By contrast, ODP awarded $180 million this fiscal year
under the Emergency Management Performance Grant, the program that local
governments have historically used for natural-disaster preparedness.
Locals tell of frustrated attempts to use ODP grants for "all-hazards" purposes,
only to be turned down because their plans weren't exclusively earmarked for
terrorism. Holdeman, for one, says he can use grants to buy chemical-protection
suits but not equipment to fight wildfires, which have so far proven far more
devastating to Washington state than Al Qaeda.
Other local officials tell similar stories. In Shelby County, Ala., managers
reported that they could purchase chemical suits, but not interoperable
communications systems that would let personnel from different agencies talk to
each other in an emergency.
State and local officials would also like to build modern emergency operations
centers with their grants, says Ken Murphy, the director of emergency management
in Oregon and the chair of the Preparedness Committee for the National Emergency
Management Association, the national body of state emergency directors. But
grant money for physical structures, Murphy says, is limited to security
measures like blast-resistant walls or fences.
State and local officials want more choice in how they spend their grants. The
federal government, however, has to approve their purchases once they identify
the equipment they want to buy, Scott Behunin, the director of Utah's emergency
services and homeland-security division, explained to the House Select Committee
on Homeland Security in 2003. He urged the federal government to allow "greater
autonomy in the process," so that states could "better meet unique needs in
Repeating a message that local officials have long sent to Washington, D.C.,
Holdeman says: "Our message is, 'Give us block grants ... and then audit the
hell out of us.' " But the funds "are wrapped in concertina wire," he says. So
Holdeman has had to get creative.
Outside the Box
Last year, Holdeman got the idea to air a series of public service announcements
telling King County residents to construct "car kits" -- small packages of
survival staples, such as flashlights, first-aid equipment, and food and water
-- that would serve in any kind of emergency, and could be easily carried or
thrown into a car. Holdeman figured that one more prepared citizen was one fewer
he had to worry about.
Holdeman played to his audience. "I said, 'We've got a lot of skiers. If they're
afraid of getting stuck in the snow, they'll be motivated to have a car kit.' "
Those kits would come in handy during a terrorist attack, he reasoned. "When
Osama comes knocking, who cares if you're motivated [by the fear of terrorism]?
You still have a car kit." Holdeman wanted to use the ODP money to create a
series of televised ads, but he says that the agency turned him down because the
messages weren't raising awareness of terrorism.
In the end, Holdeman found a local solution to his national problem. He took a
two-track approach. King County used ODP money to produce two ads featuring
first responders who told citizens to be "ready for anything." "Have a plan,"
they say. Stock up enough food and water for three days, appoint an out-of-state
contact to call in an emergency. The ads mention terrorism only twice.
Working with a local television station, Holdeman also created a second set of
ads -- without federal grants. These ads were more specific and targeted threats
that King County residents understand. One reminds viewers that, with winter
storm season approaching, they should make their car kits. Another advises
homeowners to prune their shrubs and to relocate wood piles before fire season
arrives. The ads don't mention terrorism.
ODP officials are particularly sensitive to the charge that they've blocked
grant spending on projects like King County's, or that they've stopped state and
local governments from purchasing equipment that's not exclusively suited to
terrorism preparedness. "That's completely false," says Suzanne Mencer, the
former director of ODP, who served as the chief of public safety for Colorado
and was a longtime FBI agent. She resigned in January, and ODP is now between
"What has to be said, and what I said almost every time I gave a speech, is,
'Think about two words: dual use,' " Mencer says. The grants don't prohibit a
city from buying equipment for use in a natural disaster if it can also be used
in a terrorist attack.
Tim Beres is the director of ODP's Preparedness Programs Division, and he
managed grants when the agency was in the Justice Department. Asked about
Holdeman's complaints, and those from state and local officials in Alabama and
elsewhere, he responds, "If someone actually said that, that's absurd." In
fiscal 2004, grants paid for more than $1 billion worth of dual-use equipment,
he says, including $925 million for interoperable communications equipment and
$140 million in chemical-protection suits.
"Some of these people cannot think outside the box," Mencer says of grant
recipients. They read the requirements too narrowly, she says. For instance, one
ODP grant allocates funds for preventing, responding to, and recovering from
terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction.
Mencer says that some locals see that wording and think it prohibits items, such
as radios, that could also be used in a natural disaster. "They can still meet
their needs in almost all instances if they look at the broader picture and not
[just] the wording in the grant." She added in exasperation: "Some people would
complain if you hung them with a new rope."
Marc Short, the ODP spokesman, concedes that some officials may not understand
how to use the grants, but he believes they are exceptions. Instead, he says
that critics' complaints are "a straw-man argument," set up for political
convenience by people who oppose the Bush administration's tight control of the
national strategy. The strategy, by design, takes away much of the states' and
localities' authority to enact their own disaster plans, so that they don't
overlap or become deficient.
A number of state and local emergency managers -- including Holdeman and others
who've spoken publicly on behalf of the National Emergency Management
Association -- disagree and say that the problem isn't a matter of turf or of
local officials misreading the grant guidelines. It's that the Bush
administration gave so much of FEMA's preparedness duties to ODP.
Before DHS was created, disaster planners widely admired FEMA for drawing
national attention to preparedness and for working more as a cheerleader for
local efforts than a controller. Former FEMA Director James Lee Witt, a Clinton
appointee who'd been an emergency director in Arkansas, was a superstar in the
disaster-management field. ODP, on the other hand, consisted of Justice
Department counter-terrorism specialists who had stronger ties to law
enforcement circles than to disaster managers. The cultural differences mirror
the split over how to prepare. ODP is "focusing on prevention and protection,
which is really a law enforcement function," says Oregon's Murphy.
Hearing that complaint, Short replies, "There's a fondness for the way that it
was done before. People are uncomfortable with change."
Back to the Drawing Board?
It shouldn't surprise anyone that ODP pays so much attention to terrorism
preparedness. Short points out that this, after all, has always been ODP's
mission, stretching back to its Justice Department days. And, as Mencer
stresses, "DHS was set up because of 9/11, not a hurricane." Although ODP
officials don't deny that planning for natural disasters is partly a federal
responsibility, they contend that the attacks of 9/11, that "seminal event,"
require the government to put terrorism preparedness first.
But in the wake of Katrina, ODP and the senior Homeland Security leadership will
have to defend that philosophy. ODP's portfolio is already large -- it manages
more than 23 grant programs -- and it has now taken on port-security grants, a
program for which Homeland Security receives criticism from several quarters. In
January, the department's own inspector general said that the program's
"strategic impact" wasn't clear, and that "its purpose and goals require
refinement to support national priorities effectively."
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has proposed more changes to the
department's preparedness operations, following a sweeping review earlier this
year. Most significantly, he said in July that, in order to "increase
preparedness with a particular focus on catastrophic events," he wants Congress
to create a new position: an undersecretary for preparedness.
In those public remarks, Chertoff seemed to give a nod to those who have pressed
the department to remember the natural-disaster front. DHS "has sometimes been
viewed as a terrorist-fighting entity, but of course, we're an all-hazards
department," he said. "Our responsibilities certainly include not only fighting
the forces of terrorism, but also fighting the forces of natural disasters."
Chertoff made those remarks three days after Hurricane Dennis had hit the Gulf
Coast. Dennis, Chertoff said, "was a reminder ... of how potent those forces can
Chertoff's preparedness proposals pass muster among some homeland-security
experts. Last December, the Center for Strategic and International Studies and
the Heritage Foundation released a joint study called "DHS 2.0," in which the
authors suggested adding a new undersecretary for preparedness with direct
access to the secretary.
Such a move, they said, would speed preparedness decisions past some layers of
bureaucracy. Today, both ODP and FEMA are buried in the chain of command,
reporting up to the secretary through middle layers of management. "A 'flatter'
structure is preferable here and will better enable the secretary to exercise
leadership," they wrote.
But "flatness" has never been part of the department's vocabulary.
"Centralization" and "hierarchy" have been the operative terms. A "flat"
structure is what FEMA embodied when it was running the full gamut of
disaster-management efforts, including preparedness. The agency had
Cabinet-level status during the Clinton years, so the director had a clear line
to the president.
FEMA's national strategy was a classic study in devolution and private-public
partnership. It supported and emboldened first responders by lobbying Congress
and creating flexible grant programs. But it left the real work up to the local
communities and their first responders.
"I'd love to see that emphasis again," with localities taking the lead, says Ann
Patton, who is an emergency planner in Tulsa, Okla. "I call this stuff
'grassroots homeland security.' "
To learn lessons from Katrina, President Bush wants to examine those grassroots
efforts and find out whether they're working. He has ordered a review of the
disaster plans of all major U.S. cities. In his speech from New Orleans on
September 15, Bush blended the natural and man-made calamities with a new twist:
"In a time of terror threats and weapons of mass destruction, the danger to our
citizens reaches much wider than a fault line or a floodplain. I consider
detailed emergency planning to be a national security priority."
" 'How safe is America?' this review is supposed to ask," says Oregon's Murphy,
who says he has discussed it with senior Homeland Security officials, including
Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson. "I find that a very hard question to ask....
Just because you have a plan and it looks complete doesn't mean it's going to
With their confidence weakened and their frustrations already running high, the
local front-liners in the national-preparedness army may feel abandoned. If ODP
becomes a hindrance to their efforts, rather than a helper, they've shown they
can take matters into their own hands, as Holdeman has done in King County.
Perhaps the lesson from Katrina was that the disaster business is still a local
affair. As Patton of Tulsa sees it, the distance between the federal and local
planners now is wider than ever. "If New Orleans didn't teach us anything else,
then it taught us that we better be able to take care of ourselves."
©2005 by National Journal Group Inc. All rights reserved.