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Ex-FEMA Chief Makes the Case for the All-Hazards Approach

Michael Brown was the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Was; that is, in the past. You’ll recall seeing him in front of cameras from CNN, NBC, ABC, FOX, CBS pleading his case about how “we (FEMA) are doing everything we can” to rescue the City of New Orleans. With the continual video footage of New Orleans residents stranded on rooftops, stories of emergency services breaking down, and chaos at the Superdome; we sat and wondered how this all got that bad.

And in the middle of it all Michael Brown was sent home to D.C. with his tail firmly between his legs. A few days later he resigned as FEMA’s Director.

The Congressional hearings and fact-finding started back in December of 2005 and Michael Brown came out swinging. His words should be the wake-up call for dumping the wasteland “terrorism preparedness” and “WMD training” have become. These terms and many others like them indicate the national focus of Homeland Security (another moronic term) and inappropriately shifted our focus away from big-picture preparedness; the All-Hazards Approach.

You see, as Brown stated in his testimony “if we’d confirmed that a terrorist had blown up the levee, then everybody would have jumped all over it trying to do everything they could” we are waiting for a terrorist to bring destruction to us. We’ve forgotten the Rule of Outcomes that states that certain commonalities exist among emergencies of small and large-scale and that those commonalities can be successfully planned for, trained for, and mitigated if the all-hazards approach is taken.

Brown suggests what I believe to be true; the current fixation on anti-terrorism played a major role in the outcome of Hurricane Katrina. Our over concentration on terrorism has made preparedness for disasters and emergencies other than terrorist events has made preparing for natural disasters, power failures, storms, floods, earthquakes, and more to become the forgotten stepchild of the Department of Homeland Security. The same terrorism blinded approach will continue to hamper efforts in warning, rescue, response, mitigation, and recovery of future events as well.

The Department of Homeland Security has done exactly what their name implies…worked on security. Unfortunately, security is only one piece of the all-hazards puzzle. Security is not synonymous with preparedness. The culture and mindset of a security force cannot embrace the inherent needs of preparing for emergencies and disasters whatever the cause.

Hurricane Katrina killed nearly 2000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands of others. The storm caused physical damage with estimates in the tens of billions. Katrina’s visit nearly destroyed the City of New Orleans. A chemical or radiological attack on New Orleans could easily result in similar outcomes and response needs. Would there have been thousands stranded in New Orleans waiting for help after a chemical attack? Would there have been chaos and shortages at shelters after a nuclear event in New Orleans? Generically speaking, why would we mitigate differently?

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