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Our Towns Aren’t Equipped to Handle Climate Emergencies

Offices of emergency management across the country are a patchwork quilt of cash-strapped departments.

Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images

Imagine, briefly, that you’re charged with coordinating a small town’s response to disaster, developing contingency plans and staying in close contact with local agencies. For the last few months, you’ve been working with county health officials to try to contain a pandemic, despite a statewide explosion of cases. These last few days have featured a freak heat wave, too, and you have no idea how to deal with that since it happens so rarely—plus, crowding sick and elderly people into cooling centers could trigger a deadly disease outbreak. And now there’s at least four inches of rain in the forecast, which will probably lead to floods. You have to figure out how to handle this, but, also, it isn’t even technically your paid job: You’re a volunteer. 

Firefighters, EMTs, and police are the government employees people tend to notice in pictures following a major storm. They’re the visible tip of a larger bureaucracy. Offices of emergency management at every level of government are tasked with coordinating disaster response and even trying to prevent further disasters from happening. Society will rely on these departments more and more as climate disasters strike. They’re also some of the least understood and most poorly funded sections of government.

Recent crises seem poised to compound the problem. As the coronavirus takes a sledgehammer to state and local budgets, already underfunded emergency management departments could face further cuts, leaving them to be consolidated and rehoused within fire, police, and sheriffs’ departments. As protesters continue to call for defunding the police, future rounds of budget cuts could see law enforcement managing one of the twenty-first-century’s most important jobs.  

While the Federal Emergency Management Agency is what most people think of when they think of government response to disaster, state and local emergency managers deal with the more common and mundane weather events that will become more and more routine as temperatures rise—like heavy rainstorms and sunny-day flooding. Offices of emergency management, or OEMs, are tasked with four basic functions: preparedness for, response to, recovery from, and mitigation of so-called man-made, natural, and technological disasters. These events include everything from terrorist attacks to heat waves and power outages; many of these OEMs have worked alongside local public health departments to respond to the coronavirus. 

The offices primarily play a coordinating role among city or county departments in the 72 hours after incidents occur. Ideally, they should also have year-round planning capacities to help make towns and cities more resilient overall. Yet doing anything more than the bare minimum can be a challenge. Already, many county-level emergency managers work on a part-time or volunteer basis, with limited staff. 

Theoretically, an OEM should be able to perform its four core functions no matter where it’s housed. But those within first responder or public safety offices, Amanda Savitt, executive director of the Center for Climate Adaptation Research, told me, can tend to emphasize preparedness and response over recovery and mitigation. While there haven’t been holistic studies conducted as to where OEMs are housed, Savitt estimates that as many as half are independent agencies that report to local elected officials—the setup emergency management experts recommend. A relatively small number of OEMs are housed within planning and development offices. Many OEMs are already located in sheriffs’ or fire departments and public safety offices, often a result of budget pressures; general confusion about what it is that emergency managers do; and the fact that many coordinators are themselves former police officers, firefighters, or military personnel. “My sense is it comes down to resources: Municipal and county governments with larger budgets are more likely to have independent emergency management offices than municipal and county governments with smaller budgets,” Savitt says. “It’s not cut and dry, though. Part of the calculation for where to locate an OEM is cultural or historical, and some jurisdictions may feel there is a legitimate and compelling reason to combine offices.” Savitt suspects more will be shuffled into public safety departments as cities look for places to cut corners. 

So far, evidence for how potential cuts will shape local OEMs remains anecdotal. The city council of Rosenberg, Texas—a city of just under 40,000 people, near Houston—voted unanimously earlier this month to scrap its emergency management coordinator position at the start of its annual budget discussions. The police, meanwhile, are requesting vehicle upgrades and new SWAT team helmets. 

Florida’s coastal Brevard County began discussing where to put its 19-person independent Office of Emergency Management in May, when its executive director resigned to take a job in the private sector. That was an opening for Sheriff Wayne Ivey who, for two years, according to local media, had been proposing that his office run the county’s emergency management department. Ivey would manage the department’s programs and personnel, with their finances remaining under the control of the County Commission. A feasibility report, however, raised concerns about jurisdiction and responsibility, and county officials are wary of making the switch in the middle of hurricane season. “I have no question that Sheriff Ivey is fully capable of overseeing the additional responsibility emergency operations would entail,” County Commission Chair Bryan Lober told Florida Today. “Yet, there are so many variables to consider, I require additional time before I can possibly commit to supporting any such shift. This is not a decision which should be made impulsively or, in my opinion, at this juncture of a global pandemic.” The County Commission report evaluating Ivey’s proposal found that 55 of Florida’s 67 county OEMs report directly to county commissions. In the remaining 12, emergency management coordinators either report to the sheriff or are the sheriff. 

The sheriff of Michigan’s Gratiot County—who recently refused to enforce statewide mask orders—has proposed boosting the part-time emergency manager coordinator position in his office to a full-time post. He hopes to fill the new position with a certified police officer who’ll spend a quarter of their time working on sheriff’s department business, including transporting prisoners and serving as a court bailiff.  On the flip side, Seattle announced on Monday that it will seek to reallocate $3.3 million to have its Office of Emergency Management operate outside the city’s police department as part of a broader effort to limit the scope of the SPD, in response to ongoing protests, and defund it to the tune of $76 million in next year’s budget. 

What’s all too obvious to researchers is that offices of emergency management were operating on a shoestring budget well before the pandemic set in. Los Angeles’s independent Emergency Management Department, for instance, is currently one of that city’s most sparsely funded bodies, receiving just $3.3 million in the 2021 budget—about $1 million less than the city’s Department of Cannabis Regulation. The situation is worse for smaller cities, where many county-level emergency managers work on a part-time or volunteer basis with limited (if any) paid staff. This puts already cash-strapped cities at a disadvantage in dealing with emergencies. As with other public services, it also means that more of the duties that might ordinarily fall under the jurisdiction of an OEM fall to far better-funded police departments. 

These sorts of asymmetries are mirrored at the national level. Since it was formed in the paranoid months after 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security has housed FEMA alongside Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the border patrol. “We across the board hate that FEMA is included in DHS,” Slavitt said of emergency management experts in academia. “DHS as an agency should be dismantled. It doesn’t make any sense to have FEMA and the Coast Guard and the Secret Service all a part of the same federal agency.” 

Samantha Montano, assistant professor of emergency management at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, who runs the blog Disasterology, put it more bluntly: “The only way for FEMA to ever be effective as a starting point is to take it out of DHS.”

Much of the federal funding made available to local OEMs through DHS is still specifically geared toward anti-terrorism, a priority of questionable importance for Gratiot County, Michigan, or Rosenberg, Texas. In most cases, the relative lack of specific funds for OEMs to coordinate longer-term mitigation and recovery climate planning—things like keeping new development off flood plains or adjusting building code for more frequent heat waves—means it simply won’t happen. 

Even funds provided for current climate-exacerbated disasters can present barriers to less affluent governments. The Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, for example—which can fund flood-risk reduction projects—requires that communities match 25 percent of the cost of a project, with FEMA covering 75 percent. “If you can’t raise that 25 percent, you’re not eligible, and your community is at greater risk. That’s one of several policies at the federal level that [are] exacerbating existing inequalities,” Savitt told me. “It makes sense to me why FEMA would ask cities to have some skin in the game, but it’s also really important to say that every community needs to be safe.”

For that, emergency management—at the local, state, or federal level—can only do so much. Proactive planning has to occur at each level of government, with ample resources made available to do so. But emergency managers won’t be the ones to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions or determine whether people have secure housing or health care. While FEMA is certainly in need of reform, Montano explained, “people expect FEMA to come into the middle of a disaster and fix everything. In reality, the conditions that lead to disaster are created years, decades, or centuries before FEMA ever shows up. Once you start talking about large-scale disasters, there isn’t anything FEMA can do in the moment to stop the disaster from happening completely.”