Friday morning, a massive earthquake hit Japan and spawned a massive tsunami that is sweeping across the Pacific, requiring evacuation along the Hawaiian coast. This morning the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) issued an alert that “tsunami warnings and watches have been issued for the U.S. territories of Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands, as well as portions of coastal areas in Hawaii, Alaska, California, Oregon and Washington.”
Damage and loss of life in Japan will be significant. We have to be concerned as well about the safety of communities here that might be affected.
These tragic events and the race in the days to come to limit suffering and privation are a reminder that catastrophes most often happen without warning. Catastrophes are usually come-as-you-are disasters.
Even as responders now race to deal with disaster, it is not too soon to think ahead to how we’ll deal with the next catastrophes that will inevitably come.
Two concerns ought to top our list.
Most likely, as in the massive Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, the U.S. military could be called on to aid in disaster relief. Providing aid to civil authorities at home and abroad is an enduring mission of the U.S. military. Yet even as we recognize a military trained and ready to aid in disaster, as well as at the same time performing other vital defense missions, the Pentagon’s current thinking is to scale back on the armed forces’ ability to help out in catastrophes. That’s a mistake.
A recent congressional commission report, “Before Disaster Strikes: Imperatives for Enhancing Defense Support of Civil Authorities,” had some pretty alarming conclusions. For example, despite nine years of post-9/11 ramping up, “there is currently no comprehensive national integrated planning system to respond to either natural or man-made disasters.” To make matters worse, federal, state, and local agencies are not even sharing what they are doing now. They are not, the report admonished, “making a sustained and comprehensive effort to share all-hazards response plans.” The report argued that catastrophic disasters are in a league of their own. If the military is not trained, resourced, equipped, and practiced at working with other federal, state, and local assets, Americans will be at grave risk.
Meanwhile, the efforts of the FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security, which have the responsibility for quarterbacking the U.S. response to catastrophes, increasingly find themselves focusing on lesser-scale emergency responses. As Heritage Homeland Security expert Matt Mayer writes, “This leaves FEMA stretched far too thin and ill prepared to respond to grand-scale catastrophes. The ‘federalization of disasters’ misdirects vital resources, leaving localities, states, and the federal government in a lose-lose situation. FEMA policies must be overhauled to let localities handle smaller, localized disasters, and to allow FEMA to respond fully and effectively when it is truly needed. If the status quo continues, it will be a disaster for everyone.”