The thing we need to get people to understand, says Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is that “when you’re dealing with an infectious disease outbreak…it’s the country that’s involved, so we need to respond as a nation, not in a fragmented way.”1
As President Joe Biden assumes command of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic response, many are calling for a long-overdue upgrade to our existing national disaster system. The system we have in the United States is based on the “home rule” concept of government, which enables cities and counties to manage their own affairs without undue interference from their states. Over the past 50 years, home rule laws in most states have been used to delegate to local governments—some 30,000 across the country—the primary responsibility for disaster response.
This means your local elected official is responsible for knowing what is going on in his or her neighborhoods, especially with respect to our most vulnerable citizens—the poor, the sick, seniors, and people with disabilities. When disasters strike this responsibility becomes even more vital, and the local government is charged with leading a response that addresses the urgent unmet needs of all its citizens.
States and the federal government play an important role. One or both can be requested to act, or “activate,” when the impacts of any disaster exceed the ability of the affected community to respond. This system—emergency managers describe it as “federally supported, state managed, and locally executed”—works extremely well, except when it doesn’t. Few will disagree that it isn’t working well now.
The reason the system isn’t working now, according to Fauci, America’s most prominent public health authority, is because the disaster—in this case the virus—“doesn’t know the difference between the border of Louisiana and Mississippi or North and South Carolina.”
It is for this reason, and its likely relevance to future catastrophes, that we are calling for an important change, one that unites local and state governments and spans the nation. This new and improved disaster system would ensure that science, not state, local, tribal, or territorial political considerations, drives decision-making and collective action.
As with many things during disasters, the key is leadership. The change starts with FEMA assuming its rightful role as the nation’s disaster coordinator. Biden should formally designate FEMA as the lead agency for an integrated national approach. He can do this by elevating the FEMA administrator to his Cabinet, as provided by law. By making FEMA responsible for streamlining the federal response, we can eliminate redundant parallel structures at all levels of government that are causing such confusion and waste of resources.
Our new national approach should include collective action around all our existing urgent priorities, including a national contact tracing program, a national alert-level system for COVID-19, and even a national vaccination program, all with consistent goals and measurable objectives that would be tracked and visible to all. A national COVID-19 testing program this past spring, for instance, would have allowed us to set standards for a consistent approach and collective action everywhere.
Local emergency managers are and will continue to be the foundation of our communities’ disaster systems. But we need answers to the same questions all our constituents are asking. The approach we advocate here does not abandon, but rather reinforces the “all disasters are local” model that has worked well for 50 years across the vast majority of disasters in this country. But without clear leadership and guidance from Washington, our opportunity to emerge quickly from the current catastrophe could be lost.
1. Kaufman A. Dr. Fauci says US needs a national response to COVID-19 crisis, instead of ‘disjointed’ state-by-state approach. Boston Globe, 2020 Nov 17; www.bostonglobe.com/2020/11/17/nation/dr-fauci-says-us-needs-national-response-covid-19-crisis-instead-disjointed-state-by-state-approach.
Francisco Sanchez is deputy emergency management coordinator with the Harris County (Tex.) Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.