Building resilience: The history and future of US crisis management

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Two decades have passed since the tragic events of 9/11 and the subsequent implementation of the Homeland Security Act of 2002. This landmark legislation spurred the largest reorganization of the US federal government since the National Security Act of 1947, uniting the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) with 21 other organizations under the newly created Department of Homeland Security (DHS).1

Since 9/11, the crisis management community has made great strides in addressing the negative impacts of disasters on American lives and livelihoods. Congressional appropriations for disaster response and recovery have increased to historic levels, with FEMA allocating $45 billion between 2017 and 2020 to disaster relief and financial aid.2 New approaches to recovery and mitigation have emerged, including the development of the National Response Framework and the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) grant program. Federal and state, local, tribal, and territorial (SLTT) agencies are more integrated and coordinate more effectively. Indeed, the past two decades have seen significant progress. Yet new challenges are emerging, and the crisis management community will need to work hard to overcome them over the next 20 years.

In this article, we acknowledge the significant progress made by the crisis management community since the signing of the Homeland Security Act and review the data suggesting that the next two decades may bring more frequent and worse disasters affecting more people. We then explore five questions that the community can consider to ensure the security, resilience, and prosperity of communities in the future.

We explore five questions that the crisis management community can consider to ensure the security, resilience, and prosperity of communities in the future.

Over the past 20 years, the US disaster management community has made significant strides

In the two decades since the passage of the Homeland Security Act, the US crisis management community has made progress in helping people before, during, and after disasters (see sidebar, “The stages of disaster management”). It is important to acknowledge the many advancements of the past several years, including improved disaster management structures and higher levels of funding. 

DHS has developed and implemented national response structures that have improved and streamlined how local, regional, and national disaster responders serve communities. For instance, it launched the National Incident Management System (NIMS) in 2004 as a preparedness and response management model designed to standardize and unify response operations.3 Similarly, FEMA was instrumental in the creation of the National Response Framework (NRF), which articulated a set of overarching emergency principles to assist in coordinating multiagency and multijurisdictional responses to disasters.

FEMA and the federal government have also significantly expanded resources for disaster relief and preparedness. FEMA’s public assistance program, for instance, was 23 percent larger during 2010–19 than during the previous decade (2000–09).4 Between 2017 and 2020, FEMA allocated $45 billion in disaster relief and financial aid to communities across the country, of which about 80 percent had been spent by June 2021.5 Additionally, since 2002, FEMA has provided more than $52 billion in grants to support state and local preparedness investments.6

However, FEMA is not the only key player in crisis management at the federal level. According to a report from the Pew Charitable Trusts, FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund, a key funding source for disaster response and recovery, represented 44 percent of federal disaster funds from 2005 to 2014. The remaining 56 percent was drawn from the budgets of 17 major federal departments and agencies, including the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Department of Defense (DOD), the Department of Transportation (DOT), and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Other agencies include the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Small Business Administration (SBA).7

These new structures and investments illustrate the US government’s progress in responding to disasters over the past two decades.

The next two decades will likely witness more frequent and worse disasters affecting more people

The increased spending on disaster relief and preparedness is driven, in part, by a greater awareness of the importance of disaster management since 9/11. But another driver has been the increasing frequency and severity of disasters, as well as increased exposure of individuals and infrastructure to major risks.

Research suggests that the number of weather- and climate-related disasters, such as hurricanes, flooding, and wildfires, is on the rise. In 2021 alone, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States endured Hurricane Ida, a catastrophic heat wave in the Pacific Northwest, and an extended forest fire season in California. Indeed, billion-dollar weather and climate disasters in the United States increased from two to three per year in the early 1980s to 22 events in 2020. In fact, 2020 broke previous records from 2011 and 2017—but 2020 was not an outlier.8 The average number of billion-dollar events over the past five years is roughly 16 per year, with each costing an average of $120 billion.

Similarly, disasters on average have become more severe. According to data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, accumulated cyclone energy (ACE), a proxy for hurricane activity, has risen noticeably since the 1950s. And eight of the ten most active years for ACE have occurred since the mid-1990s.9

The same trend can be seen with wildfires. According to data reported by the National Interagency Coordination Center, an average of 70,072 wildfires have burned an average of 7 million acres of territory a year since 2000. This figure is more than double the average annual acreage burned in the 1990s (3.3 million acres).10

At the same time, a rising number of Americans are exposed to disaster harms, exacerbating the impact of these trends. The real estate firm Redfin found that the population of the 50 US counties most prone to heat, drought, fire, floods, and storms grew from 2016 to 2020, while the 50 counties with the lowest risk saw populations decline.11 Additionally, maps from climate data analysts at First Street Foundation show that 70 percent more buildings in the United States are vulnerable to flood risk than previously thought.12 And without question, lower-income communities are at greater risk during disasters.13 Moreover, they receive disproportionately less relief funding than other communities.

Risks from climate- and weather-related disasters are also amplified by the state of the nation’s infrastructure. The population of the United States has more than doubled since the 1960s, when most of the country’s major infrastructure was designed, and much of this infrastructure is now reaching the end of its expected lifetime.14 According to the World Economic Forum, the United States ranked 13th globally for infrastructure quality in 2019, down from fifth in 2002.15

Chronic underinvestment contributes to the country’s infrastructure challenges. In its 2021 “report card” on American infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that the United States faces an infrastructure investment gap of nearly $2.6 trillion this decade that, if unaddressed, could cost $10 trillion in lost GDP by 2039.16

Gaps in infrastructure spending can have serious ramifications for disaster management. As a National Academy study explains, “If a community has weakened infrastructure, like a human body with a compromised immune system, it will not withstand trauma as well as one in good health.”17 The disaster community can think about how mitigation and preparedness can strengthen national infrastructure so that communities can better respond to the trauma of disasters.

The disaster management community can answer five questions to help prepare communities for future disasters

The United States experienced 230 events presidentially recognized as emergencies or disasters in 2020, surpassing the previous high of 128 declarations in 2011. And the country will likely face more frequent and worse disasters over the next 20 years than it faced in the past 20 years.

To continue to protect people’s lives and livelihoods, the crisis management community could reevaluate the roles and responsibilities of major stakeholders, including federal and SLTT organizations, as well as communities, individuals, and private-sector institutions. The community can also consider how best to ensure that all peoples’ lives and livelihoods are better protected and preserved with available resources.

In light of these considerations, the crisis management community can collectively answer five questions to help ensure success over the next two decades.

Question 1: How can federal and SLTT agencies coordinate and collaborate to spur successful outcomes?

Disaster management must succeed across a complex stakeholder environment, with some of the most engaged and influential responders being the federal government and state and local agencies. In the United States, government disaster response is coordinated across local, state, and federal agencies through NIMS. Once a federal emergency has been declared, FEMA normally becomes the lead agency coordinating the response, with HUD, the SBA, and numerous other stakeholder agencies also playing key roles, including ensuring equity during long-term recovery.

The consequences of poor coordination can be serious. FEMA cited lack of coordination as a major failing following Hurricane Sandy in 2012.18 The result was widespread confusion.

Over the next two decades, the community can improve coordination of crisis management in a few primary ways.

Clarifying roles can improve coordination and collaboration across federal, state, and local agencies. In the midst of disaster recovery and response, it can be difficult to determine which entity owns a particular task and how best to liaise with other stakeholders. Crisis managers at all levels could take the lead in engaging with policy makers to clarify roles and responsibilities across levels to meet future demands; they could also lead in adjusting existing coordination models where appropriate to ensure that communities are better served during and after disasters.

Another area in which improved coordination could occur is long-term recovery efforts. The Government Accountability Office has targeted long-term recovery as an area in which coordination challenges are particularly acute, largely due to complex documentation requirements that slow down local partners’ efforts.19 Streamlining requirements and developing better frameworks for long-term recovery coordination could prove a particularly fruitful area for improving efficacy over the next two decades.

Funding uncertainty is another major variable and friction point. For example, funding from HUD’s disaster recovery block grants is contingent on ad hoc congressional appropriations. As a result, crisis managers have limited lead times or visibility into budgets to plan and coordinate their efforts. Policy makers could consider more stable funding models here and elsewhere to facilitate better strategic planning and coordination among partners.

Finally, with the rise of big data and greater technological proficiency throughout the disaster management community, there could be new ways to leverage technology to assist in response coordination and collaboration. For instance, technology could be used to identify people who are currently missing opportunities for assistance or who are least prepared for a disaster within a community. Such information could help target emergency response and assist in matching resources to those in need.

Question 2: What role could the private sector play in mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery?

Too often, crisis management is seen as a public-sector endeavor, usually led by FEMA with coordination from state and local agencies and first responders. However, the private sector can serve an important role across all aspects of disaster management, from mitigation and preparedness to response and recovery.

About 40 percent of all US fixed assets are held by the private sector, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.20 And according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of January 2022, the private sector employs more than 129 million Americans, representing about 80 percent of the US labor force.21 Moreover, the private sector can play a pivotal role in formulating disaster-related incentive structures—especially through insurance markets—that influence behaviors and approaches related to risk. Absent engagement from the private sector, the United States will not reach its full potential in terms of resilience.

Indeed, in the United States, successful approaches to preparedness, recovery, and response have often involved the private sector, and several companies have made significant efforts to highlight the importance of disaster management and assist in recovery efforts. The home improvement retailer Home Depot, for instance, partners with FEMA to offer preparedness workshops, supply checklists, and guides to help people prepare their properties for extreme weather, while Walmart uses its website to promote preparedness among employees and to provide tips on preparedness and other disaster information.22 Numerous companies have provided significant funding to support disaster relief and recovery. For example, Bank of the West, eBay Foundation, and General Motors are among the major donors to the Center for Disaster Philanthropy’s recovery fund.23 And the private sector has increased its contributions to disaster relief in recent years: the share of disaster relief contributions from the 500 largest US companies increased from less than 20 percent in 1990 to more than 95 percent in 2014.24

However, the private sector could play an even bigger role in disaster management. One action the sector could take is to provide incentives for people to live in areas less exposed to risk. In many cases, resilience investments are more cost-effective than disaster relief and recovery investments. For instance, companies could harness evidence-based research to develop more sophisticated premium models to help contain risk and improve resilience, ultimately saving time and resources for insurers and homeowners. The National Flood Insurance Program, for example, offers insurance discounts of up to 45 percent based on the Community Rating System—a voluntary incentives program that encourages communities to exceed the minimum floodplain management requirements.25 Private insurers could replicate this model. Similarly, the California Earthquake Authority offers premium discounts of up to 25 percent for seismic retrofits to support mitigation efforts.26

Another way that private-sector institutions can support crisis management and long-term recovery is by using their platforms to communicate to the public about the importance of preparing for, responding to, and recovering from disasters. The private sector could encourage individuals to undertake resilience efforts in their local communities and to assist in disaster response and recovery.

Question 3: How can the community encourage more individuals to assist with crisis management?

Crisis management is not only for the public and private sectors. Individuals can play an active role in mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. To date, much of the community’s focus at the individual level has been on response. But the disaster management community has the potential to play a more active role in helping individuals with preparedness, which is arguably where they could play the largest role. Indeed, individuals sometimes make disasters worse through actions including failing to invest in resilience for homes in at-risk areas, failing to clear brush on properties in areas prone to wildfires, or neglecting to develop reasonable preparedness plans for natural disasters.

Over the next two decades, the disaster management community could encourage the public to assist with crisis management by reviewing the effectiveness of existing programs. One current program is FEMA’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program, which educates volunteers about disaster preparedness. CERT volunteers are often called upon to assist first responders during emergencies. The crisis management community could review CERT’s effectiveness in order to identify best practices that could be scaled throughout CERT (and in other similar programs) to engage as much of the public as possible during preparedness and response. Another important program, FEMA’s Youth Preparedness Council (YPC), created in 2012, could improve the pipeline to critical disaster management occupations.

Over the next two decades, the disaster management community could encourage the public to assist with crisis management by reviewing the effectiveness of existing programs.

The crisis management community also could educate the public about mitigation and preparedness and provide incentives for investing in such efforts for their properties and places of work. One existing model is the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation, which requires all residential-property insurers in the state to offer wind mitigation credits, thereby encouraging individuals to invest in building features that reduce damage due to wind. Policy makers and insurers could develop similar programs to address different hazards, and SLTT agencies could partner with corporations and nonprofits to provide more information about how homeowners and small businesses can improve their mitigation and preparedness efforts—in addition to why it matters.

Question 4: What is the right level and mix of investments for crisis management?

Determining the right investment mix for crisis management is essential—and difficult. In addition to understanding the right level and mix of investments needed to support response and recovery, it is particularly important for the crisis management community to understand what is needed to improve resilience (that is, for mitigation, prevention, and preparedness).

According to a 2019 report from the National Institute of Building Sciences, every dollar invested by the federal government in mitigation saves society $6 in recovery costs.27 Despite this, resilience necessarily competes with immediate spending needs such as education and healthcare, as well as with urgent response and recovery activities. Accordingly, resilience investments are often difficult to prioritize, especially since policy makers often see them as expensive, short-term costs.

The Stafford Act (1988), which forms the key legislative framework for American disaster management through its system of presidential disaster declarations, also limits resilience investments.28 While the act references mitigation measures as they relate to reducing losses from disasters, it primarily focuses on reimbursements for response activities.

To determine the appropriate mix of investment across mitigation, prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery, disaster managers could consider new frameworks and approaches—especially in the mitigation space—for determining the effectiveness of investments across crisis management investment portfolios. FEMA’s National Mitigation Investment Strategy represents forward progress, but more could be done to make the assessment of disaster management investments both more quantitatively rigorous and easier to communicate to policy makers.29

Looking ahead, crisis management practitioners could think more creatively about developing new and better ways to quantify and communicate the value of crisis management investments. Resilience return on investment (RROI), which was recently championed by Resilience Shift,30 a partnership between Lloyd’s Register and the Arup Group, is a promising metric. Calculation of expected RROI for various crisis management activities could be a powerful tool for clarifying trade-offs and helping prioritize disaster management investments. This approach could help with not only immediate budgetary considerations but also the development of more widely applicable best practices that could be syndicated and replicated by public-sector agencies around the country at the federal, state, and local levels. While it might be difficult to calculate expected RROI on mitigation and preparedness, even tentative or rough expected RROIs could be useful to policy makers. And broad use of an RROI methodology for assessing disaster management investments might prompt stakeholders to collect data that will help to refine and improve RROI calculations over time.

Question 5: How could equitable recovery be factored into conversations about crisis management?

Communities of color are disproportionately affected by natural disasters in part because they have less access to response resources. Limited resources, in turn, can inhibit long-term recovery. Indeed, on average, people living in communities of color experience a 31-point decline in their credit scores following disaster events, compared with a decline of four points among residents in predominantly White communities, based on data from 15 natural disasters between 2011 and 2014.31 In addition, Black and Latino households that experience natural disasters lose $27,000 to $29,000, on average, while White households gain $126,000, based on wealth data from 3,500 families between 1999 and 2013.32

The current administration has prioritized equity in its policy making. In 2021, FEMA announced a new definition of equity—“[t]he consistent and systematic fair, just and impartial treatment of all individuals”—and launched a portfolio of new equity initiatives (including expanding assistance for housing and disaster-caused disability).33 Going forward, equity can be interwoven in every aspect of crisis management, and the crisis management community can identify the causes of inequity and work diligently to eliminate them.

The causes of inequity in crisis management are multifarious but include postdisaster documentation requirements, postdisaster replacement policies, and manual processes required at the local level to secure funds. In recovery, for instance, an obstacle for disadvantaged communities can be the requirement for verification (such as titles to houses) to receive relief aid, as detailed by FEMA in 2021. FEMA has recently acted to accept a wider range of verification documents to ensure equity.34 But in light of this barrier, policy makers could also consider additional ways of modifying verification requirements in other contexts so that recovery funds and assistance are allocated more equitably.

The structure of recovery aid is another source of inequitable outcomes. Typically, recovery aid supports replacement costs for damaged or lost property, but the inspectors sent to verify damage may not be able confirm that damage was caused by the disaster. For example, if a roof that was damaged in a disaster was due to be replaced, inspectors may cite lack of maintenance as the cause of damage, and the applicant may not receive help in replacing the roof.35 Policy makers could take these factors into account when designing recovery aid funding formulas in order to achieve more equitable outcomes across communities.

Finally, funding distribution still relies heavily on affected individuals to take action. A large number of funds may become available to individuals affected by presidential-declared disasters, including FEMA’s Transitional Shelter Assistance and Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program contingency funds; SBA’s Disaster Loan Assistance and Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery funds; the Department of Labor’s Disaster Unemployment Assistance; and the Department of Agriculture’s Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.36 Navigating the different requirements of each of these programs can be challenging—especially as people juggle the effects of the disaster. The crisis management community could simplify the process for receiving funds from this web of programs and, in particular, help low-income and historically disadvantaged communities access the funds they are entitled to.

The crisis management community has made a great deal of progress since the implementation of the Homeland Security Act. However, the work of crisis management never ends, and there will be many more challenges in the coming years.

The questions posed above could help the crisis management community approach the future in a more integrated and coherent way—and build on the foundation established in the years since 9/11 to create more secure, equitable, and resilient communities across the United States.

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