An imperfect storm: Professionalism and politics in disaster management

An imperfect storm: Professionalism and politics in disaster management
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As Hurricane Michael pounds Florida, the aftermath of Hurricane Florence means continued misery for the resilient residents of North and South Carolina, who have begun the long, arduous and painful process of recovery.  

In Florence’s wake are the contributions and well-coordinated efforts of hundreds of federal, state and local emergency managers, first responders, search and rescue specialists and volunteers. Their professionalism undoubtedly saved scores of lives. But Florence also left behind political accusations, fights and finger-pointing which do no one any good — least of all North and South Carolinians. 

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Right now, hundreds of Red Cross and FEMA workers and volunteers remain spread across North and South Carolina, assisting and providing support to thousands of residents displaced and devastated by Florence. Recovery efforts have just begun.

Their work comes on the heels of an extraordinary rescue effort across the region. In North Carolina alone, according to that state’s Department of Public Safety, more than 5,200 people and more than 1,000 animals were rescued from Florence’s spreading path of destruction. The rescues were performed by 2,800 N.C. National Guard soldiers, State troopers, 14 swift water rescue teams, 28 boat crews, and three urban search and rescue teams. That’s not even counting the more than 1,100 personnel from out-of-state reported by NCDPS, as well as hundreds of local police officers, firefighters, EMS crew members, as well as volunteers from near and far.

Right now, politicians and politically motivated news media also continue to engage in charges and counter-charges which seem to belie their stated concern for Florence’s victims, or the need to draw lessons from the response to the storm to improve collective efforts for the next storm — Michael. 

Incredibly, as Florence bore down on the Carolinas, the Trump administration and Democratic critics re-litigated Hurricane Maria, which occurred more than a year ago. Democrats argued an inadequate response led to more than 3,000 excess deaths. President TrumpDonald John TrumpAustralia recognizes West Jerusalem as Israeli capital, won't move embassy Mulvaney will stay on as White House budget chief Trump touts ruling against ObamaCare: ‘Mitch and Nancy’ should pass new health-care law MORE dismissed the death toll figure arguing it was padded to make him look as bad as possible.

Before Florence made landfall, FEMA Administrator Brock Long came under withering fire from his boss, Homeland Security Secretary Kirsten Nielsen, who reportedly contemplated firing Long for purported misuse of federal government vehicles for personal travel.

As the storm hit, newscasters on MSNBC and CNN were suggesting Trump was “complicit in this storm,” because he had undone some Obama-era environmental regulations and had exited the Paris climate accords. In an editorial The Washington Post declared, “When it comes to extreme weather, Mr. Trump is complicit. He plays down humans’ role in increasing the risks.”

Adding fuel to the fire, Trump seemed to taunt Democrats tweeting “don't be fooled, at some point in the near future the Democrats will start ranting that FEMA, our Military, and our First Responders, who are all unbelievable, are a disaster and not doing a good job. This will be a total lie, but that's what they do, and everybody knows it!"

Trump is correct that first responders at all levels did a tremendous job at limiting the loss of life in the wake of Florence’s fury. But accusations from both sides, and the push for continued sniping, takes away from the heroism and the professionalism of the responders, and is insulting to the thousands of victims and survivors who simply want to rebuild their lives.

I’m not so naïve as to believe that politics will never infect or affect a response to any disaster or emergency — whether that is the next Florence, next year’s wildfire season, or a deadly tornado. But as an emergency and disaster response manager, I am calling on politicians and pundits to refrain from practicing their craft before, during and immediately following times of emergencies and disasters. Because that is the time for the professional (and volunteer) responders to practice their craft, to review their collective performance, and to determine how they can do even better the next time around. 

Christopher Reynolds, Ed.D., is dean and vice president, Academic Outreach and Program Development at American Public University System, and a 35-year certified emergency manager.