April Alumni Hour: Crisis Recovery Lessons to Learn

An expert panel explored what government agencies have thus far failed to learn and what lessons need to be learned about preparing for crises that could help with recovery during the Center for Homeland Defense and Security’s April Alumni Hour on Thursday, April 18.

The Alumni Hour was called “What We Haven’t Learned About Rebuilding Our Communities After Crises: Perspectives from Emergency Management, Public Health, and Law Enforcement.” The online event featured a panel of four CHDS alums: former FEMA Administrator Brock Long (ELP cohort 0902); San Mateo County, CA, Emergency Management Department Director Shruti Dhapodkar (MA cohort 2105/2106, ELP cohort 1902); retired NYPD Counterterrorism Bureau Deputy Chief and Executive Officer Joseph Gallucci (ELP cohort 1501); and Salinas Mayor Kimbley Craig (MA cohort 1505/1506), who was a special guest in the second half of the event.

The event was held in partnership with the CHDS Alumni Association on Zoom.

CHDS Strategic Communications Director Heather Hollingsworth Issvoran kicked off the discussion by suggesting that due to a number of different factors, including the isolation and polarization of citizens, as well as unrealistic expectations, “we find our practitioners and decision-makers in a constant state of response.” The goal of the event, Issvoran said, was to take some time to discuss what the country has collectively failed to learn when rebuilding from disasters and what potential solutions could solve “seemingly intractable problems.”

Issvoran started by asking the panelists to offer an example of a crisis or crises which resulted in a failure to learn critical lessons.

Top to bottom: Former FEMA Administrator Brock Long and San Mateo County, CA, Emergency Management Department Director Shruti Dhapodkar

Dhapodkar said communication before, during, and after disasters remains a major problem—especially alert warning systems. She said there’s too much reliance on the government pushing out information instead of citizens actively seeking, having access to information and being proactive in disaster planning. She called it a persistent problem that “we have not solved, and we are not even making incremental movement forward.”

Gallucci argued that, as a country, we need to learn we “can’t get soft on public safety since safety and security drives everything and without public safety nothing else works.” Hearkening back to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, he remembered the creation of the NYPD’s Counterterrorism Bureau that continued to grow over the years immediately following the attack, including the Critical Response Command (CRC) component. But Gallucci also warned that people have short memories, and after a while, people started questioning whether they needed so many people doing that kind of work; he said the CRC was just days away from being torn apart when the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack occurred—triggering the start of the latest war between Israel and Hamas—and the unit was saved. “It’s a challenge,” he said, “to continue to convince people that’s how valuable certain pieces of the puzzle are.”

Long, who now serves as Executive Chairman of Washington, DC-based Hagerty Consulting, said that as a nation we’re “stuck in the response mode; we’re not able to meaningfully go through the after-action reports and make real changes, and we’re not identifying the root causes of our problems.” He said emergency management agencies tend to go through their response plans “blindly” because “it’s what we’ve been doing for 10, 15, 20 years,” and cited an example from FEMA’s response to Hurricane Irma, when critical power and cell phone service infrastructure was harmed by attempts to reopen roadways, which ended up delaying restoration of power and cell phone service longer than it should have.

Long also said that a lack of private insurance was a major problem in some areas of the country, resulting in vastly increased government assistance costs. Additionally, he said, Americans too often live beyond their means, then blame insurance for being too expensive and try to save money by cutting their insurance premiums. That, he said, makes catastrophes far worse than they have to be. “There are a lot of root cause problems that we don’t want to talk about that are really killing us as a nation,” said Long. “We’re not addressing the root causes of the problems and how to fix them. We do so many things that are so Band-Aid that we are adding new parts to a rusty old bicycle.”

When asked what kind of threat is going to make people stand up and pay attention, Dhapodkar said there have already been so many disasters all over the world—such as war, terrorist attacks, and wildfires—and spent so much on response and recovery, and we seemingly still don’t learn to change. There may be no single disaster which will change our behavior, she said, and we simply have to change ourselves.

“We need support from our leadership and resources and we really need to think outside the box,” said Dhapodkar. “We need to stop this knee-jerk response; we don’t have the resources or that centralized unified leadership to consistently move us forward. Forget about fixing problems: fixing problems should be the bare minimum. We need to actually innovate in emergency management and that change happens in each of us.”

Long said he believes a lack of communication is a real problem and where that’s really going to hurt is the power grid, noting that the vast majority of people who work in homeland security and emergency management have never even heard of the grid security disaster declaration—a 2018 final rule for an emergency order under the Federal Power Act which allows power to be diverted to critical infrastructure—and pointed out that the power industry has “no idea how to communicate if entire interconnects go down across multiple states.” He said emergency managers need to talk with the power industry and offer to help improve their communication capabilities.

Top to bottom: Retired NYPD Counterterrorism Bureau Deputy Chief and Executive Officer Joseph Gallucci and Salinas Mayor Kimbley Craig

Gallucci said he doesn’t want to see such a thing happen, but that the U.S. likely needs another tragedy to happen to change its behavior. “Unfortunately it’s difficult to measure our successes,” he said, “so we tend to get really comfortable and so we start redeploying and changing things around instead of sticking with what we know works. I mean we just don’t learn. The Oct. 7 [attacks] didn’t happen here and unfortunately, we need something, another tragedy, to happen here. Unfortunately, that’s just the way it is.”

When Dhapodkhar asked Gallucci what kind of tragedy it would take to bring everyone together, he noted that the “eclipse brought us together, so we know we can still come together.

After 9/11, everybody was in love with each other, but the further we got away from that event, the more everybody went back to what they were doing before and the more distance grew between everybody.”

Long said part of the reason for so much division and polarization is the amount of misinformation and disinformation on social media controlled by “state actors” who want citizens disagreeing and fighting with each other. “It really is dividing us and I wonder if this really is 1938, just before World War II, and we all have our heads in the sand.”

Issvoran noted that she hears regularly about the tension between appointed officials, elected officials and practitioners, all in the pursuit of leadership and resources, and the complaints about when “policies and strategies are broken apart due to the quick sound byte” of political expediency. At this point, Issvoran introduced Craig into the discussion.

While pointing out that there are only so many pieces of the budgetary pie to go around, Craig agreed that there needs to be government partnership with private industry. She also advised appointed officials and practitioners to reach out to elected officials, especially newly-elected ones still eager to learn, so as to introduce them to emergency operations and inform them about what services are underfunded; this way, when the issue of funding comes up you have a “baseline of what you do and what you need.”

Long said he believed FEMA should be a non-political entity similar to the U.S. Department of Justice, while Gallucci criticized politicians for not honestly addressing the average person’s concerns.

Craig said she agreed that while many elected officials focus too much on getting elected and reelected, there are “people in office who want to do something and then there are people in office who want to be something.”

When Issvoran asked Long what smart practices can be implemented, he said he was for returning to civil defense-style civic engagement and preparedness campaigns. “We’ve got to go back and create capacity within our citizens and a culture of preparedness,” he said. “We need to get back to basics and form community response teams. We need to befriend the insurance industry and the power industry and the education department because we’re not preparing our citizens; we’re only coddling people and things are getting worse.”

He added that he doesn’t think emergency management and homeland security officials have their eye on the ball because there are “so many societal problems being thrown on their plate,” such as homelessness and migrant shelters. “We have to do all these things and our eyes aren’t on the ball when it comes to threats from a global perspective, a state actor perspective, a cyber perspective.”

Rather than spending so much time and energy trying to predict the next major disaster, Long said there should be more focus on identifying what it is in our communities which make it work: from supply chains to infrastructure, so as to be able to contact them when something happens.

Craig said there’s a need for more community involvement, including the adolescents, and noted the efforts of community organizations in her city, including a new plan dedicated to get more adolescents involved in volunteering. Craig advised reaching out to people “where they are,” including on social media.

Long said the key is “get neighbors helping neighbors—that’s the most important thing in a disaster. Understand your community and know who owns what, so that if something happens, you know about the power supply and the supply lines and food supply and who controls it. Prepare for a global crisis and possibly war. If we go to war, they’re going to attack our food system and our power system—and we better know how those work. We roped [the Department of Defense] into emergency response so much that when they’re gone to war, [the question is], ‘Who fills the gap?’ America has its head in the sand right now. That’s my advice and I hope you all are working on it.”

Gallucci called local communities and citizens “force multipliers,” adding that “if anyone thinks we’re going to solve all these problems because we’re so smart, that’s not going to happen. We need to listen and have dialogue with everyone.” Dhapodkhar said the issues are very complex and everyone needs to be part of the change in their own lane.

INQUIRIES: Heather Hollingsworth Issvoran, Communications and Recruitment | hissvora@nps.edu, 831-402-4672 (PST)

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