What is an Emergency Manager?

15 03 2016

Headline in The New York Times:  “Anger in Michigan Over Appointing Emergency Managers”

Headline in The Nation:  “The Scandal of Michigan’s Emergency Managers”

Headline in the Arizona Daily Star:  “Problems in Michigan show rift over emergency managers”


Clearly, the headlines listed above are disturbing.  As a certified emergency manager, my interest naturally piques when I come across a headline which indicates that there might be problems with my profession which is focused on disaster management.  What the heck is going on in Michigan?  Why are people angry with the Emergency Managers? What rifts have been created?  The fact that events have caused such questions to be raised is of concern to both me and the others I know that work in the field of emergency management.

They seem like strange questions.  Why?  Well, because the “emergency managers’ that I know are dedicated public servants who are focused on saving lives, preventing injuries, and protecting property when a disaster occurs.  These individuals are busy making plans, organizing resources, and analyzing data all in an effort to mitigate, prepare for, respond to, and recover from effects of all types of hazards.  Perhaps getting organizations and citizens prepared for the hurricane season which begins on June 1st.  Perhaps sending out warning and alerts when a river is outside its banks and threatens a community.  Perhaps working with federal disaster aid workers who arrive in a community where a tornado has touched down causing loss of life and damages to homes and businesses.

A group of protesters carry signs against an emergency financial manager being appointed to the city of Detroit as they protest outside a private club where Michigan Governor Rick Snyder was scheduled to speak in downtown Detroit, Michigan March 8, 2013. Snyder declared that the city faces a fiscal emergency which virtually assures that the state of Michigan will assume control of Detroit's books and eventually decide whether the city should file the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. REUTERS/ Rebecca Cook (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS BUSINESS CIVIL UNREST)

A group of protesters carry signs against an emergency financial manager being appointed to the city of Detroit as they protest outside a private club where Michigan Governor Rick Snyder was scheduled to speak in downtown Detroit, Michigan March 8, 2013. Snyder declared that the city faces a fiscal emergency which virtually assures that the state of Michigan will assume control of Detroit’s books and eventually decide whether the city should file the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. REUTERS/ Rebecca Cook (UNITED STATES – Tags: POLITICS BUSINESS CIVIL UNREST)

Usually citizens do not get “angry” about the work of emergency managers— but they seem to do so in Michigan?  It made me wonder why that could be.  Well, the answer is actually quite simple—- though Michigan does have its share of “disaster emergency managers,” they also have other positions, created by the State Legislature, that focus on “emergency financial managers.”  These “emergency financial managers” do not necessarily focus on disasters of all types (e.g. hurricanes, public health, etc…); instead they are individuals appointed by the Governor of Michigan to take control of a local governments facing a financial emergency. Sometimes they are even appointed to take control of public schools.

More than twenty times a Governor has appointed a manager to supplant a governing body or a chief executive officer to fix a financial problem.  After being appointed, these “emergency financial managers” have the authority to remove any of the governing body’s elected officials if they are not providing adequate assistance.  These managers are empowered to take total control of the finances of the agency, including having the ability to reduce pay, use private contractors, reorganize agency departments, and modify employee contracts.   They undoubtedly have tough jobs to do and obviously limited resources to do those jobs.  But, also, these emergency managers are often “outsiders” who are taking charge over and above the sentiments of the local populations and elected officials.  So, now I get it.  Now the headlines above make some sense—– I can clearly envision individuals who have “all the financial power” making citizens angry and causing rifts in a community.

The problem is that in Michigan, these individuals are simply called “Emergency Managers.”  That is misleading and confusing in many ways.  The headlines make sense to me now—- but I have a long background in municipal government working as both a city manager and an emergency manager (or should I specifically state a “disaster” emergency manager).  And I spent the time to investigate what is actually going on in Michigan.

But for the average citizen perusing the Internet, or who may still read a newspaper, they do not know there are two type of “emergency managers.”  They are not going to investigate the differences and they are going to assume that all “emergency managers” are the same because the moniker is the same—- even though the duties of the two types are not remotely the same.  And presently, you are probably hearing the term used many times in reference to the Flint, Michigan contaminated water emergency.

In a news release issued today, the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM), believes “there is serious confusion and misunderstanding of the use of the term “emergency manager” in the press and public related to the Flint water situation,” as well as previous use of “emergency managers” in places like Detroit, Pontiac, and Benton Harbor, just to name a few locations.  So, what is the problem?

IAEM logoRobie Robinson, President of IAEM, takes a stab at answering that particular question in the news release.  He states that “the use of the term ’emergency manager’ to describe these appointed financial managers in Michigan has generated an incredible amount of dangerous confusion for the public, especially since the Flint issue has now become a national story.  Dedicated emergency managers across the country now are being forced to address questions that underline a misguided sense of concern about the role of an emergency manager.”  And, of course, Mr. Robinson is referring to the “disaster-type” of emergency manager.

“Unfortunately, an impression is beginning to take shape that emergency managers exist to cut budgets and reduce costs at the expense of the community safety and security,” Robinson noted, when indeed the exact opposite is true.”  As described above in this blog entry, the emergency managers most familiar in communities across the country, and including more than 4,200 professional emergency managers in the United States, do not act in a manner as a financial experts with immense powers to rein in the spending habits of a community.  Instead, most emergency managers work daily to collaborate with the community—- public safety agencies, non-profit organizations, the private sector, the media, in essence the “whole community,” in an effort to support disaster response and recovery efforts and build relationships to keep the community safe both on a daily basis; and in times of disaster.  And most importantly, they are not outsiders, they are members of the communities who build trust with those they serve.

“One thing must be made absolutely clear: the term ‘emergency manager’ in the Flint, Michigan, situation refers to a fiscal-­‐only function that bears no relationship to the term as it is commonly and universally used on national and an international basis,” states Robinson. “In the context of the Flint situation, emergency managers are actually municipal ‘emergency financial managers’ (EFMs) established by the Michigan legislature and appointed by the governor to oversee jurisdictions in Michigan that are threatened with financial insolvency.”

One last point I would like to make is that this confusion never really had to happen.  In Michigan, when this emergency manager position was created by Public Act 101 of 1988 (and as amended by Public Act 72 of 1990), the term used was actually “Emergency Financial Manager.”  But, as I understand the history, Public Act 72 was replaced by Public Act 4 of 2011, which RENAMED the position to emergency manager.

So the solution seems relatively simple—-let’s go back to the name of Emergency Financial Manager, or EFT, as was initially legislated in the early 1990s.  As stated in its news release today, “IAEM urges all media, members of government, and other leaders to educate the public, and help clarify that, in Michigan, an individual who is appointed to oversee a governmental body or jurisdiction because it is threatened with financial insolvency is not an ’emergency manager,’ but rather an ’emergency financial manager.’”

 

 





This Day in Texas Disaster History – September 24th

24 09 2015

Ten years ago, Hurricane Rita crashed ashore in Southeast Texas.  Hitting Texas just three weeks after Hurricane Katrina, many do not remember this storm.  However, it was a big storm which caused immense damage and about 150 deaths.  Here is an article that was published yesterday in the USA Today.  The article was written by Alan Gomez.  As the article notes, many lessons were learned from the disaster.  And the lessons were learned.  The State of Texas and its jurisdictions did indeed learn from Hurricane Rita.  The response to citizens in Texas was much improved three years later when Hurricane Ike hit near Galveston.  Here is the article:

Many who live along the Gulf of Mexico refer to Rita as the “forgotten hurricane.”

Hitting the U.S. just three weeks after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, most Americans paid little attention to Rita, which made landfall Sept. 24, 2005, in a far less populated area along the Texas-Louisiana border. Where Katrina left more than 1,800 dead, Rita killed fewer than 150.

But for emergency managers, Rita was almost more important in terms of the lessons learned following the disaster. In the 10 years since Rita struck as a Category 3 hurricane, Texas emergency management officials have redesigned their evacuation plans, local leaders have started building new shelters and Louisiana legislators have updated their antiquated building codes.

“A major lesson? I would say so,” said Ryan Bourriaque, a lifelong resident of Cameron Parish in southwestern Louisiana who now serves as the parish administrator.

The biggest change came in the way large cities evacuate.

As it approached the coast, Rita’s forecast changed daily. The storm was first expected to strike southern Texas, then the massive Houston metropolitan area before actually making landfall close to the Louisiana border. That meant cities from Brownsville to Corpus Christi to Houston were sending their residents fleeing to points further inland, with 3 million people hitting the road at nearly the same time.

That led to agonizing traffic jams where people waited more than a dozen hours to travel just a few miles. Cars that ran out of gas were stranded by the dozens, several died from heat stroke and a van carrying nursing home evacuees exploded, killing 23 patients.

Madhu Beriwal, founder and president of the disaster management consulting firm IEM, said Texas officials were simply not ready for the size of the evacuation. As the storm approached, they ordered phased evacuations to get people out in manageable groups, and they implemented “contra-flow” traffic on highways, meaning all lanes are used to evacuate people in one direction. The problem, Beriwal said, is the state started those plans far too late, leaving a mess on the roads.

“You have to commend them for trying, but there were some problems with trying to do that in the midst of an evacuation,” she said. “It wasn’t successful because that’s a very complicated thing.”

The state responded by preparing plans for future evacuations and, in 2007, creating the Texas Statewide Mutual Aid System to allow local governments to help each other more easily. Now, all cities have evacuation plans and timelines for when to order them. The state has improved its communication with local officials to coordinate the entire system.

Greg Fountain, the emergency management coordinator for Jefferson County, Texas, said that plan includes contracts with fuel distributors and gas stations to ensure that there’s gas available along evacuation routes. He said those new plans were put to the test when Hurricane Ike tore through the same region in 2008. That time, Fountain said traffic moved through the evacuation routes more smoothly and there was plenty of fuel for evacuees.

“Three years later comes Ike and the plans were fantastic,” Fountain said.

Photo: Paul Sancya, AP

Photo: Paul Sancya, AP

Rita also led to other changes throughout the region. Cameron County, Texas, is the southernmost county in the state, but it was in the storm’s path at one point. Given that experience, Tom Hushen, the county emergency management coordinator, said the county began building new, domed shelters to withstand hurricane-force winds.

The county also has contracts with construction firms that can bring heavy equipment, debris-removal operations, companies that provide emergency food and water and others that provide portable bathrooms.

In Louisiana, Rita helped usher in a new era of building codes. Most of the homes in Cameron County, La., a coastal community with just 6,700 people, had been around for generations when the storm tore through. Bourriaque said many of the residents who lost their homes were upset that the Louisiana legislature implemented new building codes that included requirements to elevate homes built in flood zones.

“The feeling was, ‘We’re trying to survive and you’re telling me I can’t build my house back that’s been in the family for six generations?'” he said. “That’s $275,000 for a house that could be built on the ground for $75,000.”

But Bourriaque said Hurricane Ike showed how valuable those new codes were. During Rita, 50% of the county’s homes were destroyed or so badly damaged that they couldn’t be salvaged.

“The homes that were built post-Rita to the elevation standards survived Ike and were minimally impacted,” he said. “Not even losing siding or shingles.”

Despite all the work to improve responses to hurricanes following Rita, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate said not enough localities have taken heed.

Fugate said FEMA, the National Hurricane Center and the Army Corps of Engineers work together to constantly update risk assessments for every coastal city from Texas to Maine. They run models to show local officials how to organize their evacuations and provide different strategies to conduct them effectively. He said some communities, like those around Norfolk, Va., have worked hard in recent years to update their plans. The rest?

“Some have done more than others,” he said.





Fort Bend County Still Among the Fastest-Growing Counties in the United States

29 04 2015

FBC mapThe primary purpose of this blog is to focus on emergency management.  Of course, we want to pay special attention to Fort Bend County and its efforts to provide a safe and secure environment for its citizens and businesses.  The Fort Bend County Office of Emergency Management coordinates disaster mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery activities to provide the safe environment noted above.  So, you might ask, why does this blog sometimes feature articles on economic development and population growth?  Because the construction of more housing, the locating of more businesses, and the arrival of new families has a direct effect on emergency management activities in the County.

Our County is now the 10th largest county in Texas having experienced a 57% rate in growth over the last decade. The efforts of our elected officials and the business community in Fort Bend County have caused this expansion which has created more jobs, more tax dollars, and dynamic business centers to create opportunity and diversity like no other place in Texas. Day in and day out, our population of almost 700,00 enjoys a fantastic environment for working and going to school and playing in a County which is the envy of most others, not only in the State of Texas, but in the nation.

On March 26, 2015, The Texas Tribune published an article about the growth of Texas’ population and the clear trend that the suburbs in metropolitan areas are demonstrating the quickest growth.  The article was written by Alexa Ura.  The reporter indicates that three of the State’s counties ranked among the fastest-growing areas in the United States based on recently released demographic information released by the United States Census Bureau.  Ura writes that “Fort Bend County, home to about 652,000 people in 2013, grew by 4.7 percent and ranked as the sixth-fastest-growing county. Southwest of Houston, Fort Bend has been called the most ethnically diverse county in the U.S. because its population comes the closest to having an equal division of the nation’s four major ethnic communities — Asian, black, Hispanic and white. The county comprises several Houston suburbs, including Sugar Land and Richmond.”  Additionally, Lloyd Potter, the State of Texas demographer estimates that “Fort Bend County would eventually outgrow the suburb label given the rate of its population increase.”

However, this creates a challenge—— to paraphrase from familiar scripture—– “though we are blessed in Fort Bend County, much is required to make sure that our beautiful landscapes, historic landmarks, and stable community is not devastated by natural or man-made threats.”  Fort Bend County, through the leadership of County Judge Bob Hebert and the Commissioners Court, recognizes the need to improve the quality of life in our County through economic development, but also the charge to, not only protect the safety of our citizens, but also to instill confidence that Fort Bend citizens can go about raising families, conducting business and living their lives without abnormal fears from those who wish us harm, or the unpredictability of natural disasters.

 





Internship Opportunity at Fort Bend County OEM

24 04 2015

Fort Bend County OEM is looking for some summer help.   Today, the Department posted the position of Planning Intern.  The position is designed to be filled for about 12 weeks during Summer 2015.  This position will provide professional support to the operation of the Emergency Management Department in a temporary capacity. The position supports full-time staff by assisting with homeland security and all-hazards planning projects, and assists with development of plans and procedures necessary to achieve compliance with federal, state, and local regulations.

More information:  Job Posting





April Showers…………….help the State of Texas Recover from Drought

20 04 2015

hereThe last edition of the Texas Emergency Management Online provides a good summary overview of drought conditions in the State.  We know that the last week or so has caused a tremendous amount of rain in our area, along with some severe weather.  Much of the State has also received a good dose of rain this week.  This is a good thing (of course, not the severe weather part); it helps to fill our lakes and aquifers which are in need of more water.  Information from the Texas Emergency Management Online:

For the past few months, drought conditions around Texas have been a mixed bag. East Texas has seen tremendous recovery, while North Central and Central Texas keep slipping back into severe and exceptional drought conditions. Most reservoirs west of I-35 are still at historic lows. Overall, the state’s current reservoirs are at 68.4 percent full, up four percent from last year.

C’mon, El Niño! Currently, the Climate Prediction Center has issued an El Niño advisory due to conditions in the tropical Pacific. Traditionally, El Nino brings increased moisture to Texas—a welcome relief to much of the state. The National Weather Service is predicting that there is a 50-60 percent chance for El Niño conditions to continue in the Northern Hemisphere until summer 2015. The expected presence of El Niño is causing predictions for above normal rainfall over the next three months for most of Western Texas and some of the central region, where drought is predicted to intensify or persist.





This Day in Texas Disaster History – April 16th

16 04 2015

April 16, 1947 – Ammonium Nitrate Explosion, Texas City, TX

The Texas City disaster was an industrial accident that occurred April 16, 1947, in the Port of Texas City. It generally considered the worst industrial accident in U.S. history, and one of the largest non-nuclear explosions. Originating with a mid-morning fire on board the French-registered vessel SS Grandcamp (docked in the port), its cargo of approximately 2,300 tons (approximately 2,100 metric tons) of ammonium nitrate detonated, with the initial blast and subsequent chain-reaction of further fires and explosions in other ships and nearby oil-storage facilities killing at least 581 people, including all but one member of the Texas City fire department; 27 of the 28 members of Texas City’s volunteer fire department and 3 members of the Texas City Heights Volunteer Fire Department who were on the docks near the burning ship were killed.

One firefighter, Fred Dowdy, who had not responded to the initial call, coordinated other firefighters arriving from communities up to 60 miles (100 km) away. Eventually 200 firefighters arrived, from as far away as Los Angeles. Fires resulting from the cataclysmic events were still burning a week after the disaster, and the process of body recovery took nearly a month. All four fire engines of Texas City were twisted and burned hulks.  It is said that one positive result of the Texas City disaster was widespread disaster response planning to help organize plant, local, and regional responses to emergencies.

Hundreds of lawsuits were filed as a result of the disaster.  The disaster triggered the first ever class action lawsuit against the United States government, under the then-recently enacted Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), on behalf of 8,485 victims.

 





Disturbing News on the Hurricane Forecasting Front

15 04 2015

Photo-Hurricane KatrinaSo in my last blog entry, I encouraged taking hurricane preparedness activities for those that live in Fort Bend County; it is that time of the year, June 1st is the official start of the 2015 Hurricane Season.  It is important because the last hurricane strike in our region was back in 2008 when Hurricane Ike devastated Galveston County.

People have become apathetic about hurricane preparedness because they don’t really remember Hurricane Ike; and they don’t remember how bad it really was for many living in our region.  How soon we forget.

Then I turned to my latest issue of Disaster Research News published by the University of Colorado at Boulder. From its April 10th edition, Jolie Breeden provides information on some cuts to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration budget that will reduce hurricane forecasting capabilities in the future.  I find these cuts disturbing.

Sure, examples of major hurricanes making landfall in the United States are not readily available from recent years— but the threat still exists—- and will continue to exist. Perhaps no major hurricanes will make landfall in the United States this year or next year; but it is simply a matter of time.  It is a question of “when” and not “if.”  And, when the next major hurricane makes landfall in the United States (and hopefully not in the Houston Urban Area), there will be questions about why the hurricane forecasting budget was slashed in 2015.  Here is Breeden’s article:

The Most Unkindest Cut: Hurricane Forecasting Takes a Hit

Jolie Breeden

It’s sometimes wise to stop while ahead, although probably not in the area of improving hurricane forecasts. Still, it seems the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has chosen to do just that with a nearly $10 million cut to its Hurricane Forecasting Improvement Program.

The cut, which represents nearly two-thirds of the program budget, was announced this month during a presentation at the National Hurricane Conference in Austin, Texas. According to presentation materials, the dearth of funds will likely result in a focus on more immediate forecasts (as opposed to 7-day forecasting goals), elimination of global modeling efforts, a reduction in funding to academic partners, and fewer real-time experimental products.

While the magnitude of the cut and the program elements affected are alarming, the National Weather Service’s Chris Vaccaro told Slate the outlook wasn’t entirely bleak.

“It’s important to emphasize that there is still funding for HFIP, work is still being done and advancements will continue to be made,” Vaccaro said, pointing to additional $4 million for super-computing that isn’t included in the cut.

Even so, scientists are concerned that hobbling the successful program—in five years the HFIP has made impressive advancements in both hurricane tracking and intensity forecasts—will have a chilling effect.

“It would be a shame to radically reduce this effort when gains seem to be in reach,” Bill Read, former director of the National Hurricane Center told the Washington Post. “While some improvements in the science of intensity forecasting may be attributed to HFIP over the past several years, more work is needed.”

Others point to the defunding as a myopic solution that will cost the United States more than it saves in the long run.

“Undeniably hurricane track improvement translates to lives and dollars saved,” Marshall Shepherd told Slate. “It is shortsighted to stunt this progress and hinder potential improvement in intensity forecasts. We can’t continue to be a culture that cuts progress, then panics only after a horrific tragedy.”

Lack of recent tragedy is perhaps one reason making the cut more palatable. It’s been nearly ten years since a Category 3 or stronger storm made landfall in the United States. Without the momentum of a recent disaster driving need, it can be hard to secure funding and prove program effectiveness.

Regardless of the will to continue funding at adequate levels, the NOAA budget (skip to page 758 for a quick access) clearly states the impacts of decreased support for the HFIP—coastal communities could experience unnecessary evacuations, NOAA’s reputation among the research community is at risk, and lagging improvement in HFIP models could affect a number of forecasting products.

But most of all, as University Corporation for Atmospheric Research President Tom Bogdan points out in an editorial that champions forecast funding in general, the biggest risks are those that cascade from not making long-term investments in much-needed science.

“The growing ability to forecast the weather plays a significant role in protecting our homeland, our businesses, our infrastructure and most importantly, our families and communities,” he wrote. “We need to continue to ensure that our society is prepared to meet the challenges and dangers of living inside Earth’s dynamic atmosphere.”