The consistent message that cities are all getting from state and federal agencies is that we (local government) will be on our own when a disaster strikes. YOYO (“You’re on your own”)–the latest acronym from the post-September 11 and Katrina eras. It’s a grim reminder that the old adage is true–local government IS where the rubber hits the road and we’re constantly reminded of it these days from our colleagues in Sacramento and Washington.
The impression from the local perspective is that the higher levels of government have done an outstanding job of saying that we cannot really count on them to provide response leadership or strength when a pandemic flu or earthquake or damaging flood hits a locality.
In our community and the Bay Area region, we have learned these lessons the hard way–by living through disasters. The response and recovery debacle in the Gulf Coast has sensitized the state and federal agencies to the fact that they had better start saying now they won’t be there when the next Big One hits.
This sentiment is mirrored in presentations given by countless senior bureaucrats who, under the guise of inter-jurisdictional communication, say that cities and counties must take heed and shoulder responsibility for enacting (and funding) their community safety efforts.
Many times in the last two years, I’ve attended workshops and conferences that admonish the locals for not being prepared for the extraordinary situations they could face–whether it be catastrophic disasters or infectious disease pandemics. One of the most quoted people in disaster circles these days is Secretary Michael Leavitt, from the federal Department of Health and Human Services:
“Any local government that fails to prepare expecting the federal or state government to step in will be tragically wrong.”
I’m convinced that these messages are a pre-event insurance policy (or damage control) for people who are not willing to assume the responsibility for which they are charged by the communities they serve. These admonitions fly in the face of the basic tenet of government–to secure the public’s safety.
The news from Sacramento is startling–recent reports from the Little Hoover Commission and the State Auditor mirror what we’ve seen from the local level for some time. Our state agencies do not have an effective way to manage regional disasters; the State Office of emergency services claims its mission is to “coordinate” disaster response activities. The state and federal investment in pre-disaster damage prevention is sadly neglected; without such financial partnership, cities cannot rebuild their fragile communities.
I do take heart in the fact that Bay Area communities have taken responsibility at the local level for the past 16 years, since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and the 1991 East Bay Hills Fire. A long list of preventive actions taken by our communities includes local programs to retrofit homes, taxes levied to pay for the rebuilding of local schools and community safety classes. Many Bay Area cities–Berkeley, Oakland, San Jose, and San Francisco– are doing what they can to protect the lives, home and well-being of our residents before the next disaster.
We can only hope it will be enough.
Arrietta Chakos is an Assistant City Manager for the City of Berkeley. Her responsibilities include intergovernmental relations and hazard mitigation. Ms. Chakos has served on disaster preparedness and hazard mitigation panels at regional, state, federal and international levels.