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date: 19 April 2018

Public Administrators in Natural Hazards Governance

Summary and Keywords

Natural hazards governance calls upon a diverse array of actors. The focus of most research—and most media coverage—has long been on governmental actors. Indeed, natural hazards governance relies on a complex arrangement of actors connected from the local, state, and national levels. Local organizations are the initial point of contact and face emerging threats. If the event exceeds the capacity of local organizations to respond, the governance system escalates the problem by expanding the participants to include state-level and, eventually, national-level actors. Natural hazards governance seeks to smooth and rationalize this process of escalation and expansion. Recent research has expanded this view to include nongovernmental actors like charitable organizations, religious institutions, and even private business. While charitable organizations have long been part of natural hazards governance, a broader range of charities, religious institutions, and private-sector companies has recently become more important to practice and scholarship. In many ways, the governance of these nongovernmental organizations resembles the structure of the governmental structure with its emphasis on escalation, expansion, and functional differentiation. Given the inclusion of so diverse a group of cooperating organizations, natural hazards governance faces notable challenges of communication, authority, and reliability.

Keywords: public administration, public policy, inter-organizational collaboration, intergovernmental relations

Introduction—A Chemical Spill in West Virginia

On January 9, 2014, a Freedom Industries facility in West Virginia inadvertently released 4-Methylclohexanemethanol (MCHM), a chemical foaming agent used in the processing of coal, into the Elk River one mile upstream from the intake for the regional water treatment and distribution center. Responding to complaints of a sweet or licorice smell to the drinking water, the West Virginia Division of Environmental Protection (DEP) began an investigation that would lead to a ban on the use of tap water for drinking, cooking, bathing, or washing that would affect more than 300,000 residents in the surrounding nine counties. That same day the West Virginia governor declared a state of emergency; and on January 10, President Obama followed suit, issuing a federal declaration.

The immediate response required provision of clean water for the area residents and establishing guidelines for exposure and safe levels for the MCHM and protocols for removing the chemical from the water supply and water systems. Five days after the initial response, the process of cleanup and establishing safe exposure levels was complicated when Freedom Industries revealed that the leaking tank also contained propylene glycol phenyl ether (PPH).

By January 15, the Do Not Use order had been lifted for approximately half of the affected area, and on February 28 the governor ended the state of emergency after water for all citizens in the region was deemed appropriate for use. Yet the impacts from this event would continue to reverberate throughout the region and the governance structure for the foreseeable future. West Virginia is accustomed to responding to environmental threats from industrial and mining activities; however, the state had never seen an industrial threat jeopardize the safety of the general public on this scale. This case is unique because it forced the organizational leaders to identify how to respond to an atypical event and make decisions on the fly about who should respond, how they should respond, how to balance the environmental and human threats, and how to access subject matter experts and incorporate relevant expertise to assist with highly complex questions in a timely manner. This tragedy in West Virginia provides a useful example to illustrate the diversity of public administrators in natural hazards governance.

The traditional view of public administration emphasizes the role of government organizations in natural hazards governance—and this example of disaster response, in particular. However, recent work has noted the important roles played by nongovernmental actors including charities, religious organizations, and private-sector organizations. This new wave of actors extends the capacities of a community as it responds to natural hazards, but it brings with it challenges for communication and coordination. All of these organizations now must work together to reduce community vulnerability and to respond in the case of a disaster.

Government Organizations in Natural Hazards Governance

Natural hazards become disasters when they threaten vulnerable communities. Disasters are the result of a cascade of failures as a natural hazard overwhelms first local assets and then broader social systems. Government represents an inescapable part of the process of natural hazards governance as government resources represent a significant part of how most societies respond to the cascading failures brought on by natural hazards (Kapucu & Özerdem, 2013).

It should not surprise us that government is integral to these community processes. Government organizations are a common tool for organizing social resources—particularly in cases where needs are likely to exceed an individual’s ability to protect himself or herself. In one of its functions, and in the function most relevant to natural hazards governance, governments serve as a form of risk mitigation and insurance for individuals. The government’s position as a large collective entity allows it to pool resources and risks. Individuals may support the government for years without drawing on disaster assistance when, as is hopefully typical, they do not require government disaster assistance. When a hazard does strike the individual’s community and exceeds the community’s capacity to respond, then the individual can call upon government disaster assistance (Sylves, 2015).

This raises questions about what is called moral hazard. Moral hazard is present when a person may change behaviors if she or he knows that they will be protected from the consequences of the behavior. A person may drive differently when she knows she is insured if she gets into an accident. A homeowner may buy a house that is perilously close to water if he knows that he will be insured against loss in a flood. Moral hazard plagues government programs that serve as natural hazards insurance—whether as a direct insurance program or in the assurance of resources in the case that a community is unable to respond to a hazard. There is a persistent concern that such programs may lead individuals and communities to underinvest in vulnerability reduction because they rely on government or believe that other levels of government will cover them in case of a natural hazard.

There are other justifications for a governmental role in natural hazards governance. First, the government can operate on a scale to match the scope of a natural hazard that can affect many localities simultaneously. Second, the government can use the resources related to its monopoly on the legitimate use of force (i.e., police and military powers) to assist in disaster response activities. These reasons together motivate a central role of government in natural hazards governance.

The West Virginia Chemical Spill (EM-3366) saw a seemingly trivial event escalate rapidly into one affecting one-sixth of the entire state population. Indeed, the first individuals to identify the leak were so unconcerned with the event that the only attempt made to contain the spill was by placing a cinder block with a 50 pound sack of safety absorbent powder to stop the flow of 4-Methylclohexanemethanol (MCHM) out of the containment dike. Investigators from the West Virginia Division of Environmental Protection (DEP) discovered the leak by 11:10, and the leadership of the regional water treatment and distribution center were notified before 12:00 the same day. An initial assumption was made that the contaminant could be filtered, but by 16:00 it was evident that the carbon filtration system could not handle the large volume of contaminant. Due in large part to several critically poor decisions, the Elk River watershed area was in need of clean water supplies for approximately 300,000 people in a period of only five hours. Despite the accessing of the state emergency assets, this event rapidly grew from nuisance to one requiring federal resources.1

The Basic Logic of Escalation in Governmental Response

The role of governmental organizations stems from a deep logic implied by the social insurance justification for governmental activity in natural hazards governance. In its insuring role, government action is predominately reactive.2 The underlying logic is one of failure-based escalation (Sylves, 2015, p. 160). Only when a set of local resources fails are larger and broader governmental institutions brought into natural hazards governance.

Local and State Organizations

Failure-based escalation implies that all hazards begin with a local effect (McEntire, 2007). Every hurricane starts with a coastal community hit by the oncoming storm. Every earthquake has an epicenter and more heavily affected areas. The West Virginia chemical spill started from a specific point source of contaminant—a leaking tank feeding a four-foot-wide stream of chemical pollutant.

The first groups on the scene are conveniently known as “first responder organizations.” These organizations typically represent law enforcement and fire control organizations but can also include emergency medical technicians (EMTs), or, in the case of West Virginia, regulatory inspectors. Most threats, even those related to natural hazards, never escalate to become a disaster because the threats are adequately addressed by these first responders. Active efforts to control traffic around a flooded area or the suppression of a local fire can prevent these threats from becoming disasters. Operations like these constitute what Boin and ’t Hart argue make up the “operational” component of a response (Boin & ’t Hart, 2010).

Of course, the best efforts of first responder organizations are insufficient to address large-scale threats. There was no level of effort from first-responders that would have made Hurricanes Sandy or Katrina into a locally controllable event. In the West Virginia spill, the first responders faced a situation in which the threat had already grown and would require specialized equipment and expertise. This required the expansion of the response to bring in these specialized resources to contain the threat and more extensive resources to respond to the insult to the regional social systems.

It is at this stage that a threat rises to the level (having exceeded that capacity of the first responders) that a community-level response is needed. This is typically the point at which a disaster or emergency is declared and a broader range of community resources becomes available to address the threat. This may come in the form of a designated government office holder (e.g., a county judge) or a specific professional whose primary responsibility is to address potential disasters (including those beyond the bounds of natural hazards, like terrorism). It is at this point that the event has risen to the level of “strategic” response (Boin & ’t Hart, 2010).

The point at which a designated official declares a state of emergency brings the diverse array of community resources to bear to address a threat. This is typically referred to as the “activation” of the emergency management apparatus or office. Activation begins a series of changes in the emergency response including a predetermined chain of command (to reduce potential conflicts), expanded legal authorities for emergency officials, and increased participation of diverse organizations. In the case of the WV spill, this meant activation of the State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC), regional response teams, and the State Emergency Response Commission (SERC)—a group created by SARA Title III to provide information on hazardous chemicals.

Increased dissatisfaction with the speed of activation, and the expanded access to resources that is supposed to come from it, has led many organizations to activate before events force such an activation under the traditional logic of escalation. Pre-activation allows for coordinating officials, be they official emergency managers or other key actors, to act before events render some actions more costly or difficult. For example, before hurricanes a pre-activated emergency management system may arrange for early delivery of key resources (e.g., bottled water, fuel) and the arrangement of the resources in the areas where they are likely to be most needed in the case of a disaster.

After activation, the range of actors expands beyond first responder organizations and the official manager of the emergency situation. The emergency manager may call on resources ranging from shelters to hospitals to communication. Emergency managers need a method for organizing the potentially bewildering array of resources. This is done through the Emergency Service Function (ESF) system of Incident Command System (ICS)—the basis of the national response framework.

ESFs include fifteen groups of response functions necessary to ameliorate the effects of disasters. The ESF system lays out this series of specific functions along with responsible parties for each function. For example, ESF-6 typically covers mass shelter operations. In a situation where an emergency manager needs assistance to provide temporary shelter or housing for people displaced by, say, a tornado or a flood, a component of the emergency plan keyed to ESF-6 will direct the emergency manager to resources relevant to this function. This may include specific contacts at the American Red Cross (ARC) or even a roster of specific potential shelters such as school buildings or religious institutions.

State-Level Organizations

It is only when the diverse resources available at the local level have failed to address the threat (or, as is increasingly the favored strategy, there is a perceived inevitability of such failure) that state-level resources become involved in the emergency situation. It is often at this stage that the threat is categorized as a disaster because it is at this point that an entire community system, the local-level system, has failed to address the threat brought about by the hazard.

In many ways, the state-level organization parallels many of the structures present at the local level. Policies will define a state-level coordinator who serves in the role of incident commander in which the local emergency manager had served. In larger events where more than one individual is necessary to manage the incident, the structure will be adapted to a unified command—where multiple individuals will function as a single entity. As this role is complicated by the added responsibility of now coordinating with local officials still involved in local activities as well as coordinating state-level resources, the response structure can be adapted to include area commands—but area commands typically do not include an operational function.

State-level actors have some more diverse kinds of resources available to them. Most important, state-level actors have access to National Guard resources. This provides state-level actors with a supply of trained personnel and large equipment well-suited to assist in traffic and population control and other key activities in emergency response. It is at this point that the emergency response has expanded to include most of the types of activities that one will eventually see in a full, national response.

During the WV spill, the state Guard played an important function, as they have expertise in making and distributing water. In addition, the Guard has unique skills for sampling and identifying unknown chemical and biological threats. The West Virginia National Guard 35th Civil Support Team played a key role in sampling efforts over a 3,000-square-mile area to track the threat.

States also have the ability to access resources of other states through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) (Kapucu & Özerdem, 2013, pp. 200–201). This is an interstate mutual aid agreement that complements the national system and can allow states to address a threat that exceeds the state capacity without having to activate the national system.

Federal Organizations

If the state-level resources also prove inadequate to address the threat presented by a hazard, the problem again escalates to include federal public administrators. While most of the activity in natural hazards governance is at the local and state level, the federal administrative organizations represent the most familiar organizations in natural hazards governance (Britton, 2007; Haddow, Bullock, & Coppola, 2008).

The marquee name for public administration in natural hazards governance is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). FEMA serves as the coordinator of federal assets to support local and state emergency management systems. This coordinating role is vitally important to understand. FEMA serves largely to provide resources to other state and local organizations to provide services—rather than providing services on their own. Much to the disappointment of conspiracy theorists, FEMA does not have a large workforce that directly provides services. Instead, it serves to coordinate and fund the activities of others. More than anything, FEMA serves as a conduit of federal resources to state and local actors—be those resources federal expertise or direct payments.

FEMA operates from within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The inclusion of FEMA within DHS is intended to provide it more ready access to other elements of the DHS including the US Coast Guard (USCG) and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Furthermore, FEMA serves as a point of coordination for resources from other departments and independent agencies. Housing and Urban Development (HUD), for example, may be involved in efforts to provide long-term housing options for people displaced by natural hazards. If a hazard brings with it threats to public health, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), including such units as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), may also become involved. These are the major federal agencies that are most likely to be involved in some element of natural hazards governance.

Federal law enforcement activities call for special attention. Just as law enforcement officers are often involved in first response activities, federal law enforcement officers are often involved in federal natural hazards governance. In the most basic sense, natural hazards governance leans on law enforcement organizations for a variety of peacekeeping functions including enforcing traffic restrictions—though these functions rely heavily on local law enforcement offices. What is less obvious is the connection between federal law enforcement organizations and less common functions such as criminal investigations. Within natural hazards governance, questions of criminal misconduct related to hazards is fairly rare (with forest fire being a notable exception). However, hazards governance generally has moved toward an “all-hazards” approach to governance. As a result, the governance system for responding to all potential disasters (including natural disasters and other non-natural hazards such as technological or terrorist threats) includes representatives of law enforcement organizations such as the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and even the various branches of the military service (beyond the USCG, which is already included through its position within DHS). As a result, federal law enforcement organizations have a prominent role in natural hazards governance even in situations where there is little thought of criminal activity as a cause of the hazard—in part because there is continuing concern that criminals and terrorists may use natural hazards as an opportunity to attack a particularly vulnerable community.

FEMA immediately provided over a million liters of drinking water to the residents in the affected portions of West Virginia, and continued to provide water to distribution centers throughout the state. In addition, FEMA provided public assistance in the form of grants and emergency work dollars in excess of $3.3 million.

FEMA is not the only federal organization with primary responsibilities for disaster response. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) houses the National Disaster Medical System (NDMS). NDMS occupies a role as the lead organization for ESF-8, Public Health and Medical Systems. Response activities within ESF-8 include assessments of public health needs, health surveillance, medical care personnel, veterinary services, patient evacuation, patient care, mental health care, agriculture safety and security, food safety, and mass fatality management. Because of the threat to human and animal health, DHHS, working with the Environmental Protection Agency and US Fish and Wildlife Service, had a large role in the response to the chemical spill in West Virginia. Additionally, these agencies played a major role in the response that was not direct action.

Discussing disaster response colloquially, it is easy to think of responders as those taking direct action or in terms of “boots on the ground.” A large part of the federal role in disaster response deals with reducing uncertainty by making technical expertise immediately available. This includes technical knowledge from toxicology experts at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the National Toxicology Program (NTP), and the many scientists throughout the National Laboratories and the National Academies. Because the spill in West Virginia was a chemical that was not heavily regulated, precious little information was available as to the nature of the hazard. MCHM was identified as a hazardous substance by the plant operator as required by law; however, the state of West Virginia does not inspect storage tanks (as opposed to manufacturing or processing), and above-ground tanks are not regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Because MCHM is not regulated by the Department of Transportation (DOT) for shipping, responders had no information as to toxicity beyond the immediate effects available on the manufacturer Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). In this instance, it was imperative for responders to be able to access the technical capacity maintained in universities and research laboratories throughout the nation. EPA worked closely with the CDC and the National Laboratories, while the National Science Foundation utilized Rapid grants to generate answers to these unknowns in support of the disaster response.

Non-Response Activities

The various governmental organizations involved in the natural hazards governance response to an event have been discussed. Of course, there are a variety of activities that are not directly related to response activities. There are several programs and agencies that seek to reduce vulnerability to natural hazards before the specific hazards present themselves—though many argue that investment in pre-event vulnerability reduction is far below where it should be.

The two most common pre-event investments to make our communities less vulnerable to natural disasters are preparedness and mitigation activities (Haddow et al., 2008). Preparedness activities involve the training of individuals to reduce the initial vulnerability to the natural hazards. Some of these activities are focused on household preparedness. Various government programs encourage people to prepare their home by establishing plans for communication (in the events of a hazard that occurs during the work or school day), evacuation (if the household itself must be evacuated), and stockpiling key resources (if the household loses access to grocery stores, etc. in the aftermath of a local disaster).

Some federal programs provide direct assistance to households to improve these vulnerability reduction activities. Programs to assist households in purchasing tornado shelters in tornado-prone communities are simple examples of this style of program. Rather than creating a large network of public shelters, government policymakers have increasingly relied on subsidies for household shelters. Typically, these programs reimburse for some percentage of the costs of the shelter.

Preparedness efforts are not entirely focused on household-level activities. Preparedness efforts may also support efforts of other organizations: businesses, charities, even other government organizations. For example, a large federal program sought to reduce the vulnerability of charities to potential terrorist attack in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the United States. The DHS created and funded the program to cover the costs of efforts such as improved traffic and parking flow to reduce vulnerability, adoption of technology for surveillance of the locations, and the like. The funding was sent to each of the states to fund projects within their jurisdiction. The states chose the specific projects to fund. Local efforts, some organized through local government or regional planning organizations like councils of government (COGs), recruited potential recipients, assisted in the authoring of the proposals, and sometimes served as the local financial administrator of the program. As this example makes clear, these preparedness efforts can involve multiple sectors (here the government sector providing resources to the charitable sector) and multiple levels of government—sometimes all within the same program (Gerber & Robinson, 2009).

There are two approaches to mitigation projects: built mitigation and regulatory mitigation. Built mitigation (sometimes called structural mitigation—because you are building structures) activities involve large investments to reduce the vulnerability of the community. Building a dam to reduce flooding hazards is a vivid example of such mitigation efforts. Built mitigation activities tend to be highly hazard-specific. The sorts of investments that reduce vulnerability to flooding do little for reducing vulnerability to earthquakes. What is common across mitigation activities are the size of the investment and the intent to reduce vulnerability. These are often projects that can only be staged by government organizations to invest the millions (or more) required to build these community elements.

Regulatory mitigation operates through different mechanisms. Government organizations can use their regulatory authority rather than direct building. This is a particularly common approach to mitigate vulnerability related to earthquakes and flooding hazards. In a regulatory mitigation program, government regulators define rules that private-sector builders are required to follow when constructing new buildings. For earthquakes, these rules define how resistant the buildings must be to shaking. For flooding, the rules may simply ban construction in flood-prone areas or require purchasing extended flood insurance for any building in those areas. Regulatory mitigation, along with preparedness efforts, are non-structural forms of mitigation.

As of 2017, there has been no additional mitigation of the hazards that led to the chemical spill disaster in West Virginia in 2014. This is unfortunate because while the specific substances involved in the West Virginia chemical spill pose little long-term effects themselves, the event demonstrated a weakness in the regulatory approach to mitigating the hazards of industrial activities.

Nongovernmental Organizations in Natural Hazards Governance

Public administrators have traditionally been defined as an official of a city, county, state, or national government, but more recent literature in the field demonstrates that the devolution of governmental responsibilities through partnerships, quasi-public organizations, and contracting out has led to individuals in private and nonprofit organizations assuming the duties, and therefore the obligations, of traditional public administrators. For most of the 20th century, the scholarly literature on natural hazards governance has focused on the diverse array of government organizations relevant to natural hazards governance. Recent work illustrates how incomplete even this view of natural hazards governance has been. Limiting the view to government organizations has prevented the scholarly literature from fully appreciating the important roles played by nongovernmental organizations.

For example, during the Elk River, West Virginia, chemical spill there were many immediate needs that were not being met by governmental actors. The need for potable water was greater than the capacity of the state to provide it, and inadvertent mistakes with water by disaster professionals meant the demand was even higher than expected. To answer this call, many disaster nonprofits currently organized through the West Virginia Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (WV-VOAD) and many non-disaster nonprofits mobilized and provided safe drinking water for the region.

This expanded view of public administration in natural hazards governance has coincided with a general movement within public administration to consider the contributions of nongovernmental actors in traditionally government systems. Some of this emphasis has been driven by pressures to provide services through contracts with private sector firms (Sylves, 2015). In other cases, the emphasis has simply reflected a slow recognition that nonprofit and charitable organizations have long served as partners with and providers of services for governmental organizations (Kapucu, 2006; Simo & Bies, 2007). While a poverty program may have been managed by government, it may have involved a local religious institution or charitable organization actually running a nutrition program. This recent use of the term governance has emphasized how any policy domain (including natural hazards) involves the coordinated effort of government and nongovernment organizations.

Many nongovernmental organizations have been involved in natural hazards governance for long before the 1990s, but their role has only recently become appreciated and publicized.

Nonprofit Organizations

Nonprofit organizations have been involved in natural hazards governance for longer than the US government has. Before the creation of government (particularly federal) efforts in natural hazards governance, charitable and religious organizations had been the largest sources of assistance for people affected by a natural hazard. Local religious institutions may have provided temporary housing for a family whose home was lost in a flood. Benevolent or civic organizations may have given direct assistance to these families to help them re-establish their life after the disruption.

Out of this milieu emerged large nonprofit organizations that provided a focus for nongovernmental efforts. The most notable of these emerging specialist organizations was the American Red Cross (ARC).3 The ARC built throughout the 20th century to provide a network of disaster assistance—with particular attention to providing shelter and collecting blood donations. The ARC grew to cover almost the entire United States with a federal system that paralleled the government organizational system already described. Local offices represent the ARC in local planning and response activities. If the local resources prove insufficient, the local ARC office can appeal to its state office for additional resources. In extraordinary circumstances the federal office can coordinate resource sharing across states or provide direct national resources. The central role played by the ARC was codified with its inclusion as the party primarily responsible for sheltering activities in the federal plan for ESF-6 (mass care and sheltering).

Other large nonprofit organizations provide services ranging from the local to the national scale. Many of these organizations provide social support services generally and only thereby become involved in natural hazards governance. The United Way, for example, serves as a coordinating organization for many smaller organizations to provide a single voice and rationalization of effort. Inevitably, the United Way becomes involved in natural hazards governance as potential and experienced natural disasters pressure social services. A series of floods, for example, is likely to put pressure on food banks even if the food banks were not primarily intended to provide disaster assistance.

Religious institutions have also created parallel local-to-national systems that participate in natural hazards governance. Catholic Relief Services (within Catholic Charities USA), for example, has a large national organization representing the efforts of their member churches from local communities to the national office. Southern Baptists have several organizations that represent their efforts to provide disaster assistance.

Different religious organizations often specialize in different disaster services for natural hazards governance. One Southern Baptist organization specializes in removing mud and debris from houses and communities (to open up roads). Another is famous within the natural hazards community for running excellent kitchens for people displaced by disasters. Some religious denominations specialize in providing psychological support while others specialize in logistics.

The division of labor across various religious and other charitable organizations has created a need for coordination. Some coordination is possible through governmental organizations with local emergency managers or even Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) coordinating the provision of services by these nongovernmental organizations. However, some organizations (particularly organizations whose primary identity is not directly related to disaster assistance) felt that they were not sufficiently included in planning activities and other natural hazards governance activities. To address this lack of a voice in the system, they organized together to create a unified representative for their interests. In many communities, this voice took the form of a VOAD (an acronym for “voluntary organizations active in disaster”). Now there is a national VOAD group—helpfully called NVOAD—that seeks to represent the various local VOAD groups in national natural hazards governance.

While the efforts of charitable and religious organizations are increasingly recognized, these organizations still struggle for recognition. The NVOAD has sought to increase the public’s awareness of their members’ contributions to natural hazards governance—especially in a setting where the public still thinks that most disaster services are delivered by governmental organizations like FEMA. They seek to impress upon the public the millions of dollars of effort offered by their members every year that would otherwise fall to the government or individual households to provide.

Private-Sector Organizations

Of course, the private sector is also involved in natural hazards governance though it is not typically discussed in terms of public policy (Tierney, 2007). The governance approach to public administration emphasizes the inclusion of nongovernment organizations. In the public administration literature, this often includes private-sector organizations as the direct providers of government-funded services. For example, the literature on welfare governance has emphasized the role of private-sector companies in providing welfare services, work training, and more.

This emphasis on private-sector organizations is less pronounced within the natural hazards governance literature. The sense that natural disasters operate on a scale that demands government action may have contributed to the de-emphasis on nongovernmental organizations—and private-sector organizations in particular. Of course, the private sector is and has always been involved in natural hazards and natural hazards governance. First, private-sector organizations (like households) have always been affected by natural hazards and have sought to plan or to seek assistance following events. Second, the private sector possesses many resources that are useful in disaster response—ranging from bottled water to construction equipment. It is impossible, then, to establish natural hazards governance without some regard for the private sector.

It is useful to distinguish between two types of private-sector organizations relevant to natural hazards governance: disaster businesses and non-disaster businesses. Disaster businesses provide services of direct and obvious use in disaster governance. These are organizations for which disasters are a significant part of their core business. For example, businesses that specialize in property remediation and cleaning are obviously important in the events following a flooding hazard. Private security organizations also find contracts to provide services in communities where government law enforcement is either distracted or otherwise disrupted in the wake of a disaster. These organizations represent a disaster industry whose core business model involves preparedness to assist people who are affected by a natural hazard or other disasters.

The second type of business is only incidentally tied to natural hazards governance. These are organizations that provide services or goods that are not primarily targeted to disaster situations but whose services become particularly important in the aftermath of a disaster. An easy example of this is a local hotel. If people are displaced by a natural hazard, they may seek housing at a hotel rather than a free shelter. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, for example, many hotels just outside of the most heavily affected areas were at capacity for months as people stayed there waiting for their houses and neighborhoods to become habitable. In a study of media coverage following Hurricane Katrina, for example, a hotel chain common in the southeast United States (La Quinta) was frequently mentioned as an important part of how the community was reacting to the natural hazard (Robinson, Eller, Gall, & Gerber, 2013).

The inclusion of private-sector organizations in natural hazards governance is necessary but also potentially problematic. The private sector possess resources and expertise that are invaluable for natural hazards governance. In the case of a chemical spill from a private facility, it is the private company that has the best information on the nature of the contaminant, for instance. Reliance on the availability of indirectly involved private-sector companies may, if anything, be more important. Evacuations involve hotels and other forms of private temporary housing. Those people now living in hotels will draw even more heavily on local restaurants and services like laundry than would be expected in the absence of the evacuated population. The examples will vary to some degree in the specific private-sector businesses involved, but the sector is involved in any natural hazards governance system.

There are also important concerns about the greater integration of private-sector interests in natural hazards governance. There is some concern, for example, that the inclusion of businesses that are primarily interested in disaster services may see more interest in participation as a means to drive their profits than in providing excellent services. Public-sector emergency managers often voice concern that it is hard to maintain the attention of businesses whose business is not intimately tied to disaster services (a concern shared with nonprofit organizations that are similarly not tied to disaster services).

Challenges of Coordination in Natural Hazards Governance

The diversity of public administrators engaged in natural hazards promises great opportunity for the provision of disaster services. Expanding the view of natural hazards governance to include not only government organizations but also nonprofit and for-profit organizations has increased the range of potential resources that can be brought to bear to address needs related to natural hazards. Now the full range of the community can be utilized to support preparedness as well as response. While this is fortuitous, it has brought new challenges, as someone or some organization has to coordinate the various resources present within the community.

The simplest challenge to notice is the difficulty of communicating information across this broad range of actors. This challenge exists at both the tactical and the strategic levels. At the tactical level, this broad array of actors needs to know where short-term needs are present (where people need bottled water) and what areas are too dangerous. At the strategic level, a convener is essential to bring together all of these parties for emergency planning and preparedness operations.

Frequently, the absence of official channels of communication complicates any effort to coordinate activities across this governance system. If an emergency manager needs to alert members of a particular need (or danger), she has to adopt an ad hoc communication strategy to reach the various elements of the governance network. Some efforts have sought to institutionalize membership and communications within the network. One example is the regular meeting of members within some venue like a regional planning organization or council of government (CoG). Within these working groups, regular meetings create opportunities for communication and coordination.

Even within working groups or other systematic attempts to ensure communication and coordination, emergency managers have encountered communication challenges inherent within the diversity of the natural hazards governance community and the communities it serves. The natural hazards community includes representatives of a wide variety of professional backgrounds and interests. Some actors may be career emergency management professionals, including fire protection personnel, public health officers, and law enforcement. Others may be only loosely connected to emergency management, such as hotel owners interested in coordinating housing efforts or school principals whose facilities will be used for co-sheltering of evacuees and their companion animals (to take just two examples). Even among those emergency management professionals, the diversity of professional training makes communication difficult. Fire officials bring different assumptions about hazards and hazard management than do law enforcement officials. Public health officials bring an entirely different set of assumptions. In the most obvious sense, each profession has their own set of acronyms and specialized terms for the work they do, and each has their own communication systems, from management software to personal radios that frequently are not capable of interoperability. Less obviously, each has quite different priorities about how to manage natural hazards, including the priority of issues like individual privacy and the importance of credentials for people working with those affected by the hazard. The diversity of language and other assumptions and priorities makes all communication difficult. This challenge is far more daunting among those organizations that do not focus entirely on natural hazards events.

The differences in language and assumptions can create barriers to participation—in addition to barriers of communication. The ease of communication is symptomatic of a shared identity within emergency management professionals. Representatives of organizations that deal with natural hazards on a daily basis will be familiar with terms like Emergency Service Function (ESF) or the Incident Command System (ICS). Representatives of other organizations may find these sorts of references baffling and take that as a sign that they are unwelcome. The communication barriers may reflect deeper social processes by which an inner core emerges of the full-time emergency managers and a set of managers of closely affiliated organizations (like law enforcement, public health, and even the American Red Cross [ARC]). Organizations that are not part of this inner core are relegated to a periphery with little presence and influence (Robinson, Eller, Gall, & Gerber, 2013).

Consider the example of urban planners. Planners can be integral to a coherent natural hazards governance system. Planners are uniquely well-suited to address issues of building codes, the organization of urban environments (including where people will build—including in natural hazards–prone areas), and other topics. However, the professional is considered separate from public administration and emergency management. Planners can bring important competencies, but one may have to work to integrate them with actors trained in other disciplinary traditions—just as other traditions have to learn how to communicate and operate within planning communities.

These processes of inclusion and exclusion were observed in person at a regional emergency planning meeting. A local emergency manager ran the meeting and took reports from various core members of the emergency management community. A representative of the local chapter of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) was present to discuss how her organization was offering to assist with any local community to codify policies for emergency shelters and how residents’ pets would be sheltered. The group listened patiently to her presentation and offer. Immediately following the meeting, everyone broke into pairs and small groups. There was a lot of conversation about families and personal life. No one (the observer excepted) bothered to talk to the representative from the ASPCA. She was caught in a meeting of a community that was thickly connected to each other but little concerned with bringing in new people perceived as being “outside” the inner circle (see also Robinson & Gerber, 2007).

Some of the lack of concern for newcomers may follow naturally from the attitude held by many emergency management professionals that those outside of the “inner core” are likely to wander off and not be available during an actual event. At the same meeting attended by the ASPCA representative, another point on the agenda was a database of private-sector resources that businesses had volunteered to make available to local emergency management organizations in the case of a disaster. Some local emergency managers were quite dismissive of the project because they reported that they had little faith that the designated resources would actually be available for an event months, much less years, from now. This is representative of an often-voiced concern among emergency management professionals that representatives of organizations that do not focus on natural hazards governance on a daily basis are not reliable. They may not show up in the trying times of an actual disaster. As a result, some emergency managers prefer to focus their attention on their own efforts and resources they can control. They do not want to reinforce vulnerabilities to the risk that other “outsider” organizations and their resources may not be available in an actual natural hazard event.

In addition to concerns about the reliability of “outsiders” during an event, some of this exclusionary behavior may be a product of ingroup/outgroup behavior. Disaster response is an inherently stressful profession, as evidenced by the high degree of turnover that follows major events. A great deal of this is stress related to working in a field where no loss is tolerable, and increased event salience translates into higher degrees of post hoc criticism from “outsiders.” Many public administrators in the field of natural hazards governance have an understandable concern for outsiders that may upset longstanding routines, and this is as true for emergency managers who are skeptical of academics as it is for traditional disaster nonprofits that were skeptical of emergent volunteer organizations like the Occupy movement during Superstorm Sandy.

During the West Virginia chemical spill, academics from West Virginia University actively sought ways to coordinate with responders, but they were stymied by existing structures and relationships. By not having preexisting relationships, researchers most proximate to the event were sidelined in favor of groups that were already part of the response community (such as the national academies), or by groups with enough clout to be able to breech the resistance to outside influence (such as researchers from Johns Hopkins).

Ambiguity over authority is at the heart of the concern of the emergency managers. Official emergency management organizations often serve as coordinators for natural hazards government. However, these organizations typically have direct control over only a small part of the resources needed for any disaster response. The emergency managers will reply on law enforcement and fire control organizations for personnel. They will rely on hospitals for health personnel. They may even rely on organizations like school districts for buses and shelters. The offices themselves control few resources. This is true even at the federal level. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is not a large organization in terms of resources or personnel. It has to rely on other organizations to field personnel and equipment. As a result, emergency management organizations possess little direct authority over resources vital to the success of their operations. Instead, emergency managers have to rely on the compliance of other organizations with their requests of resources.

The lack of authority within emergency management organizations creates the final—and most vexing—challenge for coordinating public administrators in natural hazards governance. Natural hazards governance involves a variety of organizations, each of which includes its own authority structure. The ties between these organizations do not typically include legally enforceable authority. Instead, agreements proceed through informal agreements or formalized but still voluntary agreements (like a memorandum of understanding). At times this can lead to conflict between organizations as each wants to manage its own resources and has its own priorities. At other times, the informal nature of these agreements can lead more to confusion than conflict as no one asserts authority and no authority is identified in policy. In both cases, time can be lost as authority is worked out in the field.

So while the National Incident Command System assigns local responders to the position of local level or community “leader,” an interesting problem arises with the expectation/authority disequilibrium in that the response system expects a level of power in a position that does not exist. Frequently, this type of individual must transcend operational to become a strategic emergency manager (Boin et al., 2008). Successful public administrators in emergency management need to allocate effort to network building and network maintenance during normal operations to ensure an ability to collaborate during the response (McEntire, 2007).


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(1.) For a more detailed history of the development of emergency management with an emphasis on the role of government, see C. B. Rubin’s excellent text (2012).

(2.) We will discuss important exceptions to this role at the end of the section.

(3.) The Red Cross now serves many countries through its broader organization, the Red Cross/Red Crescent.