Note – this may sound a little boring and governmental, but boy, is it important to know!

Local Control

The concept of local control floored me early in my emergency planning “career”. Media coverage and criticism of Washington for their disaster response (think FEMA and Hurricane Katrina), made me assume the feds were running things. NOT! Disasters are always considered local events, and emergency operations are always commanded and controlled at the local level. If you think our federal government is the boss (or white horse) in large disasters, you are wrong.

Declaration of Disaster

If a city needs help, city government declares an emergency and asks for aid from the county, which in turn can declare a state of emergency and request assistance from the state. If beyond the combined resources of both state and local governments, the governor formally requests a Major Disaster Declaration from the president. All this must happen before FEMA and other national resources become involved.

Number of Disaster Declarations during Fiscal Years 1953 through 2011. Source: GAO analysis of FEMA data.

No matter what, command remains local. Local governments decide what resources and assistance they need, ranging from simple supplies through deployment of the National Guard. County, state, and federal agencies help coordinate and provide information and resources, and serve as consultants, but they don’t take control. Control stays at the most local level of government. In their own words, “FEMA’s mission is to support our citizens and first responders” – nothing in there about coming in and taking over! Bottom line – if you care about disaster response, look no further than your own backyard.

Example of Poor Local Control

I recently spoke to a National Guardsman who responded to Hurricane Katrina. They brought in a fully equipped field hospital, but the mayor only allowed them to treat other rescue workers. The given reason – “if medical care is available to locals, then locals won’t evacuate like the mayor wants them to”. Unfortunately, without orders via the local government, the Guardsman couldn’t do anything despite overwhelming local medical needs.

Local Government Plans

It’s up to us to ensure our local governments are prepared. Most governments have Emergency Management websites, with fascinating information available on-line. For example, here are the Portland, Marion County, and State of Oregon Emergency Operations plans (somewhat heavy reading, but interesting to skim). Local Hazard Analysis And Mitigation Plans estimate local greatest risks, with ideas to reduce damage in advance. Maps show potential greatest earthquake damage, landslide, or fire areas. Are you brave enough to check where your home lies on these maps?

Local governments develop resource lists of organizations and businesses that might help in a disaster, including obvious ones like Red Cross, and less obvious ones like John Deere (tractors!). Unfortunately, when I reviewed Marion County’s information last year, they included hospitals, but not clinics or ambulatory surgery centers – a classic example of gaps in healthcare planning. If you work with a business or agency that could help in a disaster, talk to your local government about being listed as a resource.

Ham Radio Equipment and Gadgets – a frightening sight for the technophobic! Photo by Nate Grigg.

Each government usually has good internal communications plans. Unfortunately, the systems are not routinely compatible between governments. Imagine if your city can’t talk to your county in a disaster. Right now, the solution is mostly volunteer Ham Radio Operators – go volunteers!

The Large and Scary Role of Elected Officials

Lastly, local control also means local elected officials and local dollars.  Ultimate decisions in a disaster rest with your local elected officials, not your trained emergency managers. Look at the brouhaha around Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo Langford in recent Hurricane Sandy, and New Orléans Mayor Ray Nagin in  Hurricane Katrina. Maybe we should think about candidate disaster management skills when we vote in November.

Swearing In Ceremony.

As far as money, in a nationally declared disaster, Washington helps financially, but only if the state spends matching funds. After state budget crises of the past few years, many states have little or no money set aside for disaster response, hoping that just-in-time creative financing makes the money magically appear if a disaster occurs. The good news is that Oregon at least spends money on emergency preparedness, although money for an actual disaster is harder to find in our  budget.

As Always, It’s Up To You

Bottom line – like everything else in disaster response, it really all comes down to you. How ready are you, how much will neighbors help each other, what are your local resources? A new assignment is to become more acquainted with official local efforts, including your elected officials. They may literally hold your lives in their hands.

Stay safe,


  1. Extremely important information – it’s the basis for all emergency planning and response!

    • disasterdoc says:

      I agree completely. Unfortunately, very few people outside of emergency planning seem to realize this. If the public understood local control, perhaps they would be both more understanding of the limitations of emergency response, and more willing to volunteer in advance through programs like CERT. Perhaps we need to be teaching this concept along with “make a plan” and “get a kit”!

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