How do local governments “reconstitute” when under duress?

Home Forums Miscellaneous How do local governments “reconstitute” when under duress?

This topic contains 10 replies, has 5 voices, and was last updated by  Denise Petet 7 years, 7 months ago.

  • Author
  • #131054

    Mark Hammer

    First off, my sympathies to the residents of Joplin, Missouri, and their families, and anybody who lost someone in the tragedy that took place there over the weekend. My heartfelt thanks to all those who are out there doing search and rescue, and providing aid to those who lost just about everything there is to lose.

    You’ll forgive my inclination to be analytical about such matters, but it got me to thinking about the impact of such disasters on how a local government and associated public services gets reconstituted after an event like this. Obviously, for a while, services are transferred to the next level of government higher up, or perhaps to the nearest larger municipality. That’s not just a matter of the relevant building being destroyed, but also a matter of the people who would normally provide such services having the time to put their own lives and souls in order again. They’ve lost every bit as much as the folks who don’t work for the municipality have lost.

    Still, there is some expectation that eventually the town of Joplin will once again have numbers to phone, websites that work (and have people attached to them), and services to provide. So I’m wondering, when a municipality faces such devastation, what is the “natural history” of how it pieces its public sector back together again? How on earth does a municipality once again have an annual budget to work with? Is the existing structure of the municipal public sector reinstated or does it undergo change? What are the first and last services to emerge from the catastrophe? Is there a different attitude towards the municipal government and public sector when things start returning to “normal”?

    In some respects, what has happened to Joplin is not all that different from what happened to Haiti last year. And although there is obviously a difference in scale, and Joplin has the rest of the state to turn to, there is still the challenge of near total loss of local management of the situation. Does Joplin even have a town hall any more? Anybody out there have experiences with such things, either directly or indirectly?

  • #131074

    Denise Petet

    I visited Greensburg a few years ago. That town too was devastated by a tornado. Greensburg was also much smaller…the whole town was about 2 miles across. (the tornado was 1.5 miles, you can do the math)

    The tornado did not hit the far east side of the town, and the local DOT office was untouched. So it became the rallying point. Survivors were told to go there to be picked up and evacuated. as emergency services came into town, they met there. It became the makeshift morgue and animal shelter.

    Priority one was, of course, evacuation.

    then they could work on putting things back together.

    for power, they were at the ‘mercy’ of the electric company and what they could do. Honestly, in many cases, there wasn’t much they could do to restore power because there were no houses left to run it to.

    any disaster has its command post. in this case, a communication truck was brought in to allow everyone to have radios that were all on the same frequency. then, slowly, as buildings were deemed safe, parts would branch off. Foundations were cleared, temp trailers brought in designated as HQ for various agencies as the need arose and as they were prioritized. (one thing about a disaster like this, there’s no set rule because every situation is different. In fact, I think the only real steadfast ‘rule’ is to search and rescue, search and recover)

    last I knew, Joplin was still in search and rescue/search and recover.

    then they’ll assess. what services can logically be restored? some blocks it’ll be easy. power might be as easy as tripping a line fuse. Others, a bit harder since they’ll need new poles set and lines strung. Water should be basically okay, as long as they can get the treatment plants powered. (A good thing about underground pipes, pretty much twister proof)

    other stuff will just come as it comes.

    I would think the hardest thing will be…well ‘everyone’ will want ‘everything’ as quickly as possible…and rebuilding infrastructure is far from fast.

    they’ll need to be flexible and creative. they’ll need to simplify. cut the red tape. get a dose of ‘git r done’, but do it with practicality and common sense.

    right now they are likely overwhelmed with help.

    couple of months from now, however, they’ll largely be on their own. that’s when it’ll get really hard for them.And, right now, they need to think of that day and not grow to depend upon outside help. use it, but wean yourself fast.

    rebuilding will take years. Literally. It’s been 5 years since greensburg and whole blocks are still vacant. there are still empty foundations, and some will probably never be filled. Just like New Orleans, there will be parts of Joplin that will likely never be rebuilt. Abandoned properties might become parks or green spaces.

    I am sure Joplin will build a memorial of some sort, and then they’ll just have to take it one day at a time, and be patient. things should be relatively functional within a month or so, but it’ll probably be the better part of a decade before the scars truly start to fade.

  • #131072

    Mark Hammer

    A very informative and sage reply; pretty much exactly what I was looking for. Thanks, Denise.

    When you note “couple of months from now, however, they’ll largely be on their own. that’s when it’ll get really hard for them“, I think that is the crux of the matter. In circumstances like this, it’s that need to have “everything for everyone”, bumping up against the reality that only some stuff can be provided for some people, that creates the difficult choices to be made, and the mistakes that inevitably will be made.

    We’re so accustomed to having a public administration just….THERE for us. How one goes about creating one from scratch is something we tend not to give much thought to.

  • #131070

    We’re seeing this here in North Carolina, too…the media shines a bright spotlight on the situation for a few weeks, which creates pressure and support…but then the towns are left to pick up the pieces. How do we sustain that support over time?

  • #131068

    Alan R. Shark

    Tragedy’s like the recent spat of Tornado’s is simply heartbreaking. Emotions and empathy aside, technology can play a major role in recovery as never before. One asks, is there a town hall left? If there is, what tools do they have that still function, and if not did they plan for a virtual town hall – just in case? We at PTI have been amazed by the lack of sound planning for what some refer to as unthinkable emergencies. It appears local governments have done a good job on COOP Plans – but this type of plan usually focus on lines of succession and command and control. Energy Assurance Plans are the ones that are often lacking. I would like to share with you two free publications on Energy Assurance Planning that you can download now –, scroll down on home page.

  • #131066

    Denise Petet

    We’ve had an emergency manager here, and she’s occasionally run into some issues, which kinda lead into this.

    Some see planning for disasters as a waste of time and resources. ‘it’ll never happen, so why are we wasting time on this…..stuff’.

    Thing is, you have to.

    Power lines go down and you literally have deathtraps under peoples’ feet. but how do you direct utility workers to go to ‘fifth and main’ to fix a down pole when there are no road signs and even the locals can’t find their way? (which happened in greensburg. the twister took everything, including road signs. life long residents couldn’t find their way around). People used scrap wood to make road signs.

    People take water for granted, and toilets, but if the power is out in a large area you can lose the treatment plant. If you have fires, how do you get water to the sites? You can’t have cleanup crews of hundreds and no toilets. So I would think that an emergency manager would have prior arrangements at local johnny on the job places, so they dont’ have to go looking for them, just have to get a message through. (and prior arrangements can be something as simple as a piece of paper with a phone number on it and how many they have and how fast they can get them there)

    They need to set up a command post and communication point…and that communication will be flyers adn notes tacked to a bulletin board. Can’t print out a sign or send an e-mail when there’s no power.

    You need a bank, you need food and water distribution. You need to help businesses open back up.

    You just systematically prioritize. I think greensburg was under martial law for several days, and the highway through the town was closed down for a month. The road was fine, but they needed to clear rubble, and didn’t need highway traffic in the way. So there were detours on each end, manned 24/7 for a month, to detour traffic.

    I would think that communication is vital.

    A situation they ran into in Greensburg, every single responding entity had a different radio frequency. They all had radios but literally couldn’t talk to each other. The DOT brought in a communications system and passed out radios and then you no longer had the situation of ‘ed has all the radios, he’s our relay’. People take communications for granted. Thing is, power goes out to the cell towers, they are useless. Lines go down and phones don’t work.

    People just need to sit down and pretend they’re in the middle of nowhere and what do they need and just work it out. And I think there also needs to be an acknowledgement that administrators dont’ always make good ‘doers’. And that’s who you need, someone that can work with people but gets stuff done, and isn’t afraid to do it themselves, yet is able to delegate. They can’t get so fixated on a little thing that they lose sight of the big picture.

    Survivors also need to know and be told that the help won’t be there forever. The town needs to look to taking care of itself and then build goals and work crews, etc, along that. Be honest with them that while the town might get federal aid, there’s only so much it can do.

    I think clear lines of communication along with realistic goals. Sure, you want the power back, but, when you’re facing devastation as bad as Joplin’s, there are some parts of the city that won’t get power back for weeks/months, simply because there’s nothing to run the power to. So you coordinate with the local power company, and you be honest about what they say. Don’t make promises you can’ t keep. And people need to know from the outset that ‘normal’ won’t be around for a very long time.

    Be honest about what doesn’t get done, but celebrate what does.

    Joplin will likely be on their own by the end of June or so. They’re going to have to sit down, figure out what they’re going to do, will things be rebuilt, what if some don’t want to rebuild, and just take it one day at a time. And know that, ten years from now, there will still be scars.

  • #131064

    Mark Hammer

    Again, I can’t thank you enough for the important insights you are bringing, and the clear manner in which they are expressed.

    Your comments make me realize that organizations like Engineers Without Borders ( ) can provide a critical service. Though normally, they focus on international development, it is clear that there is a need in disaster situations, for a team of people with expertise and perspective in planning and managing the restoration of critical municipal or county infrastructure. Not to take anything away from the Army Corps of Engineers, but my sense is that they provide skill and capacity in the components of the infrastructure, but not necessarily expertise in understanding how the pieces all fit together, and what gets restored in what order to get a region and its administration back on its feet. I think for that, you need a team of city planners and civil engineers who go from disaster to disaster.

    Maybe such a thing exists already. I don’t know. But certainly from your comments, it would seem like such thorough contingency planning tends not to be at the top of the list for many municipalities and counties. That’s not a criticism, as such. The ways and extents to which natural disasters can affect any given area are vast, and expecting the folks in a municipality of 50k (like Joplin) to have the expertise and capacity to think that through, is expecting more than is reasonable of any city of that size.

  • #131062

    Denise Petet

    I think any town should sit down and come up with contingencies. If anything, it alleviates some of the panic when people have something to do.

    And yes, the biggest thing is that ‘no one’ wants to ‘waste time’ doing it.

    I think any government should have a list of rallying points for their employees. 2-4 places that will be command centers, and employees are instructed to go to them, in order, to check in.(in other words, you don’t know what part of town will be destroyed so if post #1 is gone, go to #2, etc) they would then either be sent home and marked off as accounted for, or be put to work. and some of them may not be put to work in their normal job scope…in other words if labor is needed to search for survivors, people do that, even if those people normally are accountants.

    there should be accommodations made to get or secure tools for workers, gloves, shovels, saws, pry bars, etc. Even if those accommodations are making arrangements with local hardware stores ‘look, we need this, can we give you an IOU and pay you later’

    Some people should be tasked with going around shelters, taking names and compiling a database of survivors. I’m sure some of that is being done in Joplin, but there are also people that will shelter with neighbors or in a hotel out of town and be ‘unaccounted for’ and ‘missing’ simply because their name isn’t checked off a list.

    People should also look at employees and their tasks…and if there is a vital task that only one person knows how to do, change that. either have multiple people taught how to do it or also have that person write down ‘this is how you….’ and have a book of those critical jobs so that if that one person is missing or injured things can still get done.

    Data, of course, should never be in one place. How many times has there been ‘well, we did have his birth certificate but the courthouse burnt down and it was lost’. there should be backups of vital info somewhere. especially in this day and age of needing an ID to do about anything.

    what you hope is that you DO end up wasting your time…and that your preparation is never used.

  • #131060

    Pam Broviak

    We are fortunate that after 9/11 the federal government worked hard to develop emergency response guidance and training for our nation. The NIMS (National Incident Management System) now provides the framework in which all of us should work to manage disasters like the one in Joplin. This system is comprehensive, and if followed, addresses many of the issues brought up in your discussion including transfer of command, handling of finances, delivery of services, and many many more. (The NIMS site has a lot of good info and case studies that can provide you with many answers to the questions you are asking.)

    I would think Joplin, like many of us, has taken NIMS training and possibly even participated in exercises and workshops from training partners like TEEX. And because so many have had the unfortunate chance to implement the system during real disasters, there are many examples we all study and learn from.

    Of course, it’s nothing compared to actually facing the real thing. But at least when a real disaster does hit, all the documents, command structure, programs, contacts, mutual aid agreements, ordinances, and other components you need should be available, familiar, and in place so you can better focus your efforts. So although it might appear there is a total loss of local management, there most likely is an EOC activated, and people are working in it as prescribed in NIMS. I would also expect that the Red Cross is on the scene. They usually play a significant role and act as a close partner when there has been this type of destruction and loss. (For people who want to help in disaster recovery, this is a great group in which to volunteer.)

    And after the EOC finally closes and rebuilding begins, representatives from FEMA will move in. My emergency response experience has primarily been in disasters where there was no loss of life. Instead we had major destruction of infrastructure, and I found that FEMA was always there to provide valuable help and guidance in helping us with organizing our project list, obtaining cost estimates for repairs, and the management and financing of the reconstruction.

    I do think the one aspect of a disaster that must be the most difficult is the loss of life. And I don’t think there is much preparation or training to really prepare you for facing that type of devastation.

  • #131058

    Mark Hammer

    I certainly don’t wish to undervalue the importance of emergency measures and such, but I guess my curiosity meanders a little farther afield.

    Consider. Every municipality is going to have people whose expertise is in things like zoning or drafting by-laws. I look at those pictures of Joplin, that seem like some kind of immense “debris farm”, and I think to myself “At what point is something like zoning for commercial vs residential purposes even going to enter into the picture?”.

    Which is, I guess, why my original query had to do with the “reconstituting” of local governments. There are going to be a number of things which quite likely, beyond merely being at a disadvantage (missing records, etc.), simply won’t even have a point at that stage in the game. What happens to that capacity during the waiting period? Do those folks get other employment, or move somewhere else? If a regional public administrtion has a team of people for a given function, and that team simply can’t provide that function for the moment, what happens to it, and how does one go about reinstating that capacity, if at all?

    In a sense, this goes beyond the basic, and obviously important, issue of physical infrastructure and emergency services, to the longer-range issue of how one rebuilds human capital under those circumstances. There is, after all, only so long you can leave a car on blocks before the engine seizes up.

    This is one of those things I hope the public admin gurus are cogitating over, because it is a challenge that will come up again. And not just here, but in places hit by tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, fires (like the recent destruction of a large chunk of Slave Lake, Alberta), nuclear accidents, and all of those other things that keep reminding us how puny and impotent we really are.

  • #131056

    Pam Broviak

    During the disaster, we found that all of us can handle many jobs needed at that time regardless of our formal position. But once the threat is past and search and rescue is complete and the area is stabilized, then many move back into their traditional roles.

    However, as you point out the focus could have changed somewhat. This is when the council needs to possibly be meeting with citizens and businesses to determine if maintaining existing planning documents is the direction to take or is the devastation so extensive that a whole new plan should take shape. I believe some cities have elected to rebuild in a whole new direction while others – such as London after the great fire – chose to maintain the existing design of neighborhoods/roads/etc.

    As for the potential loss of personnel, this is also something built into NIMS in that a disaster might go on for some time so there is a chain of succession established and this planning acknowledges that not everyone might be able to function in their normal capacity.

    What I wonder about is the obvious loss of revenue that the city will experience. If homes and businesses are gone this will affect the revenue significantly so I would imagine that’s something the finance and admin people are trying to identify and plan for. But there are probably case studies of these types of challenges also out there for review.

    It’s interesting you mention human capital, because I don’t think we do enough planning for that even when we aren’t faced with disasters. And I believe that is a significant asset of a community that we don’t pay enough attention to.

You must be logged in to reply to this topic.