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The Enemy Is Us

July 9, 2009

“We have met the enemy and he is us!” cried Pogo Possum in Walt Kelly’s classic comic strip of the same name. We might say the same today about emergency management practitioners despite the lessons learned from the devastating responses to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Despite compelling evidence not only of a need for a comprehensive and coherent approach to our work, but also an integrated and collaborative one, the field in many ways remains as isolated as ever.

wehavemettheenemyThe denizens of Kelly’s mythical version of the Okefenokee Swamp lived not in splendid isolation but right under our noses in the funny pages of daily newspapers across the country from 1948 to 1975. Their foibles and dilemmas not only reflected of our own daily trials, they chronicled our tribulations so we could reflect on them and perhaps laugh a bit while doing so.

The characters that populated this beloved comic strip not only entertained, but also enlightened regular readers by illustrating how creatures of every kind and disposition could find ways to live together in grace and good humor. Pogo’s best friend after all was an alligator who under other circumstances might have made a meal of him.

Emergency managers, like other public servants, have likened their world and its wicked problems to living in a swamp. Confronted with a never-ending stream of issues and deadlines, emergency managers all too often find themselves spending more time fending off alligators than working on the drainage; neither of which, by the way, is consistent with the public interest in preserving the swamp for its rich biodiversity and other salutary effects on the environment.

In the immediate aftermath of the widespread destruction wrought by Katrina and Rita, as television cameras focused on the plight of New Orleans around the clock, the world saw with unprecedented clarity and intensity the results of inadequate preparedness and response. But these images nevertheless obscured the underlying causes of those failures, and have in many ways hindered subsequent efforts to restore, rebuild, and recover not only in the areas hardest hit, but also within the institutions established to support them.

Beyond the technical, bureaucratic, and fiscal failures that allowed the storm surge to undermine and breach the levees were failures of government and governance to build and sustain the community’s stock of human and social capital. The community capital deficit reflected an altogether consistent and indeed persistent tendency to see emergency management as a governmental function separate from the ordinary, everyday functions of community self-governance and public service.

As a consequence, we see a paradox at play in New Orleans. Those residents with the strongest sense of community came back first. But with government focused on repairing the damage and restoring its reputation, those seeking to rebuild their lives have received little support for the hard work of re-norming their community and renewing its distinctive civic character, both of which play important roles in promoting resilience.

When emergency managers emphasize preparedness and response, they tend to do so at the expense of efforts to facilitate recovery and promote mitigation. In many cases, this leads either to competition with or an unhappy marriage to traditional front-line emergency services, like police and fire departments. In either instance, emergency managers tend to find themselves relegated to planning, training, and exercising while the uniformed services do the so-called “real” or “important” work.

Living in the limelight as they do, the emergency services have traditionally been held in relatively high esteem, which has not extended to emergency managers, who would, if singled out for such attention, probably rate not much higher than the dismal rankings held by the elected officials for whom they work. In large measure, emergency managers suffer silently and in obscurity. That is until the next big event occurs.

Placing too much emphasis on plans and procedural conformity has become the refuge of many beleaguered emergency managers. Holding others to account for preparedness and response rather than building community, however, jeopardizes those we serve and renders emergency managers vulnerable to threats of our own design. In contrast, putting more emphasis on mitigation and recovery not only gives emergency managers a distinctive mission, but it also provides them with a framework and justification for integrating their activities with the decisions and actions of others.

Although Pogo disappeared from the comics long ago, and even the newspapers in which he appeared are themselves now threatened with extinction, the principle he and his fellow swampmates represented remains as salient today as ever: Our sense of common purpose arises from our common sense, which in turn demands that we not take ourselves too seriously.

As a comic strip, Pogo served as a window not a mirror for the society of its day.  Looking into the frames of each strip we could see our true selves, not just our distorted reflections. Looking at emergency management through the everyday experiences of our community members’ efforts to establish and maintain their respective equilibriums amidst the surging seas of a turbulent economy, shifting demography, and pervasive (almost to the point of invasive) technology will help us avoid the distortionary effects of trying to anticipate and meet their every post-disaster expectation.

If emergency managers take the time to embrace the ambiguity and messiness that are our swamp, we may learn to help our communities best by helping them least, or at least lightly.  Getting alongside people, motivating them, involving them, encouraging them, and staying out of their way may well lead not only to stronger communities but safer ones as well.

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