News Release - New National Leadership Position Should be Created to Enhance Government Reaction to Major Disasters, Final Rockefeller Institute Report on Government Response to Hurricane Katrina Proposes

For Immediate Release –

June 2, 2009

Media contact: Heather Trela – (518) 443-5831 / communications@rockinst.org

New National Leadership Position Should be Created to Enhance Government Reaction to Major Disasters, Final Rockefeller Institute Report on Government Response to Hurricane Katrina Proposes

Proposed Legislation Would Allow U.S. President to Appoint a Special ‘Officer-in-Charge’ to Streamline Government Response, Avoiding Missteps That Followed Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005

Albany, N.Y. — The Stafford Act that authorizes the federal government response to disasters should be amended to allow the president to quickly appoint a special officer-in-charge — with pre-approved discretionary funding — to oversee effective government response to a major disaster, according to a new report issued today by two of the principals involved in a long-term study of governmental response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

The report — written by Rockefeller Institute of Government Co-Director Richard P. Nathan and Boston College Political Science Professor Marc Landy — proposes that the new officer-in-charge be empowered to quickly assemble and deploy experts, and to recommend and obtain expedited consideration of a national action program if such a program is determined to be appropriate when “megadisasters” occur.

“We recommend standby legislation to enable the president to appoint an officer-in-charge, not to take over state and local responsibilities, but to do two essential things,” Landy and Nathan said in the report. “First, to provide the authority and resources to mobilize the federal establishment — and, by virtue of being able to do this, be in a stronger position to influence major institutions on the scene to get their act together.

“Second, to enable the national government to adopt extraordinary measures. A major charge to the person assigned as this presidentially designated driver would be to report to the president and the Congress within a prescribed period of time on whether extraordinary national action is needed, and if so what it should be.”

The actions recommended by the special appointee, Landy and Nathan stressed, would be time sensitive but subject to special congressional procedures like those for international trade agreements.

“What such authority should accomplish is provide the officer-in-charge with the capacity to collaborate and facilitate — in plain English, to lead,” Landy and Nathan said.

The report issued today is the eighth and final paper published as part of a nearly four-year study of the governmental response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. The so-called GulfGov study was supported, in part, by a grant from the Ford Foundation. The Rockefeller Institute partnered with the Public Affairs Research Council of Baton Rouge, La., to conduct the study. The seven previous reports published by the two organizations can be found at www.rockinst.org/disaster_recovery. The study tracked the local, state, and federal government response to the hurricanes in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

The overall research project was chaired by former Mississippi Governor William Winter.

“This is a compelling report and we are hopeful the Obama administration will consider the recommendations presented,” Winter said. “These issues are not going away, and we shall be faced with the same lack of coordination and responses in the future unless we pursue better ways to handle them.”

Former U.S. Ambassador to Hungary Donald Blinken served as a key adviser to and participant in the study.

“This report caps a series of seven solid reports that take a hard look at the state and local levels, at the jumble of actors, and the challenges of action when great crises occur,” Blinken said.

The study authors said any effort to improve the federal response to major disasters has to take into account how the nation’s three-tiered federal system operates. Business as usual in this scenario, according to Landy and Nathan, consists of proceeding incrementally and spending money unsystematically. With 89,527 bodies of government in the U.S. — ranging from the centralized federal government to the 50 states to 20,000 municipal governments to 37,000 special districts — policymakers should consider disaster response reform similar to that being envisioned for health care.

Another major consideration as the special legislation is considered is to better define what type of major disaster, or megadisaster, would result in appointment of an officer in charge. Without a concrete definition, governors and congressional delegations would still be subject to the same types of political pressures that exist today to declare their disaster a major disaster, requiring enactment of the standby legislation proposed by the report issued today.

For a full copy of the report, visit www.rockinst.org.

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About the Rockefeller Institute of Government

The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, at the University at Albany, is the public policy research arm of the State University of New York. The Institute conducts fiscal and programmatic research on American state and local governments. Journalists can find useful information on the Newsroom page of the Web site, www.rockinst.org.

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