Rich Cooper

May 13, 2010

Legendary singer-song writer Jim Croce had a classic song, “Don’t Mess with Jim.” 

Its refrain goes:

You don’t tug on superman’s cape
You don’t spit into the wind
You don’t pull the mask off that old lone ranger
And you don’t mess around with Jim.

The same could be said for Stafford Act – you don’t want to mess with it. Such was much of the message from many witnesses at the Senate’s Ad Hoc Subcommittee on Disaster Recovery hearing, “Stafford Act Reform: Sharper Tools for a Smarter Recovery.” 

For those unfamiliar, the Stafford Act it is the Magna Carta of America’s emergency management community. It literally governs how our country responds to disasters in all of its shapes, sizes and locations.  

When you have a piece of legislation so sacred that it governs the framework of how you respond to a particular situation, any effort to amend it should be greeted with great concern, if not outright caution. That was what hearing witnesses wanted to make sure the attending Senators heard loud and clear.  

While each of the witnesses conveyed their unwavering support for the Stafford Act and its structures, they cautioned Congress from messing with it.

As NEMA president, David Maxwell (who is also the state of Arkansas’ Emergency Management Director) stated, there was no need for a “widescale rewrite” of the legislation. It was his view that the problems that state and local governments encountered with the Stafford Act came from “unnecessary and rigid interpretations” of the act.  

That was certainly the case in the anecdotal examples that Charleston Mayor, Joseph Riley shared with the Stafford Act following Hurricane Hugo’s direct strike to his city in 1989. Only God would have the capacity to chronicle all of the overly rigid and asinine interpretations that communities around the United States have experienced. I know firsthand some of those “rigid interpretations” that Mr. Maxwell described from my deployment during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in Louisiana in 2005 when I was at DHS.  Such actions literally brought progress to a stop, and when you are responding and recovering from a disaster, the last thing you want stopped is progress.

That was part of the underlying but left unsaid message of the hearing. Interpreting and applying the Stafford Act requires the application of common sense, and unfortunately during disasters, and even non-disasters, common sense is not that common.  

That is something no legislation will ever be able to enact.

This piece was originally posted on Security Debrief.


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