For more than two centuries the American people have responded well and capably to a broad spectrum of emergencies of all types ranging from weather disasters to invasions and other military attacks to medical pandemics to explosions, plane crashes, and floods, famines, and forest fires. Today, the nation’s federal, state, tribal, city, and county emergency-response capabilities are distributed throughout a long-established system of systems that U.S. citizens know they can always rely on to come to the fore in times of their country’s – or their individual community’s – greatest need.
It is sometimes forgotten, though, that over that same period of time the nonprofit sector also has played a key role in responding to the same emergencies. The Salvation Army, the American Red Cross, the United Way, Catholic Charities, the Jewish Federation, the National Council of Churches, the Interfaith Alliance, the Southern Baptist Convention, Mennonites, the United Methodist Churches, AME Churches, and many other organizations also are well known for their individual as well as collective preparedness, response, and relief efforts.
However, after the catastrophic 2005 hurricane season, the nation saw not only the federal, state, and local governments – the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the State of Louisiana, and the City of New Orleans, primarily – but also the nonprofit organizations struggle to get their operations up and going. The numerous and sometimes inexplicable delays experienced in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, in particular, were caused in part by problems in communications and coordination, in part by a lack of transportation and of pre-positioned emergency supplies, and in part by simple human error. Fortunately, the void that followed was filled, at least in part, by various pro bono initiatives developed and carried out by another major component of the private sector, the U.S. business community.
Three Cheers for Three Retail Giants
A number of best-practices efforts are worthy of special mention. In the wake of the two devastating hurricanes, Wal-Mart won praise and recognition for the company’s handling of emergency operations along the Gulf Coast. Under the leadership of Jason Jackson, Wal-Mart’s emergency management director, the company’s Emergency Operations Center in Bentonville, Arkansas, became a national hub of response activities, providing water, toiletries, transportation, food, clothing, and many other necessities throughout the hurricane-devastated areas of the Gulf Coast. Although the company is not a first-responder agency per se and its employees were and are not local emergency managers by any means, Wal-Mart and other private-sector businesses provided key early relief during the recovery process at a time when the officially designated public and nonprofit emergency-response agencies were still getting started.
Home Depot also stepped forward by providing generators, flashlights, batteries, plywood, and numerous other products essential to a speedy recovery. The Home Depot managers and warehouse employees pulled countless tons of building and repair products off their shelves to supply the hurricane-devastated areas in greatest need. The company also created so-called “strike zones” where specific needs were known and transported associates to those areas to help out the associates already on the scene and working furiously in the communities hit hardest by the hurricanes and subsequent flooding.
Lowe’s Home Improvement, which also has a long history in emergency-preparedness responses and operations, conducts disaster-assistance workshops on how to prepare for, respond to, and mitigate the worst aspects of disasters such as spring flooding. For many years Lowe’s also sponsored the Home Safety Council – which now has many other sources of funding, all following in the footsteps and deep impressions made by Lowe’s employees and managers.
Messages of Hope, Counterparts of Kindness
After Katrina, federal, state, and other public emergency-management officials observed, and commented favorably on, the Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and Lowe’s messages on radio stations throughout Arkansas, where there were close to 100,000 evacuees. One of the most important of those messages told the evacuees who had worked for any of the three companies in Louisiana or Mississippi to report for work at those same companies’ counterpart stores in Arkansas. The implementation of that brilliant initiative contributed significantly to the recovery not only of numerous individual families but also, eventually, their original home communities.
These three examples represent a larger corporate/good-citizen response capability that is setting a new national standard for service and community involvement. Certain types of businesses almost immediately become a critical component of a community’s emergency-management infrastructure in times of disaster, because they can provide pharmaceuticals, food, water, dry goods, toiletries, lumber, tarps, flashlights, hammers, nails, saws, generators, paint, and thousands of other products needed not only on an everyday basis but also – quickly and in large quantities – in sudden times of emergency.
Some states already are recognizing the important new role being played by the private sector. In Florida, for example, former Governor Jeb Bush authorized the use of temporary emergency identification and access credentials for certain retail employees, allowing them to cross disaster barricades to deliver supplies and/or to secure stores from looting – or, in some locales, to open stores for business (if law-enforcement personnel in Florida know in advance, and in specific situations, that a truck with a certain placard will be delivering critical supplies).
Kay C. Goss
Kay Goss is the President of World Disaster Management, LLC. Her emergency management work began 40 years ago, as senior assistant to two state governors coordinating fire service, emergency management, emergency medical services, public safety, and law enforcement for 12 years. She then served as the Associate Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director for National Preparedness, Training, Higher Education, Exercises, and International Partnerships (presidential appointee, U.S. Senate confirmed unanimously). She was a private sector government contractor for 12 years, at the Texas firm, Electronic Data Systems (EDS) as senior emergency manager and homeland security advisor and SRA International’s director of emergency management services. She currently serves as a nonprofit leader on the Board of Advisors for DRONERESPONDERS International and for the Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management, and as graduate professor of Emergency Management at University of Nevada at Las Vegas for 16 years, İstanbul Technical University for 12 years, the MPA Programs Metropolitan College of New York for five years, and George Mason University. She has been a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) for 25 years and a Featured IAEM CEM Mentor for five years, and Chair of the Training and Education Committee for six years, 2004-2010. She is also on the Advisory Board for Domestic Preparedness.