EMERGENCY RESPONSEThe Evolution of U.S. Emergency Risk Assessment and Response

Published 15 March 2022

The U.S. emergency management system evolved from responses to many past situations, including the Great Depression and the Cold War. The current system formed as a seeming patchwork of federal, local, nonprofit and other agencies. While the current system has advantages and weaknesses, understanding its makeup can help us address current crises, including pandemics and climate change.

“Where were you when …?”

This question frequently ends in disaster — or rather, with the naming of one: “… the pandemic began”; “… Hurricane Katrina struck”; “… the 9/11 terrorist attacks took place.”

Disasters loom large in the pantheon of historical events, capturing attention, striking a deep chord of empathy for those affected, and motivating a desire among the public, policymakers and governments to be more prepared for the next one.

The United States possesses a comparatively robust system for anticipating and governing emergencies, but it still holds much room for improvement. Understanding how the current system came to be serves as a sold first step in making it better.

Andrew Lakoff, professor of sociology and anthropology at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, provides this foundation with a comprehensive look at the U.S. emergency management system’s evolution from the early 20th century to the present. His work is presented in his latest book, The Government of Emergency: Vital Systems, Expertise, and the Politics of Security (Princeton University Press, 2021).

Lakoff and his co-author, Stephen Collier of the University of California, Berkeley, became interested in the government’s system of risk and emergency management — how it came to be and why it addresses problems as it does — in the early 2000s, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina.

“We saw government officials drawing analogies among a range of very different kinds of occurrences — from terrorism to natural disasters, environmental catastrophes and pandemics, and even to financial crises — and we were curious to understand what linked these seemingly disparate events,” Lakoff said.

The two “historically inclined anthropologists,” as Lakoff describes himself and Collier, share an interest in biopolitics, a field of study focusing on how experts and governments seek to foster the health and well-being of populations.

A Patchwork System with Surprising Root
As it now stands, the country’s risk management and emergency preparedness system comprises a patchwork of cooperating groups.

“It’s a distributed system with a fairly limited federal role that depends on flexible coordination among government and non-governmental agencies at multiple scales, across multiple jurisdictions,” Lakoff explained. For example, after a catastrophic storm, the Federal Emergency Management Agency may coordinate with the local governments of affected cities and disaster relief nonprofits, such as the American Red Cross, to deliver aid to citizens.