The Evolution of U.S. Emergency Risk Assessment and Response

This distribution of authority, responsibility and action avoids the danger of an overly centralized bureaucracy that relies on those at the top to make all key decisions, Lakoff says, but it can also make a timely and well-coordinated response difficult.

The arrangement has advantages: It can quickly address short-term needs, such as providing needed supplies or rapidly evacuating an area.

The system falls short, however, when it comes to larger issues, such as unequal access to relief and preventive programs among different communities.

“We have seen this repeatedly,” said Lakoff, “whether in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, or in the disparate experience of suffering during the coronavirus pandemic.”

To determine how the present-day system of emergency government came to be, says Lakoff, he and Collier took a “genealogical approach” to the work, looking at current agencies and protocols and tracing back through their evolution.

“We began in the present, looking at areas such as homeland security and pandemic preparedness, and asked about where the tools used by experts in these areas to anticipate and manage an uncertain future had come from,” Lakoff said.

The pair dug through tomes of historical accounts and records, finding much of it in “the neglected archives of now-forgotten federal government agencies,” said Lakoff.

In doing so, they reveal, for the first time, how the country’s complex and dispersed emergency system for anticipating and governing emergencies came to be woven together, somewhat unexpectedly, from a variety of theories and planning efforts, much of it based on mobilization for war.

“It turned out that we had to go back to some surprising settings, such as interwar strategic bombing theory, which asked about how to disrupt the vital nodes of enemy industrial production systems, and Cold War nuclear preparedness, which used some of the first digital computers to develop detailed simulations of the likely damage that a future attack would cause,” Lakoff said.

History Lessons That Could Help with Future Emergencies
The result proves to be a fascinating history lesson, one that could prove invaluable to future generations.

“As we anticipate ever more catastrophic events linked to climate change — hurricanes, floods, wildfires or droughts — it will be important to assess whether our existing system for dealing with emergencies is adequate for the tasks ahead,” Lakoff said.

And by unveiling how government has transformed itself to tackle past crises without undermining the country’s democratic principles, The Government of Emergency provides insight into how best to move forward and address future threats.

And, in fact, the lessons Lakoff and Collier describe for governing emergencies have been adopted beyond the U.S., including the World Health Organization’s approach to pandemics and in various humanitarian relief operations.

Lakoff says awareness of past successes should give some comfort to those worried about what tomorrow holds. “Given our current sense of pervasive crisis, including anxiety about climate change, exhaustion from our failures to adequately deal with the pandemic, and ongoing problems of social inequality, there have been previous episodes of existential crisis that the country has in the past managed to address.”

And knowing the capabilities and shortcomings of our current system of risk assessment and emergency response — which evolved from our successful responses to such notable emergency situations as the Great Depression, the threat of Nazi Germany and the Cold War — should help us better focus our efforts today.