That isn’t necessarily a sign that FEMA was unprepared for the hurricane, or that it’s unusually overwhelmed. In fact, the expectation that civilians will spring to action is central to the way federal, state, and local governments approach huge disasters like Harvey. There’s simply no way for those levels of government to marshal the resources fast enough to do all that needs to get done. Roads are impassable; resources are spread out; and manpower is limited.
“When you step back and look at most disasters, you talk about first responders—lights and sirens—that’s bullshit,” Craig Fugate, who headed FEMA during the Obama presidency, told me in 2015. “The first responders are the neighbors, bystanders, the people that are willing to act.”
That underpinned “whole-community response,” the principle around which Fugate organized FEMA during his eight years in office. (Long only recently started on the job, having been confirmed in June.) The basis for whole-community response is that, while the government simply can never provide a response as quickly as needed, a top-down response from the government isn’t the best answer anyway. Local people know much better what they need, and they benefit from being involved.
In a small disaster, it’s true that professional responders can often take care of nearly everything that needs to be done. But the problems with a top-down response became clear during disaster simulations run by the government to help it plan. Imagine a drill that assumes that 6 million people are affected by a hurricane. From one perspective, that means that the government has to deploy enough people to aid all 6 million. But that’s not right at all: While some people will be rendered helpless after a storm, the vast majority will not be passive observers but will be ready and able to help.
“We had almost by default defined the public as a liability,” Fugate said. “We looked at them as, We must take care of them, because they’re victims. But in a catastrophic disaster, why are we discounting them as a resource? Are you telling me there aren’t nurses, doctors, construction people, all kinds of walks of life that have skills that are needed?”
People who have gone through a storm—Fugate was careful to quit referring to them as victims and start calling them survivors—have just gone through a massively disorienting experience, but treating them as powerless hobbles both their own ability to bounce back and the government’s ability to get things back to normal.
“It’s something that responders, whether they’re in the private sector, or they’re volunteer, or they’re in government—it’s this compelling nature that, I want to help them because it makes me feel good. The more I do for them, the better I feel. But, it's not good for them!” Fugate said. “It doesn't really make sense to people: But they need us! They need help. But they also need to be in control.”