The Canberra Times

By Edward Blakely

Robert McClelland, former federal attorney-general and former minister for emergency management, launched a provocative book this week by the Australian Security Research Centre titled Next Generation Disaster and Security Management. This book details the dire condition of Australia's disaster infrastructure, ranging from human resource preparation to the dire condition of critical infrastructure and funding for disaster and disaster preparedness. It is a must read.

However, one prescription he offers to cure these problems is a national organisation modelled on the US Federal Emergency Management Agency. We need a new national disaster management organisation but not one like FEMA.

FEMA's major role is post-disaster rescue. Most American communities that have dealt with FEMA since it became part of Homeland Security, the people who search us at airports, have been deeply disappointed with FEMA. I dealt with FEMA for almost three years as director of recovery in New Orleans and it was one of the most frustrating aspects of a very tough and frustrating job.

FEMA became the enemy of New Orleans and not its saviour. This is because FEMA's mission is to rescue, not to rebuild; besides which FEMA's resources and attention are undercut inside an anti-terrorism bureaucracy. So, FEMA is not what we need.

What we do need is a national disaster-management organisation. A national disaster-management organisation cannot and should not be tucked away in the attorney-general's office. It needs to have a full minister with a mandate to reduce and mitigate disaster risks as well as respond to disasters and rebuild after disasters.

Any community that has experienced the rebuilding process since the Queensland and other floods or the fires in Victoria can attest to the mind-boggling bureaucratic shuffles they have to go through to receive needed assistance and the crazy quilt of responders during a disaster.

We need a real pre-disaster to post-disaster agency that:

  • Develops a disaster risk code and standards and issues national disaster risk maps to aid communities in reducing disaster risks.
  • Provides information and technical assistance to states, regional organisations and local councils on disaster-reduction strategies.
  • Informs industry, especially engineering and the building industry on best practices in disaster-proof construction.
  • Creates a disaster-response system nationally with trained staff to respond to disasters to manage the entire process from event through to rebuilding. At each stage they would play slightly different roles. During the event they would co-ordinate all agencies in response; in rebuilding they would fund and find resources as well as expertise for communities.
  • Develops disaster-management expertise. We have good competence in this arena now that can be merged into this activity.
  • Manage pre-disaster mitigation and post-disaster matching funds to reduce disaster and to assist in rebuilding more resilient communities.

The best way to finance this approach is a surcharge on all property insurance nationally. It would be the equivalent to a disaster GST as a certain percentage of every policy for residential and commercial insurance and re-insurance. This money would be spent only for disaster proofing and for post-disaster rebuilding loans and grants.

The McClelland book opens the door for us to craft a quality response to a real problem. We cannot afford not to do this.

This article was originally published by The Canberra Times