Governments make disaster plans. Between municipal, state, and federal level agencies, the amount of planning for potential disasters is enormous. But during Hurricane Sandy, plans that took several years and millions of dollars to produce were thrown out almost immediately. In fact, discarding disaster plans is entirely normal, and may even be desirable.
Based on interviews with officials across city and state governments as well as first responders on the ground, our research reveals that New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg marginalized the city’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) from the first moments of the storm’s arrival, and relocated city emergency functions to the mayor’s office. OEM’s extensive hurricane planning was barely touched. A senior member of the city administration recounts:
“What was surprising is, I work a ton with OEM and I knew there were plans for all of this. And what was surprising is they were sidelined right away.”
The story of why OEM was sidelined is complex, with institutional structure, political calculations, and personality clashes all playing a role. But other levels of disaster planning did not fare any better. New York City participates in various regional collaborative efforts, including the Regional Catastrophic Planning Team (RCPT) that brings together emergency managers from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. The comprehensive planning done by the RCPT also remained on the shelf, as a senior NYC emergency manager described:
“The federal government spent millions of dollars on [the regional plan] and […] it’s total bullshit, we did not do anything. All the planning and all the dollars that were spent on regional planning [and] not once did we open the book to say, ‘Let’s do it this way.’”
Fantasy documents and fantasy institutions
Sociologist Lee Clarke argues that disaster plans should be understood primarily as “fantasy documents” that function as “forms of rhetoric, tools designed to convince audiences that they ought to believe what an organization says” (1999: 2). Fantasy documents are designed to shore up public trust in technocratic methods of governance, and to quell public and institutional anxiety by appearing to control the uncontrollable, predict the unpredictable, and turn uncertainty into calculated risk.
To refer to disaster plans as fantasy documents is not to impute hidden motives to the planners who create them. Fantasy documents are not necessarily “noble lies” or stories told by rulers to maintain social order (Strauss 1978). Disaster planners believe their work will be critical during emergencies. One staffer at OEM described the reaction of the agency to its hurricane plan being ignored during Sandy:
“We spent so many years in developing this plan and to have it tossed aside it just—it was ridiculous. It tore the gut out of this agency and the morale here suffered tremendously.”
Indeed, NYC’s emergency response suggests that, just as OEM’s disaster plans are fantasy documents, OEM itself is a fantasy institution. Given pre-existing power relations and conflicting interests, OEMs, as coordinating bodies with very little direct authority over the subject areas they are responsible for, cannot solve the problems they are tasked with solving, nor can the plans they produce. Fantasy documents and fantasy institutions are of a piece, and they work together to create the illusion of planning and control. The co-chair of one of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s post-Sandy commissions was reflexive about this:
“The mayor has got a lot of authority in [New York] city. And then you have these parallel entities of the Office of Emergency Management, FEMA, operational command centers and whatever the state is doing. And you have all these shadow players who each considers themselves the main player and everybody else the shadow players.[…] ‘Who’s in charge here?’ You’d have like a hundred hands going up.[…] It’s not that we don’t have the ability to plan; we plan like crazy. We produce a lot of plans. But it’s the problem of do we have implementable plans that are based in the reality of the way our world functions and it seems that we don’t.[…] On paper there’s a lot of things that are written into policies that […] almost looks like we do have control over this so we do have national and local planning documents and frameworks for making those kind of decisions and who’s in charge. I think my conclusion is that all of that is somewhat delusional.[…] There are just too many conflicting interests—some of which are even constitutionally or legislatively in stone in a sense—and we can’t really adapt well when a disaster comes.”
Action without plans
There are ample examples of successful action during disasters without plans. Historically, effective impromptu responses include the resident-initiated evacuation of Three Mile Island in 1979. Likewise, during Hurricane Sandy, the largest relief effort in New York City’s history was mainly coordinated by activist, religious, and community based groups without any previous emergency aid experience, and certainly without any disaster plans. Chief among these was Occupy Sandy. Volunteers consistently cite a lack of plans as part of their success:
“I’ve been thinking about this a lot actually: why we’re still going as Occupy Sandy, why it stuck. And I guess it’s just that it’s a network of people who work doing whatever they want to do, not having a boss, not having formalities, not being constrained by even the work that it takes to be a staff at a nonprofit. So I think that it’s another opportunity for people to really self-organize and work in the kind of style that really fits them and fits into their sentiments.”
Some organizers emphasize that their networks, rather than plans, enabled them to provide aid more quickly than “the official response”:
“Some of these other organizations they’re more bureaucratic. Red Cross and FEMA didn’t show up for at least ten days, and we were there from the day after the storm. They’re unbelievably bureaucratic and unable to deal with an issue that requires nimbleness, and [they’re] hierarchical which means that they have to wait for permissions and things like that. I mean FEMA: the city has to request it from the state and the state has to request it from the government and they have to approve back down the same chain. And so it’s ridiculous… I think some of the differences of Occupy Sandy is that the Occupy network in general has been operating in a way that’s nimble and quick and reactionary and can respond quickly to things, like whether it’s the fact that the police in Oakland reacted really violently to protests and then the next night we need a plan for a protest or someone goes to jail and we need to get people on jail support—whatever it is we set up the structures to react quickly. So when there was a storm and we needed to react quickly, a lot of those things were already in place.”
Similarly, one councilman in a hard-hit Brooklyn neighbourhood said his actions as a first responder were most effective when he went “off the grid” and stopped communicating with a chaotic City Hall in the days after the storm. Multiple respondents reported that officials who preemptively took charge were generally not challenged regardless of their position in the government hierarchy, and where a designated leader failed to lead effectively, others stepped in. Does this mean we ought to abandon the practice of disaster plans altogether?
The regulatory and jurisdictional challenges that motivate disaster planning are very real. Many first responders, including those in Occupy Sandy, are calling for flexible guidelines and best practices for the inevitable “next time.” How can we be more reflexive and deliberate about the roles that plans—whether fantasy or ad hoc, flexible or rigid—play in emergency mitigation and adaptation? Here we suggest a distinction between short-term and long-term recovery. Long term recovery—a task that requires external resources to be channeled to the devastated locale and requires coordinated action over multi-year time-scales and across jurisdictions—is well suited to government planning. Crucially, this includes climate change mitigation, which can certainly be classified as disaster planning in the twenty-first century. As one Occupy Sandy volunteer said,
“I would say [climate change] is a really systemic thing, stretching to the national level. I think that it’s the responsibility of the federal governments to kick in at times like this.[…] I think that’s why we’re in a country. So when one area gets hit it doesn’t just go down by itself.”
There is a fundamental difference between the need for systemic change and action across jurisdictions and at massive scales, and the immediate coordination required to meet acute needs during disaster events. In the first case, plans are foundational, and in the second case, they may well be fantasies. The challenge is to ensure that long-term plans and institutions do not become fantasies as well.
*Interviews for this project were conducted as part of the Superstorm Research Lab, a mutual aid research collective. For more information, see www.superstormresearchlab.org. Both authors contributed equally to this article.
Top image: The complexity of disaster planning, as illustrated in the organizational chart for the Regional Catastrophic Planning Team. [original image at: http://www.regionalcatplanning.org/images/ric_org_chart_large.jpg]
Clarke, Lee. Mission improbable: Using fantasy documents to tame disaster. University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Strauss, Leo. The city and man. University of Chicago Press, 1978.