THE MAGAZINE

Think Tank Perspective: An Interview with Dr. Stephen Flynn

By Matthew Harwood

So in the end, emergency managers should be willing to roll up their sleeves and figure out how to harness the power of social media. Then we can have the best of both worlds. We will get the benefit of their experience and expertise along with the vast potential that informed and mobilized citizens can provide to disaster response and recovery.

You were a critic of the Bush administration’s approach to homeland security--that they did not push an all hazards and resilience model-- and believed too often citizens were seen as bystanders. Has the Obama administration changed course? If so, how?

The Obama administration has not changed it far enough. They’re tilting in the right direction, but I think more movement needs to happen more quickly. To the credit of the administration, they’ve embraced the concept of resilience --a public acknowledgement that every act of terror cannot be prevented and some capacity to respond and recover from them is necessary. That’s difficult for political leadership to say, but the president and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano have said it and that’s a necessary dose of reality.

The Obama administration has also gone a bit further than the Bush administration with the all-hazards recognition and the importance of what FEMA’s Craig Fugate calls the “whole community approach.” I give them credit for recognizing that homeland security needs to expand beyond a narrow focus on terrorism risks to include the broader issues of all hazards and that there needs to be a greater degree of outreach and engagement of communities. But there is still so much that needs to be done within DHS and other responding federal agencies to make that engagement real.

Where would you like to see federal funds spent to promote homeland security and resilience?

In general, Washington has been throwing too much money at technology and not enough at human capital and improved processes. One area ripe for investment is risk literacy among the general public. Government at all levels should be far more candid with the public about the nature of the threats, vulnerabilities, and potential consequences that worry them. And it is not just new threats. There is still a lot of work to be done in raising people’s awareness of what risk exposure they have to naturally occurring events such as flooding, tornadoes, earthquakes, and so forth. The risk literacy challenge is significant especially as our population has become more transient. An effort to engage in that I think is very important, and the good news is that it is not very expensive.

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