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Disaster Zone: Look Beyond Your County/City/District


June 8, 2020 by Eric Holdeman
Category: Emergency Management

Disaster Zone: Look Beyond Your County/City/District

One of the greatest hindrances to governments working together is the geographical nature of how we organize our governance structures. We establish lines on the ground where counties and cities begin and end. These artificial lines define the who, what, and where of what we are interested in as local governments. Cross that boundary and whatever the problem is suddenly becomes some other jurisdiction’s responsibility.

Disasters Don’t Care About Boundaries

Disasters, however, don’t care about the artificial boundaries that we set. Rivers don’t flood in just one county and then stop without crossing into a neighboring jurisdiction. Earthquakes are not confined to one city or water district. When the ground shakes, and it will shake again in the future, it shakes differently in different areas, based more on soil types than anything we humans use to define our territorial boundaries.

We Live in an Interdependent World

If we have learned anything from the COVID-19 pandemic it is just how connected we are to people in other cities, counties, states and nations, particularly in terms of public health and economic interests. It became very clear how interdependent we were on other nations for the production of critical healthcare supplies like personal protective equipment (PPE), and we found out the meat supply of the United States is dependent on a relatively few packing plants scattered across the Midwest, West, and South. We now know that what happens in other places of the world, and here in our own country, can affect all of us regardless of where we are.

Familiarity Sometimes Breeds Complacency

While the above has been revealed to us, when we look around at our own immediate jurisdictions, is it obvious how we are also interdependent on one another? I think familiarity with our immediate environment sometimes can blind us to how our government institutions are interwoven together.

School district, water district, fire district, power utility, and city boundaries regularly intersect with one another and crisscross the places where we live, work, and play. On good days, when “all systems are go,” everything works smoothly and effectively. On a bad day though, like when a disaster hits causing multiple system failures, we very quickly find out just how interdependent we are.

Not every local government in our state is as complicated as King County. Most think of the county as being made up of 39 cities. Did you know that there are more than 100 other local governments in King County? They include the districts mentioned above, plus other specialized districts like the port, stadium, and hospital districts.

My basic message is that no matter how big or small your government agency is, it likely doesn’t provide every service that your citizens utilize. We are a complex blend of governments that can be confusing to residents. When I worked in King County we would get calls from people who did not know what city they lived in. Our complexity can confuse an average person not focused on how governments are providing their services.

Get to Know Your Neighbors Before Disaster Strikes

If you are wondering how the people who perform the emergency management function for your government approach these interconnections, ask to see the maps that they use. Are there overlays that describe how the various jurisdictions overlap with one another? When you look at a city or county map, do they include neighboring cities and counties — or do your Emergency Operations Center (EOC) maps make your jurisdiction look like an island? The blank space beyond your jurisdictional map contains people and organizations just like yours. Likely you are connected in many ways that are not immediately understood, just like the way we didn’t understand our dependence on other nations as the COVID-19 outbreak first began to unfold. When northern Italy shut down early in the pandemic, it also shut down one of the largest factories that makes the nasal swabs for COVID-19 testing — A connection we didn’t immediately realize.

Crises have a way of revealing our connectedness and our weaknesses. One way to prepare for disasters is to make sure you know in advance all the players on your regional team.

A subject to consider for another time is the importance of establishing and building relationships with elected officials in bordering or intersecting jurisdictions. It might surprise you to find out how many counterparts you have.


MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Eric Holdeman

Eric is a nationally known emergency manager and consultant. He has 28 years of emergency management experience, having served at the federal, state (Washington), and local government (King County) level, as well as in the nonprofit sector. He is the Principal for Eric Holdeman and Associates and serves the Director for the Center for Regional Disaster Resilience, which is part of the Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER).

He is a prolific writer, authoring numerous articles for professional journals and opinion pieces for local, regional and national newspapers including the Washington Post. He is a Senior Fellow and contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine, where he blogs about emergency management and homeland security at www.disaster-zone.com.

Eric is writing as a guest author. The views expressed in guest columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.

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