Grassroots Homeland Security

−an invited comment

To local governments, non-profits, and businesses, homeland security means not only reducing the threat of terrorism, but also working to become safe and secure despite any number of hazards and threats−natural or otherwise.

At the grassroots level, homeland security means identifying potential problems and developing public-private partnerships to prevent or minimize death, destruction, and disruption. It means approaching multiple hazards with multi-disciplinary teams in a multi-cultural environment. As always, it means solving problems and seizing opportunities to make communities better while making them safer.

Locals are not interested in the turf battles of preparedness versus mitigation, the characteristics of natural hazards versus terrorism, or whether a hazard is specific to one locality and not another. Although these issues are important, they are seldom discussed in the living and meeting rooms of communities. Yet, all communities need to be prepared for the unthinkable.

Experience has taught us that many of the things we do for one hazard help us defend against others. The good news is that preparedness and mitigation continue to be wise actions that help mobilize our disaster defense.

Good Things are Happening . . .

Around the country, grassroots homeland security is focusing on positive results by local teams and volunteers. Here are a few examples of programs and activities.

Since September 11, 2001, more than 60,000 people have signed up as Citizen Corps volunteers, working on preparedness issues in more than 360 Citizen Corps councils in 43 states.

Across the country, an estimated 300,000 tornado SafeRooms have been built since the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) popularized the concept in 1998. SafeRooms are rooms that are anchored and armored, above or below ground, to provide shelter during the strongest storms.

  • In Los Angeles, California, more than 44,000 volunteers have been trained as members of Community Emergency Response Teams, including light search and rescue, emergency first aid, and basic fire suppression.

  • Oakland’s Project SAFE in California has completed both structural and nonstructural mitigation projects in more than 650 homes. This activity is part of a $1 million FEMA grant that was matched with local contributions and donations.

  • Seattle, Washington, volunteers spend Saturdays identifying and removing earthquake hazards and helping to retrofit schools. More than 2,500 homeowners have attended home retrofit classes, and 360 contractors and builders have been trained in earthquake-resistant construction methods (see the Observer, Vol. XXV, No. 5, p. 1).

  • The Miami-Dade Community Action Agency in Florida installed hurricane shutters on more than 650 homes last year, using local and FEMA funds and working in cooperation with the Miami-Dade Office of Emergency Management. Also underway are efforts to install shutters on university dorms and hurricane glass on Miami’s homeless assistance center.

  • Roanoke, Virginia, is bringing together planners, engineers, developers, environmentalists, and others to institute low-impact, environmentally friendly growth innovations, such as greenways, natural remediation, and on-site stormwater management.

  • In Bolivar, Missouri, 240 volunteers representing 47 local groups−from churches to charities −cleared out drainageways last summer.

  • In Monroe, Louisiana, nearly 500 volunteers from similar groups held a mitigation blitz last spring to help 90 needy families repair homes and curb hazards ranging from extreme heat to West Nile virus.

  • Disaster-Ready Austin, a public-private coalition in Texas, is placing emergency radios in public buildings, schools, libraries, and senior citizen centers.

  • Freeport, New York, a Long Island community that lost five firefighters in the September 11 attacks, is home to more than 100 volunteers who are educating residents and businesses about ways to reduce risks from hazards ranging from fires to flooding to human-caused threats.

. . . But They Are Not Enough

It is no accident that many of these profiles are from communities that have actively participated in FEMA programs to help communities create public-private partnerships to improve local disaster resistance. The seeds sown by FEMA continue to sprout at the local level. Energetic public-private partnerships and a rise in community-based activism have created a body of effective, locally based mitigation programs that are widely shared through success stories, e-mail networks, mentoring, web sites, and other networking opportunities, as well as grants and other incentives.

Although these kinds of good works are springing up around the country, more are needed. Far too often, individuals interested in an all-hazards approach are constrained by a lack of time, funding, technical and other kinds of expertise, and political support.

We can and should do better. Changing emphases in disaster management and natural hazards mean that now, more than ever, local communities must be creative and implement programs tailored to meet their specific circumstances.

The Tulsa Experience

Here in Tulsa, Oklahoma, as another example, homebuilders have constructed hundreds of Tornado Safe-Rooms. In addition, we have relocated more than 1,000 families from floodplains to safer areas. Since September 11, 2001, we have also assessed and are systematically addressing natural and human-caused hazard vulnerabilities in key public buildings and making use of volunteers for preparedness and mitigation programs. In partnership with the federal government and many other outside institutions, we have created broad-based partnerships that span a variety of professions and interests. Such public-private partnerships are essential to success.


Bringing private citizens together with local governments, nonprofit organizations, and businesses to collaborate on disaster preparedness strengthens relationships and improves response capabilities, regardless of the type of incident. Fostering a national network or association for disaster-resistant communities to exchange information would be a cost-effective way to provide resources and ideas to local communities. Further, a broadly defined federal homeland security block grant program should be established to provide stable funding that is flexible enough to meet varying local needs. Private foundations should also direct more dollars toward hazard issues at local levels.

A secure homeland is prepared, disaster-resistant, disaster-resilient, and sustainable. It has as its foundation strong communities with adequate resources, experience, and technology, along with a dynamic and responsive federal network of support.

At the local level, we are learning that it is possible to achieve a holistic perspective on emergency management that embraces collaborative coalitions and public-private partnerships and acknowledges the unique strengths and abilities of a wide array of partners. With time, effort, resources, diligence, good will, and relationship building, these coalitions can be structured and managed so that everybody wins.

From the grassroots perspective, therefore, the best defense against disaster is a strong, close-knit community of neighbors who celebrate diversity and take good care of each other. That is real homeland security.

Ann Patton, Tulsa Project Impact, Citizen Corps, and Tulsa Partners, Inc.

References "Citizen Corps Celebrates Successes at One-Year Anniversary." January 30, 2003. newsletters for the George Washington University Institute for Crisis, Disaster, and Risk Management. with Henry Amparan, Los Angeles Fire Department; Tom Cain, Roanoke Impact; Kermit Hargis, Polk County, Missouri, Emergency Management; Dr. Ernst Kiesling, Texas Tech University; Joe Madigan, Village of Freeport, New York; Tom Malmay, Ouachita County, Louisiana, Civil Defense Agency; Frank Reddish, Miami-Dade Emergency Management; and Valli Wasp, Austin Emergency Management.

Our Latest Working Paper

Major Terrorism Events and the U.S.

Since September 11, 2001, the U.S. has undergone fundamental and wide-reaching changes in its approach to catastrophic events. Homeland security supercedes past approaches to disaster, and the nation is in the midst of a sweeping metamorphosis to meet changing risks that now include terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. Our latest working paper, Major Terrorism Events and Their U.S. Outcomes (1988-2001) (WP 107, 2003, 59 pp.) by Claire B. Rubin, William R. Cumming, Irmak Renda-Tanali, and Thomas A. Birkland, provides a preliminary analysis of major terrorist events from the years 1988-2001. The authors systematically identify and analyze defining terrorist events, describe their significance, and explore the causal relationships between the events and their results.

The project team used the Terrorist Time Line (TTL), written by Claire B. Rubin (available at, as a visual outline, along with an overview of general emergency management infrastructure−including laws, regulations, practices, expert systems, and organizational changes. This systematic examination, although limited in scope and duration, provides a foundation for policy and regulatory analyses of these major events.

The work was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and is limited to recent terrorist events. It identifies the need for similar, more in-depth efforts and calls for research to compare and contrast the authorities, programs, plans, and systems in place for the three major categories of disasters in the U.S.−natural, industrial/technological, and human-induced. WP 107 also mentions the need to more closely analyze the mutuality of relationships in the homeland security and emergency management arenas, since there is currently great interest in the transfer of knowledge gained from natural, industrial, and technological disasters to national defense and homeland security.

The on-line report is available at Printed copies may be purchased for $9.00 from the Publications Administrator, Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center, 482 UCB, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309-0482; (303) 492-6819; e-mail:;

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