History 1990s

The 1990s brought with it the "reinvention of government." Perhaps no other agency was more suited to the "poster child" of this concept than FEMA. Upon his appointment as director, James Lee Witt set out to remodel the agency and to make it more attuned to the needs of the state and local governments. FEMA went from being the agency everyone liked to complain about to being one of the more responsive and capable agencies in the federal government - a complete, 180-degree turnaround from the 1992 Hurricane Andrew debacle.

Mr. Witt also changed the focus of emergency management so that hazard mitigation was now the foundation of emergency preparedness at all levels of government. Recognizing that it was pointless and costly to simply rebuild homes in areas that flooded every other year, his approach was to provide federal and state funds to buy out homeowners in these areas and turn them into parks, golf courses, and other facilities that, if flooded suffered little if any consequential loss. It was much cheaper in the long run, the theory is, to buy out and relocate a homeowner than to have to rebuild his home every other year. This mitigation cornerstone remains in place today.

Mr. Witt also streamlined the disaster assistance processes of FEMA so that now, when FEMA is called upon to provide temporary housing funds to disaster victims for example, it takes just a couple of days to get money to them. This stands in stark contrast to the 4-6 WEEKS it took just 8 years ago. FEMA has also shifted from requiring states to perform certain, specific things in exchange for the funding they receive from the agency, to a program that allows the state to decide which disasters and emergencies affect it most heavily, and develop a program that addresses those issues. This allows the states to concentrate on those types of situations it is most likely to encounter rather than those that are never likely to occur.

Tennessee, like many other states, began to see an increase in the number of major disasters that impacted it. Whereas the state had been averaging a major disaster declaration once every 18 months, the frequency of these events began to increase. Major ice and snow storms in 1993 and 1994, flooding in 1995 and 1997, severe weather in every year since 1995, and several lesser events made the latter half of the 1990s an extremely busy time for the agency. In 1994, the state's emergency management plan shifted from an "annex"-based, static document to one developed on the Emergency Support Function (ESF) developed by FEMA for its FRP. The state's new plan was concept-oriented and allowed for the flexibility needed to address the changing nature of disasters, and the flux that was involved in the day-to-day operations of state government itself. Tennessee was the first state to develop an ESF-based plan, and the plan was requested by several other states to inspect in the development of their own ESF-type planning documents.

Perhaps fittingly, the decade of the 90s closed out with the most prepared-for non event in history - the Y2K "glitch." There was a concern that many of the computer systems in the world that run everything from coffee makers to ATMs to the national defense mechanisms might not be able to interpret the last two zeros in a 2-digit date as the year 2000, instead believing it to be 1900. Thousands of "experts" flooded the media preaching gloom and doom and the end of the world or civilization as we knew it. Some people even bought houses way out in the backwoods, stocking them with huge quantities of rations just to be on the safe side in case anarchy ensued. Fortunately, through the dedicated work of thousands of computer professionals, little happened that required the attention of emergency services professionals. The State Emergency Operations Center was activated, however, staffed by about two dozen personnel just in case something did happen. Nothing did, of course, but the staff did enjoy watching the Y2K celebrations from around the globe.

The agency continues to focus on natural and common technological disasters. Today, however, the agency is also forced to focus on such things as domestic preparedness (counter-terrorism), critical infrastructure protection (protection of the state's transportation, utility, communications, financial, public health, and governmental systems) and a wide array of other threats that just ten years ago weren't even on the radar scope.

TEMA has always been recognized as one of the more proactive and well-managed state-level emergency management agencies in the country. Emergency services personnel come from all over the world to visit to see how we do things - Bulgarian and Russian delegations for example. It is our desire to continue that philosophy into the 21st Century.