Coordinating our emergency response to the economy and the environment

Los Angeles' economy and ecosystem are in pieces: we need to start connecting the dots, and quickly. Today's combined crises in climate, drought, and economy call for us to urgently recognize the true emergency we are in.

One solution is to look to a rarely used government structure that could be updated and expanded to address our current state of threat.

LA's new Emergency Operations CenterIn the case of a "significant crisis" the heads of agencies - police, fire, sanitation, building and safety, water and power, etc. - are called into an Emergency Operations Center. There they literally look at the big picture, supported by information and intelligence from multiple sources. Together they craft solutions and pool and direct public resources - people, equipment, and funds - in real time, until the crisis is solved.

The city of Los Angeles happens to have a brand-new such center, completed last year. Most of the time it sits unused, perhaps because we don't recognize that we're in the midst of a "chronic emergency."

But it's pretty easy to argue that today's situation - in the economy and the environment - represents a chronic emergency as well as a significant crisis.  Consider:
Despite cutbacks, revenue enhancements, employee furloughts, and many other unprecedents budgetary efforts, the city still faces an enormous deficit in the next two years. And in spite of recent rains, we are still in the midst of a long-term structural drought that is projected to worsen. We spend hundreds of millions of dollars importing water from dwindling sources, and hundreds of millions more on flood control and ocean pollution prevention caused by rain water that could be used to solve our problem.

Human health is threatened. Chronic diseases related to an unhealthy urban environment, such as asthma, are on the rise. In 2007, 5400 Southern Californians prematurely died due to air pollution. This pollution costs the South Coast basin economy about $1,250 per person per year and gives Los Angeles the highest air pollution-related health costs of any city in our state. In our notoriously car-oriented city our young people are succumbing to obesity and diabetes linked to lack of exercise.  The risk of heart attack is doubled for people living next to freeways. As we know, our health care system is at a breaking point.

Human lives and safety in our city are being threatened by severe weather that is due to climate change. This includes urban flooding and deadly heat waves (now being called "heat storms" by the Department of Water and Power). Both these conditions are intensified by LA's overpaved landscape that exacerbates stormwater run off as well as the urban "heat island effect."

Yet somehow, we don't recognize these as connected human, financial, and environmental emergencies, and don't marshal our best resources to stop the suffering and stem the losses.

All of these dots can be connected. They are all linked to the mismanagement of our ecosystem. And they can be addressed by a coordinated approach that recognizes and values nature and its life-support services.

What is needed is a new kind of Emergency Operations Center, one with a new mandate. This would run year round to protect the economy, the environment and human health and safety by integrating diverse public agencies and coordinating them to work smarter, greener, and ideally leaner. Imagine authorizing and training key leaders from city agencies and other jurisdictions - county, state and federal - to grasp, plan, fund and solve interlocking environmental and economic issues that are difficult to see from isolated perspectives.

Numerous tools and models stand ready to be utilized in a collaborative effort to manage LA in a truly integrated way. What has been lacking is a shared recognition amongst city leaders, city employees and the public of the unacceptability of the pain, losses, and costs of our current fragmented system, and finally, the vision and courage to adopt a new approach.

The pain and potential devastation caused by the city budget cutbacks are an alarm calling us to manage this crisis with a coordinated emergency response.