ISU Alumni Dwight Ink pioneered disaster recovery efforts, Urban Housing programs

Dwight Ink in his home in his home in Lansdowne, Virginia. Photo: Sarah Haas/Iowa State Daily.

Sarah Haas

Dwight Ink in his home in his home in Lansdowne, Virginia. Photo: Sarah Haas/Iowa State Daily.

Sarah Haas –

Sarah Haas — Daily Staff Writer

When a 9.2-magnitude earthquake lifted or sank more than 50,000 square miles of Alaska an average of five feet, President Lyndon Johnson appointed ISU alumnus Dwight Ink to lead the recovery effort.

“The best experience in my career was the Alaska recovery effort because it succeeded,” said Ink, who served seven presidents. “A whole state would have gone belly up and close to half the people would have abandoned the state had we not acted swiftly. It would have been a mess for years.”

The 1964 quake devastated the Alaskan economy, which was fragile because Alaska had only been admitted to statehood in 1959. The young economy was heavily reliant on fishing.

In addition to causing the destruction of fishing boats and canneries, the quake altered the depth of some of Alaska’s harbors. Ink said some harbors were either too shallow for boats or too deep for breakwaters to protect the boats.

Thousands of businesses and homes were damaged beyond repair, while the infrastructure, including water, sewer, communications and roads, were obliterated. Many worried inflation would cause the state to become obsolete.

Johnson appointed Ink executive director of the recovery efforts for the Federal Reconstruction and Development Planning Commission for Alaska and worked in tandem with a temporary commission composed of politicians and cabinet members. The purpose of the commission was to work with state and local leaders to develop and facilitate plans for reconstruction and economic development. The commission provided political leadership and developed the recovery policies while the staff, headed by Ink, conducted the commission’s day-to-day operations.

To say Ink and the commission had their hands full is an extreme understatement, especially because the window for construction in Alaska is severely hampered by dismal winter conditions.

“People are too timid. They get discouraged easily,” Ink said. “Well, there are some things you can’t do, but there are an awful lot of things you can do. If something needs to be done, you go out and do it, but you have to be creative. You have to be innovative. You have to be willing to take some risks.”

Ink said the response to the earthquake was atypical, because Johnson appointed members of his cabinet to the recovery effort in order to expedite work necessary to help Alaskans. The speed of the recovery was unprecedented because the commission’s policy decisions were made swiftly and handed to Ink to execute. Ink and his field workers’ openness with Alaskans was also key to their success.

The recovery efforts organized by Ink and the commission were positively received and Ink’s recovery plan is still lauded as the best way to manage a natural disaster.

“They operated so effectively that reconstruction was basically completed and all major public facilities were back in operation before the construction season ended, setting peacetime record,” wrote Barclay Jones, Cornell University professor of city and regional planning and regional science, in a Multidisciplinary Center for “Earthquake Engineering Research” publication. “In spite of the time pressures, facility standards were upgraded and mitigation was given far more attention than in any previous disaster reconstruction.”

In fact, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Ink analyzed the “shocking failure of all three levels of government to meet their obligations to the public” in an article he wrote for the “Public Administration Review” in 2006.

Provost Elizabeth Hoffman said Ink is modest about the importance of his accomplishments in his work in Alaska.

“He designed the entire disaster recovery effort. The plan he put together was the disaster plan model that was given to Obama during the transition,” Hoffman said. “His model for public management is to get the most done at the lowest cost.”

After Ink returned from his assignment in Alaska, he went to work for Johnson in another capacity: organizing a brand new department of the U.S. government, the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Johnson’s War on Poverty aimed to curtail the 19 percent poverty rate for individual Americans that plagued the country.

“It was kind of fun to be tapped by the president for a special job,” Ink said. “Lyndon Johnson had high hopes for HUD and he needed someone to organize it, and organize it in a hurry and I had been so successful in Alaska that he decided to appoint me to do so.”

Given the title assistant secretary for administration, Ink began to organize the inner workings of HUD. He said the department was set up differently than any other cabinet department because it depended on more professional management than political appointees.

“I made one big mistake in organizing HUD and it grew out of the fact that we were gradually, unevenly but gradually, gaining greater management power in the federal government, starting with Eisenhower,” Ink said. “The career leadership were being given greater assignments.”

Johnson and President Dwight Eisenhower were willing to trust the capabilities of career public administrators, yet others, including President John F. Kennedy, did not trust the career service as much, Ink said.

“A lot of political academia will tell you that’s outdated, but they’re wrong,” Ink said. “We set up a department in which the operations were carried out by the field. We set up these regional offices and the regional directors were put at the top of the career level. Instead of centralizing leadership in Washington, we shifted some high-level positions to the field.”

The department’s headquarters dealt with policy and field offices with the execution of policy, which meant the field leaders were chosen on the basis of merit rather than on a political basis.

For the first four years the system worked well, and HUD was granted power to enforce anti-housing discrimination and expanded the availability of mortgage funds for moderate income families. But eventually HUD was overwrought with a series of scandals that would lead to the department transforming “from being the poster child, to being the one most ridiculed,” Ink said.

Under President Richard Nixon’s appointee, George Romney, the department failed to prevent fraud and instead caught it after it happened.

“By the time Reagan came in, the department was a mess,” Ink said.

He worked intimately with Nixon and led Nixon’s effort to put a number of government management reforms in place that would restructure the Executive Office of the President and domestic departments and agencies. Ink applauded Nixon’s initial interest in making domestic issues important to his presidency, but he soon grew uncomfortable with Nixon’s restructuring.

“The fourth year of the first term made me very uneasy with the Nixon administration,” Ink said. “They were beginning to press political appointees out in the field. They were beginning to replace career management people with political appointees. And there were other things that were beginning to make me very uneasy.”

Ink said Nixon stood up to pressure better than any other president he had worked with and felt that Nixon could have “turned out to be an honest, highly respected person” if he hadn’t let his staff “do things that shouldn’t have happened” and turn a blind eye.

“I think Watergate was a case that he would not have approved of what happened, but he was very clearly involved in the cover up,” Ink said.

After Nixon was reelected, Ink said Nixon and his staff worked in “self-imposed isolation” to restructure the executive branch, which had failed in congress due to the Watergate scandal. These new measures “concentrated power in the White House and reduced the role of the departments,” which was counter to what Ink had worked for previously.

With Nixon’s resignation, Ink again moved on to another department in need of assistance, this time serving as the acting administrator of the General Services Administration under President Gerald Ford. He took a break from government and returned to assist President Jimmy Carter in restructuring the Civil Service in order to enhance accountability. He was also appointed by Ronald Reagan to close down the Community Service Administration.

“There are really not that many dead end jobs in the federal government,” Ink said. “In most cases you can make what might seem like a dead end job into a truly interesting and useful, and often exciting, job.”