In September 1989, South Carolina was wildly unprepared when Hurricane Hugo—a Category 4 storm with estimated winds of 135 miles per hour—hit South Carolina’s coast, claiming 49 lives, causing the equivalent of over $13 billion dollars in damage in 2014 dollars, and displacing 60,000 from their homes.
In the wake of the 25th anniversary of Hurricane Hugo—the most severe disaster to hit South Carolina in the past century—the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight and Management Efficiency held a hearing to determine whether the nation’s first responders are prepared to meet the array of new threats facing the US today.
“Hugo required a major response, for which South Carolina was unprepared. However, the ordered evacuation of 250,000 would pale in comparison to what would be needed today. Over a million now live in the area Hugo threatened,” Subcommittee Chairman Jeff Duncan (R-SC) said.
However, he added, “The days of only preparing for natural disasters like hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes are behind us.”
Robert J. Fenton, the acting Deputy Associate Administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Office of Response and Recovery believes that Hugo was a harbinger of even more destructive hurricanes — like Andrew, Katrina, Rita, Wilma, and Sandy.
A relatively young agency when Hugo first struck South Carolina’s coast, FEMA has transformed into a “very different” organization over the past 25 years as a result of the advent of social media and other new technologies. Today, FEMA takes a whole community approach to emergency preparedness, builds on national preparedness efforts and collaborates with federal partners in catastrophic planning and preparedness.
Social media, in particular, now plays an essential role in FEMA’s emergency preparedness efforts. According to Fenton, “Rather than trying to convince the public to adjust to the way we at FEMA have traditionally communicated, we have adapted to the way the public communicates, leveraging the tools they use on a daily basis.”
Social media and other emerging technologies have allowed FEMA to reach more people more quickly during disasters, when they need accurate and timely information is imperative. “If someone sees a preparedness or safety tip from FEMA, the goal is that it will inspire them to prepare themselves as well as empower them to tell a friend how to be more prepared or where to find help,” according Fenton.
Jeffrey Payne, acting director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Office for Coastal Management, indicated that the long recovery from Hugo is a reminder of the region’s vulnerability, even today.
“Nearly 90 percent of all Presidentially-declared disasters are weather and water-related, and our vulnerability to the impacts is increasing as our population grows,” Payne said.
While NOAA plays a critical role in preparing for and responding to disasters, Payne indicated that they can’t do it alone. NOAA workslaboriously to develop lines of communication and cooperation with partners to enhance pre-disaster planning efforts.
For example, NOAA has been engaged with the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s disaster resilience framework, which will provide local communities with a systematic approach to planfor disasters and other disruptive events. NOAA has also partnered with the United States Geological Survey, Department of Homeland Security (DHS), FEMA, Environmental Protection Agency, United States Coast Guard and the United States Army Corps of Engineers to ensure a coordinate response to emergencies.
“To ensure that fiscally-wise and economically and environmentally sound decisions are made, the Federal government and its state and local partners need to continue coordinated pre-planning efforts at the national, regional and state levels,” Payne explained. “Wise ‘precovery’ decisions will ensure that we are able to remain resilient in the face of future events, from the next chemical spill to the 21st century Hugo.”
Major General Robert E. Livingston, Jr., the Adjutant General Military Department of South Carolina, asserted the nation’s ability to respond to another major Hurricane like Hugo requires a thorough assessment of how the environment, urban and business development and landscape have changed since 1989.
Since Hugo, the population on South’s Carolina’s coast has increased by 40 percent. In the event of an emergency, these people need to be evacuated from the coast. Accompanying the growth in population density, however, is improvement in the ability to communicate with the public, particularly due to the advent of social media.
Today, the US must also consider the ability of a non-state actor using a major disaster as an opportunity to attack the population and infrastructure. Fortunately, Livingston believes the “South Carolina National Guard has emerged from 13 years of war as the most ready National Guard in the history of our state.”
After Hurricane Hugo, the South Carolina National Guard’s capabilities improved in aviation, transportation, and air traffic control. Moreover, collaboration with their partners at local, state, and federal levels—especially with FEMA, DHS and US Northern Command—dramatically improved.
However, “Funding for federally declared disasters is still slow, inconsistent and unwieldy.” While Livingston said FEMA is very responsive to a state’s needs in times of crisis, the process of approval for federal funds is still slow and laborious.
“It is frustrating to a state that federal funds being sent to a state are delayed by bureaucracy while federal assets are free to reposition with little or no cost consequences,” he said. “These dynamics are outside of FEMA’s control but should be addressed to increase a state’s ability to cooperate and respond with other states within a region.”
However, FEMA has come under fire for bungling response efforts. Homeland Security Today reported Monday that with $66 billion dollars in obligated disaster funds in question after the agency failed to track costs and performance data for its long-term recovery offices, FEMA is at risk of mismanaging disaster relief funds, according to a recent audit by DHS’s Office of Inspector General (OIG).
“FEMA risks mismanaging disaster relief funds because it does not track costs or performance data and has not created and implemented standardized policies, procedures and performance measures for long-term recovery offices,” the DHS OIG report stated.
Similarly, Homeland Security Today reported last month that another OIG audit found significant flaws in FEMA’s $247 million disaster relief system that may hamper an effective response to a catastrophic disaster.
Kim Stenson, Director of the South Carolina Emergency Management Division, said the state emergency management office has made great strides in implementing good practices after lessons learned from Hugo, knowing that a similar event occurring in the future is not a matter of “if,” but “when.”
South Carolina State Emergency Management has implemented full-time Hurricane program management, statewide exercises testing response and recovery operations, increased National Guard capabilities, increased public awareness of Hurricane dangers, moved the location of the State Emergency Operations Center, more effective management of requests for assistance, consistent evacuation signage and the formation of state or regional Urban Search and Rescue, Incident Management and Medical Assistance Teams.
“While many things have changed in emergency management since Hugo, a primary one has not: no force wielded by human beings can equal the catastrophic ferocity of nature, and a major hurricane is still a tremendous challenge,” Stenson said.
John S. Skipper, Jr., Sheriff at the Anderson County Sheriff’s Office, believes the reality is that a local response is the most effective way of dealing with the repercussions of a disaster. For example, Super Storm Sandy—which struck the northeast in 2012—was dealt with mostly by local authorities, although FEMA also played a significant role.
“In looking at how we would deal with a hurricane Hugo type event in the 21st century, the lessons learned since that time are invaluable. Local preparedness and local incident management are vital in resiliency,” Skipper said.
Since emergencies at the local level are often best dealt with at the local level, it is vital that local authorities learn how to leverage technology, and specifically social media, to keep the public informed. Anderson County, for instance, deploys Safetown, a website and phone application used to maintain an ongoing two-way dialogue with the public.
“In Anderson County we realize that when something happens, we may very well be on our own for a substantial amount of time before other assistance, whether at the state or federal level, can arrive. Waiting on the federal government to handle a local matter is not an option for us, or any local emergency management agency,” Skipper explained.
Indeed. Emergency management authorities across the nation, and even the federal government itself, have repeatedly warned that in the event of a major or catastrophic disaster, federal assistance in particular probably won’t be arriving anytime soon after the event.
“Emergencies are best administered from the ground up, not from the top down. When a crisis arrives, time is of the essence,” Skipper said.
Jim Bottum, vice provost for computing and information technology and chief information officer at Clemson University, asserted emergency plans must account for not only the possibility of a natural disaster, but a man-made one as well, since all disasters will have a significant impact upon the cyber infrastructure the nation relies on today.
“There are other considerations outside of natural disasters that have the potential to be even more catastrophic in their impact – not necessarily through withstanding physical damage, but rather potential economic and societal damage that could be associated with a hacking of our nation’s infrastructure,” Bottum said.
The state of information technology has radically changed since 1989. Today, in 2014, Bottum calls technology “the backbone that even the most basic functions of society depend upon on a daily basis.” With the nation’s reliance upon computer systems to drive critical infrastructure, the next major disaster is likely to be a catastrophic cyberattack.
Bottum believes the US is completely unprepared for a potential cyber disaster impacting the operation of critical infrastructure such as power, banking or telecommunications. A robust disaster recovery plan must not only account for the possibility of a cyber disaster, but also look to long-term strategic goals, such as establishing a competentcybersecurity workforce.
“In order for our nation to be prepared to defend against cyber disasters and other cyber threats, we must invest in the future of cybersecurity research, education and training to prepare the next generation workforce,” Bottum said. “A workforce that is capable of preparing and protecting our infrastructure is paramount, and much like the probable future medical doctor shortage this nation is facing, if we do not begin to provide the education and training to those who will be tasked with protecting our infrastructure, the vulnerabilities we face will continue to grow without the professionals educated to protect it.”
Editor’s note: For more on the necessity of growing the nation’s legions of cybersecurity experts and leaders, read the report, Cybersecurity Education Shortage Poses Significant Security Threat to US, in the Oct./Nov. Homeland Security Today special cybersecurity section.