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HSTODAY Q&A: Former FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor Discusses Building a More Resilient Nation

"If you can’t describe what risks may impact your family or business, you can’t take actions to mitigate those risks."

Pete Gaynor served as the Acting Secretary of Homeland Security in January 2021 and as FEMA Administrator from 2020-2021, acting FEMA Administrator from 2019-2020, and Deputy FEMA Administrator from 2018-2020. During his time at FEMA, he led the agency’s response to more than 300 presidentially declared emergencies and major disasters. During 2020, he oversaw FEMA’s first-ever operational response to a nationwide pandemic while simultaneously responding to a record number of historic natural disasters. The former director of the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency served for 26 years as an enlisted Marine and Commissioned Officer in the United States Marine Corps.

Gaynor just joined GEI Consultants as Senior Vice President and Director, National Resilience, Response, and Recovery Programs and, in the middle of hurricane and wildfire season, answered questions from HSToday about building a more resilient nation.

 

What are your takeaways from your time at FEMA regarding both strides and outstanding deficits in national resilience?

For the longest time, our greatest deficit was underfunding pre-disaster mitigation. One of the most forward pieces of legislation which has attempted to remedy this, and set the foundation for national resilience, was the passage of the Disaster Recovery Reform Act of 2018. The Act had a total of 56 provisions, everything from allowing mitigation funding for those fires that used a Fire Management Assistance Grant to increased Management Costs for Public Assistance and the groundbreaking creation of the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) grant program. BRIC has been embraced by both sides of the aisle, which has been demonstrated by continued significant federal funding that allows the nation to invest in pre-disaster mitigation and risk reduction.

What are the most important factors in building a culture of resilience? 

First, resilience is not just a thing that governments do. Resilience doesn’t have to have a multi-million-dollar price tag. Resilience is multi-dimensional. It’s everything from using modern building standards and codes in the construction of your new home, to purchasing flood insurance to protect your property, to designing and implementing a business continuity plan to protect your business, all the way up to upgrading pipelines, pump stations and water storage to defend against current and future drought conditions. The most important factor? Do something to better reduce risk to your family, your business, and your community. Start small. Because, before you know it, all these small actions add up to something big.

In building a more resilient citizenry, how do you motivate a population to consistently embrace the most critical preparedness measures and evolve with new or changing threats? 

The first thing all of us must understand is risk. If you can’t describe what risks may impact your family or business, you can’t take actions to mitigate those risks. The one disaster that is the most common and the most expensive is flooding. In the past 20 years, 99 percent of all counties in the U.S. have been impacted by flooding. That fact alone should motivate most homeowners and renters to protect their most important investment: their home. Unfortunately, as a nation, we are woefully uninsured. The first step to understand risk is to visit FEMA’s National Risk Index (NRI) for natural hazards. The NRI is an online tool that “identifies communities most at risk to 18 natural hazards. This application visualizes natural hazard risk metrics and includes data about expected annual losses from natural hazards, social vulnerability, and community resilience.” Readers can learn more about the NRI here: National Risk Index | FEMA.gov

In building more resilient governmental structures, what should agencies prioritize when it comes to preparedness?

When it comes to preparedness (in reference to “governmental structures”), especially when it comes to Public Assistance (PA) and Category E, public buildings and contents, we are our own worst enemies. The PA Category E program disincentives local, state, tribal, and territorial governments from properly protecting public property from disasters through insurance. As a nation, we should mandate that governments actually insure public property against loss. One of the biggest misconceptions is when a local official says they are insured against loss, because they are “self-insured.” Let me decode the term “self-insurance.” It simply means there is no insurance, and the taxpayer will ultimately cover the loss. Most of the time that means FEMA comes to the rescue, via the Public Assistance program, with federal taxpayer dollars to rebuild a piece of property that has no insurance.

How can industry best partner with government in resiliency and preparedness?

One of the key elements of the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) grant program is innovation and partnerships. BRIC actively encourages partnerships of all types; non-governmental organizations, colleges and universities, private organizations, or other government entities can be part of an application. Leveraging a diverse group of partners encourages innovation, unique ideas and boarding funding streams, which all increase the ultimate success of a project. The application process for some of these more technical projects may require expertise and experience that doesn’t normally reside in the public sector. Finding an industry partner will help improve your application competitiveness.

How do you combat disaster fatigue in ensuring that communities under consistent threats are adequately prepared and alert?

We have had a historic and taxing couple of years. The pandemic, wildfires, flooding, hurricanes, and social unrest, to name but a few, have exhausted much of the country. Professionals like emergency managers, health professionals, and first responders have been operating on the ragged edge. With no apparent end in sight, exhaustion and apathy continue to degrade our capacity to stay prepared and alert. Unfortunately, there is no simple solution other than time. Let me offer a few things to keep in mind. First: Current conditions will get better, although we still must continue to battle climate change. The pendulum will move from its extremes to a more normal condition. Don’t lose hope. Second: If you are an emergency management leader, take care of your people. Make them time take time off. Don’t forget to take care of yourself and your family. Lastly, pace yourself and plan for the long game; stop doing activities that don’t move the needle. You can say no.

What lessons have you been able to draw from your lengthy military background and apply to emergency management?

One of the greatest lessons I have taken from my time in the Marine Corps is the ability to adapt. For Marines, failure is not an option. You must find a path around the obstacle. This mindset fostered critical-thinking, innovation, and the internal belief that any obstacle could be defeated. After living at the center of two or three grueling years of the pandemic and the seemingly never-ending stream of natural disasters, adaptability is the key to success. As emergency managers, our ability to adapt under rapidly changing conditions to solve some of the nation’s most complex problems is central to our success.

Homeland Security Todayhttp://www.hstoday.us
The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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