FEMA’s National Level Exercise 18 (Rich Cooper/HSToday)

InsideHS: Cora’s Destruction Met by Mobility and Adaptability at NLE18

Day 4 coverage of NLE18 — don’t miss Day 1, Day 2 and Day 3 coverage of the FEMA National Level Exercise

As week 2 of the National Level Exercise 18 (NLE18) gets underway, the fictional environment that faux Hurricane Cora inhabits has left a large swath of the mid-Atlantic of the U.S. and the National Capital Region in a ruinous mess. For example:

  • The federal government has left town – literally, as it’s activated its COOP (Continuity of Operations) plans and moved out of the Beltway to higher ground.
  • All of the airports in Virginia, most of Maryland, North Carolina, Delaware and Pennsylvania are closed.
  • The Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant in D.C. is offline and won’t be operational for weeks.
  • The bridges connecting Virginia to D.C. are either no more, or are severely compromised. Adding to the traffic gridlock, Metro tunnels are flooded and numerous roads across the National Capital Region are either filled with storm debris or have been washed out by floodwaters.
  • Tunnels in Baltimore, as well as the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, are filled with water and are unusable.
  • More than 28 inches of rain have fallen along Cora’s path, setting new flood stage records in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia.
  • Just over 5 million people are without power and nuclear power plants in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania – including the infamous Three Mile Island – are all operating on backup systems to keep their reactors stable.

The thought is not lost on me that an area that was once a swampy marshland where George Washington and the Founders built a federal city that would become the capital of the free world, which is now openly derided as “the Swamp,” has now returned to those murky, dreadful conditions.

As fictional as this exercise environment may be, it’s sobering to think of that much destruction occurring in an area where you have lived, worked and explored your entire life. Adding to the sobriety of the exercise is the fact that everyone I am watching work the NLE18 exercise at FEMA’s Region III offices in Philadelphia are themselves now disaster victims and survivors in this scenario. While working to serve their fellow citizens from Cora’s wrath, they too have had to evacuate their families to shelters or had their homes and communities destroyed or damaged by the high winds and waters that Cora unleashed.

On top of that, even more of them are holding onto unanswered questions about the locations and well-being of other family and friends who may have also been in the storm’s path. While there are new processes, apps and procedures to alert family and friends of their safety and whereabouts, the disaster responders are in the same boat as the victims they are trying to serve.

And while all of these conditions are distracting, everyone keeps moving forward.

Like their colleagues at FEMA Headquarters, the Regional Office is a constant hive of activity with a battle rhythm pace of teleconference calls and VTC meetings. Every one of them is held to gather any type of insight and information of what is happening “out there.” For as much as people are being diligent in reporting in what they know about conditions on the ground, exercise participants still encounter a fog of war syndrome about what information is accurate and what is not.

As one remote voice on a teleconference interjected, “Excuse me, did you say the Harbor Tunnels were closed? I thought I heard in the last call they were open.”

Another voice on the call chimes in, “What time did you hear that? You better check the time of when you heard that because there have been a couple of updates since the last SITREP [situation report] this morning.”

As this real-time conversation is going on, people in the overcrowded conference room are looking at each other and begin to go through their own piles of materials to see what insight they can offer to answer about the Harbor Tunnels situation.

The fact is all their answers are “true-ish,” a term I heard for the first time today. At one point in time the tunnels were indeed closed because of floodwaters, but they would be opened as soon as pumps could get going to drain them and inspection crews into them to remove debris and make sure they were safe for use. But for right now, no one was quite sure whether they were open or not. Or what exactly was “true” at that moment in time.

What was obvious was they had a problem they had to work, instead of letting the problem work them.

Despite the steady tempo of meetings, huddles and reports occurring, you still never get any sense of panic by the hundred or so people moving through the mostly open-spaced floor. Instead what you see is diligence and focus in action as everyone works to sift through the blizzard of reports and screenshots that are literally changing every other moment.

It is mobility and adaptability in action. Seeing this on the “grass-roots” level of the FEMA Region only reinforces my earlier description of how FEMA ultimately plays the unenviable role of orchestra conductor and air traffic controller (at the same time) in often the most unfortunate of circumstances. They have to step forward onto the stage and/or control tower, and with both hands waving directions bring all the various instruments into tune and play while directing planes of all sorts into designated airspace and runways for take offs and landings.

All the while, leadership at all levels works to keep the tempo, the process and the operations moving forward. Even as problems are encountered, it’s almost as if the FEMA Region team members snag the loose football from the field of play, tuck it under their arm and carry it forward for action. That problem will certainly be addressed in a diligent fashion but not at the expense of preventing the entire response and recovery effort from moving down the field towards scoring a better day and outcome.

Just like the FEMA Headquarters exercise operations, the Region’s response in a disaster environment is about mobility and adaptability. While there are processes that are to be followed to be comprehensive in bringing solutions, because of where the FEMA Region sits in the emergency management food chain it has to be an even more aggressive listener as well as creative solutions enabler.

That requires mobility, as well as adaptability in an environment that is still as fluid as it is complex and even dangerous. Which is why an apt yet prophetic phrase found on a leadership whiteboard best describes what this FEMA Region is trying to do as it wrestles with Cora’s after-effects and coordinates with even more partners to turn the current “bad days” into better ones: “Blessed are the flexible, for they will not be bent out of shape.”

We should all be so lucky to have people like that on our side. And in Region III they do.

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Rich Cooper is Editor-at-Large for HSToday. A former senior member of DHS’ Private Sector Office (PSO), Cooper has been a frequent writer and contributor to numerous media outlets. He is Vice President for Strategic Communications & Outreach for the Space Foundation and a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC. Cooper is also a former Senior Fellow with GWU’s Cyber and Homeland Security Institute and has also served in senior positions at NASA, the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, SAS and several other profit and not-for-profit enterprises.

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