FEMA Administrator Brock Long, left, joins Regional Administrator Bob Fenton, center, and Mark Ghilarducci of Cal OES for tours of neighborhoods burned in October 2017 California wildfires. (Chanda Scott/FEMA)

FEMA Administrator Long Knows ‘System is Broken,’ So What Next?

No matter how compelling the TV/movie scene and music may make the moment, speaking truth to power is never easy. The ability to look your boss(es) or another more powerful force in the eye and speak forcefully, directly and plainly about the cold, stark facts of a situation can be a memorable, if not uncomfortable, moment to witness.

I don’t know if FEMA Administrator Brock Long has ever been uncomfortable when he has addressed members of Congress, governors or the public he has faithfully served throughout his career, but one thing is for certain since he became FEMA administrator in June 2017: He has been very direct, forceful and plain-spoken about the state of our union in terms of preparedness.

In a Dec. 21, 2017, interview with CNN, Long explained he “wants everyone to understand three fundamental truths:

  1. FEMA is broke.
  2. The system is broken.
  3. If this is the new normal, Americans can’t rely on a federal cavalry when disaster strikes. They will have to take care of themselves.”

Ask any FEMA or federal employee, emergency responder or volunteer that worked disaster response and recovery efforts in 2017. The areas pummeled this past year by epic hurricanes and fires were a “worst-case scenario” in terms of nonstop activities and stresses upon an already overburdened system. As one FEMA employee described after her eight-week deployment following Hurricane Harvey’s wrath in Houston and surrounding Texas region, the latter half of 2017 was the “season of the apocalypse.”

It’s hard to disagree with those descriptions, especially when disaster cost estimates put the losses at nearly $400 billion – making 2017 the most expensive disaster year in American history. Only adding to those jaw-dropping numbers is the fact that Puerto Rico is still struggling with power and infrastructure issues that prevent it from being fully functioning and self-sustaining for what could be years. We should also not forget that parts of the Florida Keys, Houston, and fire-scarred Southern California are still digging their way out of debris and ruin and that, too, will take additional time and money – which are never cheap.

It’s surreal to state the obvious, but when FEMA was started in the spring of 1979 it operated in a far less complex world than it does today. While the natural disasters and emergency situations of nearly 40 years ago still exist today, the size, scope, cost, and complexity of those events have grown exponentially. Adding to the list of those known risks from four decades ago are threats that were not even imagined or considered possible outside of a work of fiction or Hollywood disaster films.

Cyber incursions, electromagnetic pulses (EMPs), major acts of terrorism, lone-wolf attacks, critical infrastructure vulnerabilities, and insider threats now exist and bring with them bigger impacts and costs. Those are on top of the now bigger, and even more dangerous, weather events that were not part of FEMA’s and the emergency management community’s mission environment in 1979.

FEMA and the emergency management community have certainly evolved over time to face emerging threats. Today they have refined training, better skills development, improved leadership, detailed mission and mitigation planning, more strategic investments, and relationship building between states, cities, volunteer organizations, as well as the private sector. All of those things have grown and matured extensively. When you add the emergence of new and groundbreaking technological capabilities, even more is possible today in planning, response and recovery operations than it was in 1979.

A number of these changes occurred as part of a natural progression of things, but most of the operational changes at FEMA and emergency management were driven by outright failures that occurred after national-scale events such as hurricanes Andrew (1992) and Katrina (2005). Media coverage of frustrated taxpayers standing amidst the ruins of their communities following a disaster will always spur political action of some type.

Presidential administrations and congresses have never been shy about their abilities to tinker and tune the FEMA machine to address the times the agency has had to operate. But for all the well-intentioned tinkering and tuning to make FEMA a fine-oiled machine, those many hands and unrealistic expectations have created a confusing and occasionally stumbling bureaucratic Frankenstein that cannot begin to fulfill all of the intents and wishes that everyone has for it.

Given the increasing needs, complexities, expectations and costs that keep growing with each disaster, the time has come again to take a good, hard look at FEMA and the emergency management community to make sure they are ready for today’s threats and the tougher challenges that are on the horizon.

I’m not alone in saying we need to reassess FEMA and the future of emergency management.

In the same December CNN interview, Brock Long further observed, “I haven’t even been here for six months yet, and what I hope to do is inform Americans about how complex this mission is.”

“…I didn’t come up here to do status quo; I’m ready to change the face of emergency management.”

So, if today’s status quo is not doing the job, how do you fix FEMA and “the mission”?

Over the coming days, I will share a multi-part set of suggestions that I hope will spur respectful discussion and debate to fulfill FEMA Administrator Long’s vision to make FEMA even more effective and positively game-changing for the future.

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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