FEMA works with federal, state and local partners to prepare for the landfall of Hurricane Dorian in Tallahassee, Fla., on Sept. 2, 2019. (K.C. Wilsey/FEMA)

Partners in Preparedness: How Your Community Can Better Weather Disasters

On August 25, the National Hurricane Center began to issue warnings that Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) should monitor Tropical Storm Dorian’s progress. While Puerto Rico was spared from major damage, Dorian did impact USVI with heavy rain and winds as a Category 1 hurricane.

As it progressed west, forecasts for Florida became increasingly dire. Stalling over the western Bahamian Islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama, then-Category 5 Hurricane Dorian left an unimaginable path of destruction in its wake.

Dorian’s forward motion slowed, and its probable track shifted farther east and north over multiple days. Residents and visitors on Florida’s East Coast as well as those in coastal Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina learned that the hurricane could impact those areas with high winds – and, most damaging, storm surge.

While this uncertainty in Dorian’s final storm track may have caused frustration for those forecast to be in the storm’s path, it also provided individuals and communities significant time to prepare. Having extra time to finalize preparations is an opportunity we don’t often experience. That’s why it’s so important to prepare for risks you and your family may face before disaster strikes.

September was National Preparedness Month. Preparing for the next disaster happens all year-round, but every September FEMA emphasizes the importance of everyone across the country taking steps to prepare themselves, their families and their communities for the next emergency they may face. Preparedness is a shared responsibility requiring the whole community to play their part. A 2012 report from the National Academy of Sciences determined that the readiness of communities was a significant factor in the nation’s overall resilience.

Our recent PrepTalk with San Francisco City Administrator’s Office Neighborhood Empowerment Network (NEN) director Daniel Homsey provides an excellent example of the importance of community involvement in preparedness. During this discussion, Homsey shares his tools for building resilient communities at the neighborhood level and explains why empowering neighbors to help themselves is the best way to prepare your community for any hazard you may face. Communities that involve their residents are better able to understand the individual needs of people within their area. In turn, community members gain understanding of their resources and needs, and can work together to help those who need it most.

One lesson learned from the disasters our communities have faced over the past two years is that FEMA’s focus needs to be building the capacity of local, state, tribal and territorial governments to manage smaller disasters so the agency can focus its efforts on responding to the larger and potentially catastrophic disasters our nation faces. To that end, we work closely with our local, state, tribal and territorial partners to ensure they understand what actions they can take now to improve their communities’ resilience, which includes enacting policies and laws that establish and incentivize effective mitigation programs.

We cannot overstate the importance of investing in mitigation in your community before a disaster. The most effective mitigation tools to increase a community’s resilience are managed at the local level and include zoning, planning, code adoption and enforcement. According to a 2017 report published by the National Institute of Building Sciences, every $1 spent on mitigation can save $6 in future disaster recovery costs.

Since the historic disasters of 2017, the federal government has paid more than $17 billion in support to individuals and communities through grants after disasters. This figure underscores how important it is to invest resources now to ensure the same fate does not befall areas impacted when the next disaster arrives.

Recognizing this, Congress passed the Disaster Recovery Reform Act (DRRA) last year, which moved mitigation investments to the front end of the disaster cycle by authorizing a pre-disaster mitigation grant program that will be funded by setting aside 6 percent of total FEMA disaster grant costs over the course of each fiscal year. This program will allow FEMA to provide states and tribes the ability to invest in their own resilience, thereby helping to reduce the impact of future disasters.

Everyone needs to understand the risks they face. Your state, local, tribal or territorial emergency managers are the best resources to learn the risk for your neighborhood. Ready.gov has a wealth of information on actions to take to minimize that risk. We cannot prevent disasters from happening – but, together, we can do a lot more to mitigate their impacts and recover much faster.

Preparedness of the nation is a partnership and shared responsibility, starting with local, state, federal and private partners. The most important part of preparedness starts with citizens being prepared to act and make timely decisions that keep themselves, their family, their businesses and communities safe in the face of disaster. A prepared nation starts with you.

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Peter Gaynor was confirmed by the Senate on October 11, 2018 as the Deputy Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Since March 8, 2019 he has been serving as the Acting Administrator. Deputy Administrator Gaynor has more than ten years of experience in emergency management. He previously served as the Director of the Providence Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) & Office of Homeland Security from March 2008 to December 2014, where he was the only Certified Emergency Manager assigned as a municipal emergency manager within the State of Rhode Island. As Director of PEMA, he was responsible for ensuring the planning and operations of the agency, coordinating community exercise programs, managing the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), and advising the Mayor of the City of Providence on local government emergency operations. During his tenure, at both the State of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency City of Providence, he oversaw the multiple response and recovery operations as well as managing numerous federally declared disasters. Prior to his experience as an emergency manager, Director Gaynor served for 26 years as an enlisted Marine and Infantry Officer in the United States Marine Corps. Deputy Administrator Gaynor received a Bachelor’s degree in History from Rhode Island College and a Master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the Naval War College in Newport, RI. He is also a recent graduate of the Center for Homeland Defense and Security’s Executive Leaders Program.

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