Members of a FEMA Urban Search and Rescue team speak with a resident in Florida after Hurricane Michael. (FEMA photo)

PERSPECTIVE: Where’s FEMA? Look to the Whole Community for Best Disaster Response

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Disaster strikes. Communities are devastated, and lives are changed forever. In such a dire time, all eyes turn to FEMA to rebuild from the seeming endless devastation.

But the devastation persists, and all eyes are still on FEMA.

With last year’s record storms and the costs inflicted by disasters becoming increasingly unaffordable, we know that something must change to protect our citizens. But what, really, is FEMA’s role in this, and how can the organization contribute to diminishing the human and economic burden of disasters?

Improving the outcome of a disaster requires several key elements, including knowing who all the key actors are, what their roles are, and how to optimally integrate their functions. This relies on the Whole Community. FEMA cannot replace the vital functions of the Whole Community, and such expectation would actually undermine response. While it is often criticized or praised for activities that do not fall under the agency’s purview, the role of FEMA is to coordinate federal resources that supplement local and state or tribal government resources that are overwhelmed. FEMA supports the efforts of many groups that work together in the wake of a disaster. Optimizing this interaction is the key to a successful response. To better understand the role of FEMA, let’s consider how these other groups function and then how FEMA supports them.

During a disaster, the first responders are often neighbors who help each other. Local first responders help with saving lives in the immediate time course. In the acute phase, local preparedness is key: Individuals need to be empowered with the tools to know how to respond to a disaster. Do they know how to shut off water and gas? Do they check on their neighbors? Do they know CPR? Are they financially prepared to deal with the impacts of disasters in their communities, including having the right insurance for the disasters they face (e.g., flood, earthquakes, or tornadoes, as locally applicable)? These skills and financial resources are critical for individuals in impacted communities to lessen the immediate damage and save lives. Therefore, FEMA supports these efforts to help Americans prepare for disasters. (More information at Ready.gov). Since this critical first response is local, communities must increase their capacity to respond to smaller-scale disasters locally. FEMA will assist by working with our state, local, tribal, and territorial partners to increase their capacities to respond to and recover from smaller-scale disasters, thereby enabling FEMA and our federal partners to remain available to focus on readiness for catastrophic events.

Of course, a major part of reducing the loss of life and economic disruption in the wake of a disaster is building resilient communities before it strikes. Communities need to actively work to reduce risks to people, property, and taxpayer dollars. When communities are impacted, they should ensure that they rebuild more resilient infrastructure to protect taxpayer investment and promote economic stability. The nation must prepare for catastrophic events that stress our logistics, supply chains, continuity of operations, communications, and staffing capacities. Though we tend to believe that the loss of power, communications, and water infrastructure following disasters will be short-lived, it often is not. The 2017 hurricane season proved that no matter how many federal employees respond to an event, they can’t make up for poor or aging infrastructure—infrastructure that we rely upon to help augment a response.

Federal initiatives have also recently focused on improving preparedness. The Disaster Recovery Reform Act was passed by Congress earlier this month to help provide some additional funding and incentives for local and state officials to invest in mitigation activities. This act authorized the National Public Infrastructure Pre-Disaster Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, which will be funded through the Disaster Relief Fund. Previously, funding for pre-disaster mitigation grants relied on congressional appropriations which varied from year to year. Now, funds equivalent to 6 percent of previous disaster expenses are set aside from the disaster relief fund for mitigation. With a reliable stream of sufficient funding, communities will be able to plan and execute mitigation programs to reduce disaster risk nationwide with new public infrastructure projects that increase community resilience. Ultimately, this approach saves money: According to a 2017 National Institute of Building Sciences report, the nation saves $6 in future disaster costs for every $1 invested in mitigation activities. Hazard mitigation grant funding is also increased with Fire Management Assistance Grants in areas impacted by wildfires, and fourteen new mitigation project types were introduced associated with mitigation of damage from wildfires and windstorms.

These changes target an important shortcoming in disaster recovery: the expense of rebuilding, which is a staggering sum for the uninsured. This is not covered by FEMA, since FEMA programs were never intended to supplant homeowners’ insurance policies. While the most common form of government assistance after a disaster is a loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration, fewer than 30 percent of the many who register for such assistance actually qualify to receive a grant from FEMA to rebuild their home. For those who do qualify and also qualify for a federal grant for assistance, these grants, on average, are around $8,000. This is far short of what most homeowners would need to rebuild, yet few individuals understand this. Additionally, 44 percent of Americans do not have $400 on hand to cover an emergency expense and would be ill-prepared to care for themselves and their families in the wake of a disaster.

FEMA has also taken new steps to build more robust partnerships to improve response. The newly-formed FEMA Integration Teams (FIT) provide state, local, tribal, and territorial organizations with enhanced assistance by integrating federal staff with the emergency management offices of participating partners. FEMA employees work full-time with a state that opts-in to the program, thereby keeping FEMA members plugged in to the needs of that state. This facilitates continuous planning coordination to ensure integration of FEMA with key government leaders and emergency managers throughout all levels of government during response and recovery efforts nationwide instead of negotiating involvement and assistance three days after a disaster hits.

The federal government offers resources to augment and support those local or state governments whose own resources are overwhelmed. However, they do not replace the mission of other government resources long-term, and they do not render unnecessary the invaluable assistance of other groups that offer aid: neighbors, faith-based and community groups, stores, volunteer kitchens and food banks, volunteer mobile units and food trucks, and others. FEMA supports the efforts of these groups and provides additional resources to the state as requested.

We must remember that FEMA is part of the team, but it is not the whole team when responding to catastrophic events. We need to build more robust partnerships and integrate with our state, local, tribal, and territorial partners before the next disaster strikes — we must face it as a Whole Community.

 

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email HSTodayMag@gtscoalition.com. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

The Honorable Richard Serino is currently a “Distinguished Visiting Fellow” at Harvard University, National Preparedness Leadership Initiative. Mr. Serino was appointed by President Obama and confirmed by the Senate as the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s 8th Deputy Administrator in October 2009 and served until 2014. Prior to his appointment as Deputy Administrator, he served as Chief of Boston EMS and Assistant Director of the Boston Public Health Commission. As Chief of Boston EMS, Mr. Serino served as Incident Commander for over 35 mass casualty incidents and for all of Boston’s major planned events. During his time at FEMA, he oversaw 60 disasters from flooding in the Midwest, tornado devastation in Missouri, tsunami destruction, and numerous hurricanes. Mr. Serino was on scene at the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013 as the highest-ranking official of DHS. Under Mr. Serino’s leadership, FEMA has started the following initiatives such as FEMA Corps, FEMA Stat, the FEMA Think Tank, a detailed budgetary process, and a Disaster Workforce and Workplace Transformation.

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