As part of the 2018 Hurricane Hunter Expo sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Puerto Rico Emergency Management Agency (PREMA), FEMA personnel provide educational materials to the general public regarding preparedness in Ceiba, Puerto Rico, on April 28, 2018. (Eduardo Martínez/FEMA)

Preparedness Needs ‘Right Message, Right Messenger,’ Says FEMA’s NPD Chief

Americans should “look at ways you can make preparedness part of your everyday life, in every way” from financial planning and insurance to community advocacy, emphasizes the leader of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Preparedness Directorate.

Preparedness officials, though, face the challenge of people not thinking about what they can do to be ready for any calamity until they’ve been personally impacted by a disaster.

“A penny of preparedness is worth a pound of recovery, or a pound of response,” Assistant Administrator Alex Amparo told HSToday at the Government Technology & Services Coalition’s recent Emergency Management 2019 event. “We have to be good at how do you provide the right nudges and understand what makes people take action, whether that is opening a bank account and starting to save, whether it’s for a community to invest in its wastewater infrastructure, or we say ‘think before you click’ in terms of cybersecurity or ‘see something, say something’ in terms of our counterterrorism work.”

Alex Amparo (FEMA)

Every preparedness campaign entails “ensuring we have the right message, the right messenger” speaking directly to that community’s concerns.

“You’re not interested in hurricane preparedness in the northwest; if you’re in the northeast, you remember Hurricane Sandy,” Amparo said. “Understand what your hazard is – and we’re doing it in a variety of mechanisms. People can go online, understand if they’re in a flood zone or understand what hazards are within their community, what’s their community’s resilience rating, and if you know those things then you’re in the best position to take action. Then, it’s what do I do about it?”

The NPD is invested in trying “everything” to get people prepared, he said, and “it comes down to ensuring that people understand what their risks are and being able to present that in the most compelling way, in the most impactful way.”

“Whether you call it hurricane amnesia, whether you call it earthquake amnesia, it is about making preparedness part of our everyday life,” Amparo continued. “It should be as American as apple pie, as The Star-Spangled Banner – being a prepared American, that’s what you want, that’s what we want, that’s what we really need in this country. And getting folks to see that, again, not an easy thing – because it is post-disaster that people are listening. We’re trying to lay the risk out – which are risks that are only getting greater every day – we’re trying to get folks to understand that so they can take action.”

“I’m convinced that if we get this type of information to the right people, we’ll see people taking action. Part of it is also recognizing and celebrating areas where action is being taken,” Amparo said. He noted that a video from the November 2018 Alaska earthquake showed students diving under their desks at the first sign of heavy shaking “instinctively, as if they had been trained their entire life.”

The preparedness chief lauded this “generational shift” because “these are students who will grow up, who will have kids and they’ll understand – it’s important for us to celebrate that and continue those efforts.”

Amparo stressed that “the best way of mitigation is insurance” – it’s “the best way to ensure that people recover.”

“You’re faced with a threat, you try to lessen that threat through mitigation – you get insurance or you get some training. You take action. People who took action are those who recover the fastest, because they’re prepared,” he said.

National Preparedness Month reaches out to communities every September, but Amparo said that mentality is needed every day – “not just through your financial savings but through your insurance and your planning, and being engaged in your community about the risks and the hazards and being an advocate.”

“We’re certainly doing that at the national level and working with states, but it has to be both top down and bottom up, and hopefully we’ll meet in the middle and we’ll be prepared for disaster,” he added.

FEMA Readiness Dispatch: Is Your Community Financially Prepared for Disaster?

In the California wildfires, some residents who had owned their homes for a lengthy period of time had let their insurance lapse. Amparo called equally tragic “the person who lived feet from a line on a map and didn’t have flood insurance, because unfortunately folks believe that the only folks who need flood insurance are in flood zones, which is ridiculous.”

“Flood’s not going to respect a line on a map; water won’t, it goes to the lowest area. We have to ensure the public understands where it can rain, it can flood,” he said. “Knowing that you are in a special flood hazard area and you still don’t have flood insurance – something’s wrong. So we have to get better at targeting and getting those folks to understand. And at the same time, forget about the maps – how do we get everyone insured?”

“When someone has a mortgage and doesn’t have a home – that’s a tragic situation and their prospects are limited,” he added. “Quite frankly, it’s not up to the American taxpayer to take on that burden. And so to the degree that we can get everyone to take action, then that lessens that burden on all of us but it also prepares us better as a nation.”

During lulls in disasters, when catastrophic headlines aren’t spurring people to action, Amparo said to keep attention on preparedness “we’ve got to be innovative, we’ve got to be fresh, we’ve got to be relevant and timely.”

“Folks need to understand how impactful 2017 and 2018 were – that’s our new benchmark,” he said of the seasons marked by powerful hurricanes, wildfires and typhoons. “There’s always more. That’s got to be the call to action for everyone.”

Amparo stressed that “the greater the connections that we do have, whether state, local, private sector, non-government, the stronger we’re going to be in the end.”

“We saw post-Sandy that the private sector, in place in New York, had about 50 times greater capability of moving resources than the government and nonprofits,” he said. “So we have to work to find better ways of tapping into them as a resource, and that’s another strong initiative we have.”

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera and SiriusXM.

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