FEMA Disaster Survivor Assistance (DSA) team members Juan Ramirez and Pedro Agosto Rivera, left, and FEMA Corps member Andrew Winston, right, canvas Alemany neighborhood DSA teams visit Hurricane Maria survivors throughout Puerto Rico in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, on March 21, 2018. (Michael Medina-Latorre/FEMA)

#RealDeal Interview: Deputy Administrator Fosters State, Local Teamwork with FEMA

One of the challenges any leader has is knowing what risks to look out for. But when your job entails working with “all-hazards,” that means you have to keep an eye out for everything. As the Deputy Administrator (Acting) for FEMA, Dan Kaniewski has plenty to keep his eyes on as he works with Administrator Brock Long, the national FEMA Team and countless other partners in the public, private and NGO sectors to prepare, respond and recover from America’s “bad days.”

Kaniewski’s portfolio of experience is almost as diverse as the mission assignments that FEMA undertakes. He’s worked policy, academia and industry, as well as stints as a congressional staffer, executive branch official and even time as a volunteer EMT. Those experiences have allowed him to connect to FEMA’s constituencies in countless ways, which is how he’s become one of the agency’s best messengers and transformational leaders.

HSToday’s Editor at Large Rich Cooper sat down with Kaniewski at his FEMA Headquarters office shortly after the National Level Exercise 2018 (NLE18) got underway to talk about the exercise and how FEMA will be changing under its newly released Strategic Plan.

HSToday: For NLE 18, what are the biggest priority test areas for you?

Dan Kaniewski (DK): Well, this is an opportunity for us to preview the response for any 2018 hurricanes. Opportunities like this don’t come around too often – where we get to have discussions, and very frank discussions, amongst our federal, state and local partners in advance of an anticipated incident.

HSToday: In a number of your public comments, you’ve shared because of where your nomination was in the confirmation process you were on the sidelines for much of hurricane season 2017. Then when you got confirmed in September of last year, the hurricane season really took off in the form of Hurricane Maria and her wrath. With that experience still fresh in your mind, what are you looking for this year in terms of how FEMA prepares for the 2018 hurricane season?

Daniel Kaniewski

DK: So, first off we are finishing up our after-action review for our 2017 response. And we’re starting to test some of those lessons learned in the NLE18 exercise. Many of those lessons are along the lines of what the administrator has been very clear about, which is making sure FEMA is ready for truly catastrophic disasters.

And short of a catastrophic disaster, we’re going to rely on those existing state and local capabilities and support the plan as necessary.

A saying that we have here at FEMA is “federally supported, state managed, locally executed,” and for anything short of a truly catastrophic incident that’s the model we’re going to follow. FEMA had 30 open disasters prior to last year’s hurricane season. We realized we have to narrow our focus to the truly catastrophic, over the long-term.

We know it’s not going to happen overnight, but here in this exercise we can test out this hypothesis, which is FEMA will increasingly build up the level of preparedness, build up the level of readiness for state and local authorities over time so that FEMA can focus on those catastrophic disasters.

HSToday: We’re three days into the NLE18 exercise. What are you seeing that is standing out to you that either still needs work or has dramatically improved since last year?

DK: Well, for one, it’s best to not exchange business cards on gameday. So there has, of course, been some turnover in a number of agencies.

And there are also different players at the state and local level that we dealt with in last year’s disasters.

For NLE18, we’re dealing with the East Coast, as opposed to the Gulf Coast or U.S. territories.

And so getting to know in as close to an operationally accurate way as possible how our state and local partners will respond to disasters is a huge benefit for us. If we were to experience a disaster of any kind – hurricane, or any other type of disaster – with these states we’re exercising right now, I’m confident that because of the relationships we’ve formed over time that we’re going to be in good shape.

What has impressed me most is the level of seriousness that each of the players have taken again at the federal state and local level.

This is also true of the private sector, which was a major lesson learned from last hurricane season. What we’re doing in this exercise and what we’re doing going forward is truly carving out an equivalent role, equivalent to the federal, state and local role for the private sector.

So we’re no longer talking about a three-legged stool, we’re talking about a four-legged stool.

HSToday: You lived and worked through hurricanes Katrina and Rita – are hurricanes Harvey and Maria just as transformational for FEMA?

DK: I think so, but in a different way.

With Katrina and Rita, the logistic challenges were pronounced in a way that FEMA and our federal partners hadn’t previously tested. In terms of Harvey and especially Maria, we as a domestic response agency had to deal with the logistic challenge of transporting goods and people a thousand miles over an open ocean.

All disasters are different, of course, but with Maria we were faced with an infrastructure that had been fairly weak to begin with. It’s also not as simple as just restoring power or stringing a new communications or power line. It’s rebuilding an entire island’s infrastructure, and the enormity of that challenge is now becoming apparent to everybody in the recovery phase.

HSToday: What’s been the most successful moment that you’ve seen in NLE 2018 thus far?

DK: I think, in one word, it’s coordination. I looked up at the screen today during the VTC to see the number and the breadth of the participants and saw them working seamlessly together. The fact that there haven’t been major stumbles – and, again, we can learn from stumbles, that’s what exercises should do – but the fact that all these players are participating and feel comfortable operating in this environment, I get a great sense from that cooperation.

HSToday: You had 30 different screens …live on that VTC today. That was impressive.

DK: And all of the agencies around the table.

HSToday: What player do you wish was playing in this exercise that is not?

DK: I don’t know that I have that answer yet. I don’t know if I’ve seen the scope of all of our players yet, either.

We have several more days of play here. We’re throwing a few curve balls in, in the days ahead.

That opens up a whole new cast of characters, not necessarily different from the response side but different from where we might be located and the systems we might be using and the support that we receive. That’s going to be really, I think, quite enlightening.

And a broader point to make here, which I think is in exercise is you want to push the limits. Having a significant hurricane striking in an area that hasn’t been hit by a hurricane recently is pushing it.

But pushing it to our limits might even entail managing our response from an alternate location.

HSToday: What are you going to do differently this hurricane season?

DK: So the after-action report is still underway. We intend to release that publicly fairly soon. I think what you have seen over the last few days is a preview of that report and the lessons learned.

The fact is, we are going to push our effort in this exercise to be federally supported, state managed, and locally executed disaster. Pushing the states and the local governments and the NGOs and the private sector to take on more responsibility with federal support is where we want to be.

You might hear our team or the administrator saying “state, thank you for that brief,” or “thank you for the update – can you handle this?” Or, “What are the limiting factors for you to handle this?”

And the long-term lesson there is going to be, if it’s a limiting factor during the exercise, it’s going to be a limiting factor in a future disaster. How do we fill that gap?

HSToday: You’ve talked a lot about the role of insurance in closing the insurance gap. How will this exercise help you in messaging and strategizing on how to close that gap?

DK: I think the No. 1 driver in closing that gap is public education. I hope that this exercise will draw the attention of the public; help the public understand the risks they face and encourage them to ask the question, “How can I reduce these risks?”

Well, the best way to reduce your financial risk for a disaster is to buy insurance. The risks you face vary from state to state, maybe even city to city or neighborhood to neighborhood. If you’re not insured against those risks, you’re putting yourselves and your family at risk and no one wants that.

HSToday: Thank you.

The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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