Disaster preparedness and response needs to better account for inequities ranging from risk to assistance and “systemic barriers” that hamper emergency managers from building truly resilient communities, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said.
“We are at a pivotal point where we, as the emergency management community, have the opportunity to address two key priorities: climate change and equity,” FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell told the National Hurricane Conference in New Orleans in a Wednesday address.
Last year challenged the nation with not only one of the most active hurricane seasons in its history but having to respond to natural disasters in the middle of a global pandemic, the administrator noted.
“We are now getting accustomed to a ‘new normal’ while the world continues to change before our eyes. Many of these challenges are exacerbated because of climate change,” she said. “Weather patterns are telling us that the 2021 hurricane and wildfire seasons could be busy again. Now is the time to have honest and real conversations about what we can do together to achieve a more resilient and prepared nation.”
Criswell announced the administration’s new Individuals and Households Program (IHP) in areas covered by presidential disaster declarations, which helps homeowners with repairs that will reduce the likelihood of future disaster damage such as fixes to roofs and elevating or relocating water heaters, furnaces and electrical panels — enhancements that “will allow homeowners to recovery and make their homes more resilient to severe weather events, reducing disaster suffering and the likelihood future federal assistance will be needed.”
“Second, I am also excited that President Biden announced $1 billion in support of our Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program for pre-disaster hazard mitigation projects,” she said. “This is double the amount of funding provided last year and a portion of these funds are targeted to historically underserved communities. I’m thrilled the BRIC program will begin to shift the federal focus from reactive disaster mitigation spending towards a proactive investment in system-wide community mitigation so when the next hurricane, flood, or wildfire comes, communities can better withstand the impacts.”
Criswell said that emergency management partnerships help “us do our jobs better and makes our response more effective,” but “we must also admit where we have more work to do.”
“We cannot be shy about asking the equity question. It is a fact that disasters exacerbate pre-existing inequities that already existed before these events occur,” she said. “The question we have to ask ourselves is what we can do to provide all survivors, not just those who have the means, access to assistance.”
“Sometimes this inequity happens because certain communities don’t receive as much post-disaster aid. Sometimes it’s because these groups are in areas that are more susceptible to the impacts of climate change. Sometimes these groups have limited access to recovery programs or resources to help them get the assistance they seek.”
Criswell highlighted FEMA’s request for information that aims to collect feedback “in order to start addressing these systemic barriers.”
“We also have to acknowledge our own limitations in this effort,” she added. “FEMA’s assistance is not designed to solve societal inequities; however, we have an obligation as both stewards of taxpayer dollars, and to our mission of helping people before, during, and after disasters, of making sure that we focus on our historically disadvantaged and underserved communities.”
“A truly resilient nation can only exist when all communities reap the benefits of the help our emergency management system can provide,” she noted.
Criswell said that equity starts at FEMA, where “diversity, equity, and inclusion are not optional for us, they must be a core component of how we conduct ourselves.”
“Just as diversity in our communities strengthens the fabric of our country, diversity in our workforce strengthens our agency. And as we want to hear from the nation through the RFI, we also want to make sure every FEMA employee has a voice and an opportunity to be heard,” she said, noting the work of the agency’s LGBTQIA+ Employee Resource Group, African American Employee Resource Group, and Asian American Employee Resource Group.
With a focus on building a culture of resilience, Criswell emphasized that “preparedness starts at the individual level” with getting vaccinated against COVID-19 — “the more people who are vaccinated, the more it will help us face the challenge of another hurricane season with pandemic conditions” — and making a plan for disasters. Staying informed is also critical. “During COVID-19, FEMA made great strides in promoting accessibility – we provided phone interpretation services in more than 180 languages for non-English speakers who visited vaccination centers,” she said.
“As emergency managers, it’s up to us to set the example in our communities. Help amplify the message and encourage those who may be hesitant to follow state/local evacuation orders,” Criswell said. “…And because we are still operating in a pandemic environment, we all need to be prepared to continue to protect public health during disaster response and recovery operations.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has “challenged the ways emergency managers across the country needed to think, react, and execute,” she said. “The unprecedented scale of the pandemic produced challenges that we collectively innovated, collaborated, and managed ourselves through.”
“These lessons must not be forgotten, and we owe it to ourselves and the nation to internalize them in both theory and practice as we strive to build a more holistic emergency management system,” Criswell said. “Our collective mission is too important not to.”