Never too late to get it right

Time to prepare is quickly running out, but, luckily, it’s never too late to begin the process of getting things right.
To bring the nation’s disaster management capabilities to an optimal level of performance, three steps must be taken: The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) must be returned to an independent agency; response and recovery systems must be improved; and preparedness must be promoted.
Though most agree FEMA must be mended, we don’t have the luxury of gambling with another experimental restructuring of the department. And why gamble when a simple reversion to its pre-2001 incarnation would fix the problem?
We arrived at our current crisis as a result of FEMA losing its position as an independent agency when it was placed under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The simple fact is: One agency can’t effectively serve two disparate functions.
In the 1990s, FEMA was a highly effective, highly respected government agency. It knew and followed its mission: provide leadership and support to reduce the loss of life and property through a comprehensive, risk-based, all-hazards program of mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery.
The main mission of DHS, on the other hand, is the prevention of a terrorist attack. Do we want the department to be diverted from its mission from June 1 to Nov. 30 for hurricane season?
As it stands under today’s DHS structure, annual hazards such as hurricanes, floods and tornadoes are allowed a 25 percent focus, even though they have a 100 percent probability of occurring at some point. An independent FEMA would again give all disasters 100 percent of its attention.
The failed response to Hurricane Katrina underscores that states, counties and cities cannot always rely on the federal government for support in times of crisis. Therefore, response and recovery systems must be planned and tested within and among local, state and federal agencies well in advance of a threat.
Bringing command, control and coordination to recovery efforts does not happen on the fly. A chain of command, with everyone knowing to whom they report, their duties and how their roles change during times of disaster, not only has to be in place ahead of time, its enactment must be second nature to all involved, at all levels of government.
Interoperable communication systems with reliable backup are critical to disaster response and recovery. Following Katrina, officials had to use runners to move information. St. Bernard Parish had only one functional radio, and the user had to stand on top of a building in order to get reception, which was poor, at best.
Congress must understand that communications are the foundation for public safety and that a national standard for interoperable communications is needed. We will not have effective response and recovery without working communications.
Local governments are the first line of defense against disasters, whether natural or man-made. During the first 72 hours of a crisis, it is up to them to handle all of their own needs. This includes having put in place pre-event contracts for food, water, ice, shelters, housing, etc., and preparing, exercising and drilling for various emergency and disaster situations.
Authorities need a plan for organizing the movement, shelter, care and other assistance for massive numbers of people from hospitals, nursing and retirement homes, public housing, shelters and schools. States must be prepared to house hundreds, thousands or hundreds of thousands of their citizens after a catastrophic event. Housing is still the number one problem in Louisiana.
Citizen education and awareness campaigns are effective methods of empowering individuals to take control of their safety. Preparedness truly begins at home. People should have plans in place for what they will do before and during a disaster. These plans should include preparations for taking care of themselves for at least the first 72 hours, even up to five days.
The devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath have been with us for more than seven months now, and according to the White House’s latest estimate, the people of New Orleans could feel the effects for up to 25 more years. With hurricane season literally blowing down our necks, we can’t afford to allow another disaster of this magnitude to hit us unprepared.
Although our time to prepare is quickly running out, it’s not too late to start the process of getting things right.  HST
James Lee Witt is the Chairman and CEO of James Lee Witt Associates, a public safety crisis management consulting firm that is a part of GlobalOptions Group Inc.  Witt was the director of FEMA from 1993 to 2001 and was widely credited with improving the agency’s morale and effectiveness.

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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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