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Partners in Preparedness: How Your Community Can Better Weather Disasters

On August 25, the National Hurricane Center began to issue warnings that Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) should monitor Tropical Storm Dorian’s progress. While Puerto Rico was spared from major damage, Dorian did impact USVI with heavy rain and winds as a Category 1 hurricane.

As it progressed west, forecasts for Florida became increasingly dire. Stalling over the western Bahamian Islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama, then-Category 5 Hurricane Dorian left an unimaginable path of destruction in its wake.

Dorian’s forward motion slowed, and its probable track shifted farther east and north over multiple days. Residents and visitors on Florida’s East Coast as well as those in coastal Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina learned that the hurricane could impact those areas with high winds – and, most damaging, storm surge.

While this uncertainty in Dorian’s final storm track may have caused frustration for those forecast to be in the storm’s path, it also provided individuals and communities significant time to prepare. Having extra time to finalize preparations is an opportunity we don’t often experience. That’s why it’s so important to prepare for risks you and your family may face before disaster strikes.

September was National Preparedness Month. Preparing for the next disaster happens all year-round, but every September FEMA emphasizes the importance of everyone across the country taking steps to prepare themselves, their families and their communities for the next emergency they may face. Preparedness is a shared responsibility requiring the whole community to play their part. A 2012 report from the National Academy of Sciences determined that the readiness of communities was a significant factor in the nation’s overall resilience.

Our recent PrepTalk with San Francisco City Administrator’s Office Neighborhood Empowerment Network (NEN) director Daniel Homsey provides an excellent example of the importance of community involvement in preparedness. During this discussion, Homsey shares his tools for building resilient communities at the neighborhood level and explains why empowering neighbors to help themselves is the best way to prepare your community for any hazard you may face. Communities that involve their residents are better able to understand the individual needs of people within their area. In turn, community members gain understanding of their resources and needs, and can work together to help those who need it most.

One lesson learned from the disasters our communities have faced over the past two years is that FEMA’s focus needs to be building the capacity of local, state, tribal and territorial governments to manage smaller disasters so the agency can focus its efforts on responding to the larger and potentially catastrophic disasters our nation faces. To that end, we work closely with our local, state, tribal and territorial partners to ensure they understand what actions they can take now to improve their communities’ resilience, which includes enacting policies and laws that establish and incentivize effective mitigation programs.

We cannot overstate the importance of investing in mitigation in your community before a disaster. The most effective mitigation tools to increase a community’s resilience are managed at the local level and include zoning, planning, code adoption and enforcement. According to a 2017 report published by the National Institute of Building Sciences, every $1 spent on mitigation can save $6 in future disaster recovery costs.

Since the historic disasters of 2017, the federal government has paid more than $17 billion in support to individuals and communities through grants after disasters. This figure underscores how important it is to invest resources now to ensure the same fate does not befall areas impacted when the next disaster arrives.

Recognizing this, Congress passed the Disaster Recovery Reform Act (DRRA) last year, which moved mitigation investments to the front end of the disaster cycle by authorizing a pre-disaster mitigation grant program that will be funded by setting aside 6 percent of total FEMA disaster grant costs over the course of each fiscal year. This program will allow FEMA to provide states and tribes the ability to invest in their own resilience, thereby helping to reduce the impact of future disasters.

Everyone needs to understand the risks they face. Your state, local, tribal or territorial emergency managers are the best resources to learn the risk for your neighborhood. Ready.gov has a wealth of information on actions to take to minimize that risk. We cannot prevent disasters from happening – but, together, we can do a lot more to mitigate their impacts and recover much faster.

Preparedness of the nation is a partnership and shared responsibility, starting with local, state, federal and private partners. The most important part of preparedness starts with citizens being prepared to act and make timely decisions that keep themselves, their family, their businesses and communities safe in the face of disaster. A prepared nation starts with you.

Peter Gaynor
On January 11, 2021, Peter T. Gaynor was designated as the Acting Secretary of Homeland Security. Mr. Gaynor was officially confirmed by the U.S. Senate to be FEMA Administrator on January 14, 2020. Previously, he served as the Senate-confirmed Deputy FEMA Administrator. Since his selection by the President, Mr. Gaynor led FEMA’s response to over 300 presidentially declared emergencies and major disasters. Mr. Gaynor oversaw the agency’s close collaboration with federal, state, local, tribal and territorial partners, making it possible to serve millions of Americans in their time of need through locally executed, state managed and federally supported disaster response. During the historic year of 2020, Mr. Gaynor oversaw FEMA’s first ever operational response to a nationwide pandemic while simultaneously responding to a record amount of disasters. As a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Mr. Gaynor directed FEMA’s operational coordination for the whole-of-Government response to COVID-19. During this time, FEMA deployed over 5,300 staff and obligated over $57 billion from the Disaster Relief Fund in support of the nationwide pandemic response. In 2020, Mr. Gaynor led the federal response to the most active Atlantic hurricane season in history, with a record of 30 named storms. Mr. Gaynor also directed the response to a historic West Coast wildfire season, resulting in 78 Fire Management Assistance Grant declarations to assist governments in fighting wildfires. As Administrator, Mr. Gaynor oversaw FEMA’s award of the agency’s largest infrastructure project grants in history to assist with Puerto Rico’s ongoing recovery from hurricanes Irma and Maria. Gaynor has more than 13 years of experience in emergency management. Prior to coming to FEMA, Gaynor served as the Director of Rhode Island’s Emergency Management Agency (RIEMA) in 2015. During that time, RIEMA responded to numerous small and large disasters, including one presidentially declared disaster and at least seven pre-existing active federal disasters. Gaynor oversaw response and recovery efforts to blizzards, floods, tropical storms and public health emergencies. He also coordinated evacuations, mass care, special events, and school safety. Gaynor served as the policy advisor to Governor Gina Raimondo on emergency management matters. He was also the Chair of the State Interoperable Communications Committee, the State Emergency Response Commission, and was Vice Chair of the State Emergency Management Advisory Committee. Additionally, he served as a Commissioner and a member for the Program Review Committee for the Emergency Management Accreditation Program (EMAP), which fosters excellence and accountability in emergency management and homeland security programs across the nation. From March 2008 to December 2014, Gaynor served as the Director of the Providence Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) and Office of Homeland Security, where he was the only Certified Emergency Manager assigned as a municipal emergency manager in Rhode Island. He was responsible for ensuring the planning and operations of the agency, coordinating community exercise programs, managing the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), and advising the Mayor of the City of Providence on local government emergency operations. During his tenure at RIEMA and PEMA, Gaynor oversaw multiple response and recovery operations and managed numerous federally declared disasters. Under Pete Gaynor’s leadership, in 2010, PEMA became the first municipality in the United States to receive accreditation from EMAP. In 2017, Rhode Island became the 36th state to be EMAP-accredited, making Gaynor the first emergency management director awarded EMAP accreditation at the local and state levels. In January 2018, under Gaynor’s direction, Rhode Island was the first state designated as StormReady by the National Weather Service. Gaynor was awarded the International Association of Emergency Managers USA & Global Partners in Preparedness Award for Operation SMART EXIT, a planned full-scale evacuation of several high-rise commercial buildings in Downtown Providence, RI. Prior to his experience as an emergency manager, Gaynor served for 26 years as an enlisted Marine and Infantry Officer in the United States Marine Corps. During his tenure in the Marines, he was assigned as the Executive Officer responsible for the security of Presidential Retreat, Camp David; assigned as the Head of Plans, Policy, & Operations at the Headquarters Marine Corps during the September 11, 2001 attacks; and deployed in support of Iraqi Freedom with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force where he coordinated combat operations in the Al-Anbar Province of Iraq for Multi-National and Marine forces. Gaynor received a bachelor’s degree in history from Rhode Island College and a master’s degree in national security and strategic studies from the Naval War College in Newport, RI. He is also a graduate of the Center for Homeland Defense and Security’s Executive Leaders Program.

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