The critical message of resilience needs to be tailored to speak clearly to all communities, coupled with education about smart financial planning and honed at the federal level with fresh collaboration, said the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s preparedness chief.
“The toughest part is knowing that we have so much to do – more specifically, so much to do to move the needle on creating a true culture of preparedness in the United States,” Deputy Administrator for Resilience Daniel Kaniewski told HSToday at the Government Technology & Services Coalition’s Emergency Management 2019 conference.
“That’s not something that’s going to happen overnight and that’s not something that I, as a federal bureaucrat, am going to be able to wave a magic wand and suddenly create a culture of preparedness in the United States,” he added. “It requires strong partnerships – federal, state and local level, with our state and local emergency managers, for example – but it’s much more even beyond that. It includes nongovernmental organizations and other stakeholders in local communities who are best able to communicate preparedness messages to citizens in their area.”
Resilience messaging and building that culture of preparedness “will be a long-term investment – both by FEMA and our partners – in the future of Americans and their ability to cope with natural disasters.”
Kaniewski said he sees the “dividends accruing” for both the agency and disaster survivors from the laser focus on resilience.
“For example, I’m heartened to see at FEMA our individual and community preparedness team collaborating with our insurance experts – they would traditionally have a hard time coordinating,” he said. “They were in different locations, they had – in their view – different missions, but the reality is over the past year they’ve come to see their mission as one, which is preparing individuals to take action now, for example, to buy insurance and to see the value of insurance to reduce the consequences later, in this case financial consequences.”
“We need to continue leveraging those relationships. The programs that we have that are targeted toward individuals on the traditional preparedness mission of having a kit, making a plan are now including financial preparedness ideas, including the importance of having insurance. So that’s just one example within FEMA where we see our insurance experts and our individual and community preparedness experts collaborating toward a common goal of a more prepared nation.”
This is National Financial Capability Month, sponsored by FEMA and the Financial Literacy and Education Commission. A Federal Reserve survey released in May 2018 revealed that about 40 percent of American adults don’t have $400 set aside to cover an emergency expense.
Kaniewski often references this survey and acknowledges that not all Americans are simply able to save $400, “but for those who can and just choose not to, the information that we provide in our messaging and resources should give them pause.”
“For those who feel that they can’t set aside any amount of money, I would encourage them to reach out to local organizations with financial planning,” he added. “I would encourage those individuals to check out our emergency financial first aid kit, which is available at Ready.gov. It gives basic financial guidance on how to prepare financially for disasters. And there are nongovernmental organizations out there that offer free financial counseling services to individuals who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford it. For example, those organizations can help those individuals understand that having a lot of high-interest credit card debt could be hindering not only their overall financial health but also their ability to prepare for disasters.”
Financial counseling services can help people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to set aside a rainy-day fund pay down debt and free up more funds for emergencies, the deputy administrator stressed. “If one is able to build some strong financial planning capabilities, that would likely result in cost savings, reduced interest payments that could then be reallocated toward an emergency savings plan,” Kaniewski continued. “I know that it could be overwhelming for some individuals who say, ‘Well, I can’t, I’m living paycheck to paycheck, how could I possibly save?’ But I would encourage everyone to check out these tools and these services available to see how, based on your particular circumstance, you could actually begin toward saving for an emergency.”
Asked how people’s perceptions of FEMA play into how the preparedness message is tailored, Kaniewski noted that “as a federal official, I don’t know that my message will resonate with everyone.”
“I think the messages have to be tailored to those specific communities and often through parties those individuals trust most,” he said. “Oftentimes, that’s not the federal government. I believe that our role at FEMA is to get the message out in every way possible; I know our message does resonate with some, and for those that it doesn’t, I hope that local community organizations, nongovernmental organizations and state and local elected leaders will take that message forward in a way that will resonate with their local communities.”
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. was slammed by 14 distinct billion-dollar disaster events last year, with the number of disasters and their price tags “increasing over time due to a combination of increased exposure, vulnerability, and the fact the climate change is increasing the frequency of some types of extremes that lead to billion-dollar disasters.”
Asked what sort of urgency this adds to the resilience message, Kaniewski replied that “we need to build resiliency for all types of events.”
“And that’s the aim of our new mitigation program where, for the first time in FEMA’s history, we will have a substantial amount of pre-disaster mitigation money available on a recurring basis, on an annual basis, to reduce the impacts of future disasters,” he said. “While we’ve always had mitigation programs, none have existed that I think can move the needle by having 1) a substantial amount of funding 2) a regular funding source that’s not dependent on annual appropriations so that state and local communities can develop hazard mitigation plans with the expectation that there will be some funding available each year for some of those priorities. And I think that’s exciting.”
Kaniewski said Congress has “largely granted” FEMA’s recent wishes with the Disaster Recovery and Reform Act of 2018, which includes the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program and other programs with “dozens of provisions that will benefit FEMA.”
“Going forward, we will continue to support pre-disaster programs and advocate for our pre-disaster mission at FEMA as well as ensure that we care for survivors who have been impacted by disasters,” he said.
“There’s been a lot of interest at the local and state levels on our mitigation program, and we are meeting with them and the organizations representing their interests to get their input as we build the program. Because we want to make sure that this program meets the needs of those communities that need it most.”