On Thursday, May 20, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center released their annual Atlantic Hurricane season forecast and, once again, they are predicting an above-average season. Additionally, the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) is predicting above-average fire activity in the Western United States, citing NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) recent report that Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah had their driest March and April in 126 years with California and Colorado having their third and fourth driest, respectively.
Additionally, this summer will mark the second consecutive hurricane and wildfire season that starts during the lingering COVID-19 pandemic. Once again, government, nonprofit and private-sector entities along with Americans in hurricane and wildfire-prone states will have to grapple with how to prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters that are complicated enough in their own right, but are made even more complex given the current state of COVID-19 response, recovery, and vaccination efforts.
As we have seen with the ongoing COVID-19 response, the private sector truly controls a community’s destiny; the same is true after a natural disaster. Today, nearly 85 percent of the nation’s infrastructure – and critical supply chains that support a community’s lifelines – are privately owned and operated; moreover, most infrastructure systems are interconnected in some way. As technology advances infrastructure systems are likely to only grow more interconnected and interdependent allowing for greater risk of cascading failures across sectors. Accordingly, there are several fundamental concepts that should be considered and incorporated into pre-season hurricane and wildfire preparations and planning efforts currently underway.
Adopt FEMA’s Community Lifelines doctrine. The FEMA Community Lifelines concept was established as a result of multiple large-scale disasters impacting the country simultaneously in 2017. The Lifelines framework provides incident managers with a reporting structure to quickly stabilize a community after disaster strikes. FEMA has identified seven Community Lifelines: Safety and Security; Health and Medical; Communications; Hazardous Materials; Food, Water, Shelter; Energy (Power & Fuel); and Transportation. If any of these lifelines are down because of disaster or emergency, it is an indicator that lives are in jeopardy and/or life routine and supply chains are disrupted.
Before disaster strikes, all emergency managers must identify who owns the infrastructure and supply lines (e.g., grocery stores/chains, bulk water capability, power, fuel, telecommunications, etc.) within their communities. Once identified, it is important for emergency managers to establish a relationship with these private-sector partners and begin to effectively redesign emergency response plans, concepts, and emergency operations staffing patterns to help get these critical private-sector operations back up and running after a disaster.
Integrate private industry into response operations. Additionally, emergency managers often play a critical role within their communities – facilitating partnerships necessary to bring their communities back online after a disaster. Often, neighboring jurisdictions and private-sector infrastructure owners do not work in concert with each other to restore capability to impacted communities. For example, as power companies are restoring power in one part of the county, communication providers are working in another part. This ultimately allows the lifeline stability to languish and can hinder overall response efforts. Therefore, by integrating the private sector into emergency concepts and plans, communities can mitigate fragmented response efforts.
Plan to enable private industry throughout all phases of the disaster cycle. When disaster strikes, emergency managers must recognize that their focus should be on how to support private-sector stabilization and restore critical community lifeline systems. Emergency management professionals do not have the expertise or the resources to restore the power, water systems, grocery store supply chains, banks, telecommunications, etc.; however, they can refocus response actions to help prioritize the restoration of these critical private resources to help stabilize the community in the wake of an event. For example, debris planning initiatives should be designed to help infrastructure providers gain access to their facilities to help get power restored, internet back online, etc.
By adopting the Community Lifelines approach, and corresponding coordination and prioritization concepts, emergency managers can simplify the incident action planning process before, during, and after disasters. If a lifeline is down after a disaster, then the collective focus is on stabilizing the lifeline to try to prevent continued loss of service and potentially life. Then, after a disaster, the focus on should initially be on lifeline restoration before pivoting to understanding how to make it more resilient. Subsequently, on blue sky days, focus should be placed on mitigation to continually lessen disaster-related impacts to essential services in the future.
What is next?
Technology and private sector infrastructure have evolved in recent years and it should not be a surprise that emergency managers must adapt and evolve along with it. It is time to move beyond the government-centric approach that many are comfortable with and find ways we can leverage private sector relationships that will have the most impact in getting lifelines back up and running after disasters. That said, changing how the nation looks at disaster response and placing greater focus on planning with private-sector partners is a culture shift in emergency management that will take time. However, this rethinking is necessary if we truly want to minimize risk where it is greatest and lessen impacts after disasters.
Brock Long is the Executive Chairman of Hagerty Consulting and the former Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Confirmed in June 2017 by the U.S. Senate with strong bipartisan support (95-4), Brock served as the nation’s principal advisor to the president responsible for coordinating the entire array of federal government resources down through 50 states, 573 tribal governments, and 16 island territories to assist them with executing disaster preparedness, mitigation, response, and recovery. Brock was the Agency’s 10th Administrator and the youngest to hold the office.
Lee Mayfield is Hagerty’s Response Director and is a proven emergency management leader with over 13 years of experience in disaster planning, response, and recovery – specializing in state and local coordination, training and exercise, mass care, evacuation prioritization, and crisis response. Prior to joining Hagerty, Lee served as the Director of Public Safety and Emergency Management for Lee County, FL where he oversaw and supported the county’s response to and recovery from Hurricane Irma in 2017.