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FEMA and Emergency Management: Looking Back, Moving Forward and Changing Outcomes (Part Two)

FEMA Administrator:

As part of the effort to recognize the DHS ten year anniversary, I recently sat down with my colleagues to discuss some of the recent milestones at FEMA and the agency’s priorities moving forward. Some of the examples we talk about are from recent events, including Hurricane Sandy. This is the second in a two-part series, and you can read more questions and answers in Part One.

The team at FEMA has taken some big, forward steps in the last few years that have changed outcomes for those impacted by disasters, but we must continue to improve if FEMA and DHS are going to meet future threats.  With that, here are some of the questions and my responses:

Q: How does building capacity on a national level translate to the planning that happens in emergency management or to the response efforts after a disaster?

Shifting the mindset towards scenarios of national consequence goes hand-in-hand with our focus on planning for those threats that are bigger than what we can already do. 

You can’t change the disaster based on what your capabilities to respond are, so we’ve put an emphasis on threats of national significance.  These are events (like a terrorist attack with an improvised nuclear device, earthquakes, or multiple hurricanes) that would not only overwhelm the resources of a state, but multiple states.  Planning and executing at this level requires creative problem solving – it doesn’t allow you to simply scale up your programs and assistance effectively based on how you used to do it. 

The response to Hurricane Sandy was one example.  Before Sandy struck, FEMA had existing plans for how to set up disaster recovery centers (DRCs), places where those impacted by the storm can register for assistance and discuss assistance options with staff from FEMA and the state.  We found that our current way of getting out assistance was not scalable for a population-dense area like New York and New Jersey – so now we’re redesigning that process (and our disaster recovery centers) from the ground up.  We’re looking at how we can get assistance to a large number of people with sparse communication as quickly as possible, while minimizing the number of times those individuals need to contact FEMA.

We sent FEMA staff with internet-capable tablets out into the hardest hit areas.  We brought the registration process and “the DRC” to disaster survivors – registering them for assistance at FEMA’s mobile webpage on tablets while talking through various assistance options at the federal, state, and local levels.

Those kinds of changes show the progress FEMA has made over the last several years.  It’s getting away from the trap of designing small systems that work in environments we’re comfortable with and shifting the focus towards preparing for national threats and building capabilities that can respond to events that have a national consequence.

And speaking of Hurricane Sandy, it’s worth noting the role the DHS Surge Capacity Workforce played in FEMA’s response.  By calling on several thousand employees from other DHS components, we were able to fill out our response effort at the federal level.  It’s about more than just the sheer number of staff that came with the surge.  When I say “fill out”, the DHS surge allowed FEMA to add capabilities, which is always more important than just adding numbers to the role.  FEMA will definitely utilize the DHS surge in future large-scale disasters because of the benefits we saw after Hurricane Sandy.

Q: What are a few of your priorities moving forward?

Moving ahead, we need to do more to reduce the nation’s overall cost and vulnerability to disasters.  Just preparing, responding, and rebuilding isn’t going to do it, there needs to be a focus on resiliency.  We can’t continue to afford the losses of disasters and go through the painful rebuilding and recovery process. 

Part of the solution is effectively transferring risk. The federal government, and thus, taxpayers nationwide, shouldn’t be taking on financial risk at a greater rate for those communities that face the consistent threat of a disaster or emergency of national consequence.  The benefits that taxpayers receive (through taxes, jobs, economic stimulus, etc.) should be directly proportional to the risk they are bearing. 

Better management of how and where we build, smarter building codes, and land use management are a few things that can reduce the risk of disasters having a high impact, which is a start.  But we may need to look at mitigation differently.

As an example, one term that’s frequently used in risk management is the “100-year event”, or an event that has a one percent chance of occurring in any given year.   These are supposed to be rare occurrences, but how many of these “100 year events” have we had in the last few years alone?  Does that term still accurately capture what the vulnerabilities are, or should a new standard be used? 

We should be planning and looking at risk not just for the 100-year events, but also adapting to the changing circumstances around that risk.  There’s a lot of debate about climate change, but I’m more concerned with climate adaptation and ensuring we are adapting at a greater rate than our exposure to risk is increasing.

And there are certainly improvements that FEMA can make as an organization. Continuing to focus on affecting change at the national level, while still keeping a focus on positive outcomes for individuals and families impacted by disasters – that’s what I’m going to keep pushing for.

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