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Secretary Napolitano's Remarks on Preparedness at the American Red Cross

September 29, 2009

SECRETARY NAPOLITANO: Thank you, everybody. How are you doing—good? Thank you very much. Thank you, Gail [McGovern, American Red Cross CEO], for your kind words—and to the Red Cross for welcoming us to this terrific venue.

This organization has been preparing communities and responding to emergencies for over a century, so I'm honored to be here at such a historic and appropriate setting, this Hall of Service.

And I also want to thank [Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator] Craig Fugate. He has been doing a magnificent job at FEMA. He is a straight shooter. And so if he's saying nice things about me it must be true.

In any event, I'm also glad that we are joined in the audience by individuals from Citizen Corps, from the Ready Campaign, from their partner organizations, because all of these work together and will be working together through the months and years ahead.

Now, when I came aboard as the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security [DHS] in January, people said to me the Department was so big and the challenges so broad that it would be impossible to manage this Department.

But I have found at DHS a dedicated group of men and women, and they are focused on a very clear mission. The mission is to secure our country from the many threats we face— from terrorism and natural disasters to cyber attacks and new diseases.

And to organize ourselves broadly to meet that mission, I have laid out five major areas of responsibility at DHS—and I've outlined them in a series of speeches across the country. In July, I outlined our approach to our first priority, which is countering the threat of a terrorist attack. I did this at a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City, and of course New York City was the subject of a terrorist attack, and our department was founded in the wake of 9/11. And we never forget that at DHS.

In August, I spoke at the University of Texas El Paso about the new approach we are taking to border security, because our second major mission is to secure our nation's borders—be they land, air or sea.

Within the next two months, I will be addressing two other major department mission areas. One is enforcing our immigration laws while simultaneously working for immigration reform, and the other is unifying and maturing this very new department that was comprised of 23 separate agencies and has well over 200,000 employees—and to consolidate the thinking of the department into one Department of Homeland Security, or as I like to say, one DHS.

But today I'm going to focus on our fifth major mission area. And I don't say these in order of priority—except for terrorism, which is always our top priority—but all of these others go together. And this mission is the mission of readiness and resilience, because this is something that applies to all of us across the country in so many different ways.

It is fitting, in celebrating or talking about the issues of readiness and resilience, that we are joined today by three individuals who embody the concept, the principle that making ours a ready and resilient nation is a shared responsibility. And it is shared by every single individual in this country.

But we are joined here by three special volunteers, and I'm going to ask them please to stand when I say their name. The first is Martin Nkwain. Martin—[Applause]—now Martin is active through the Citizen Corps. He volunteers two days a week at the Regional Disaster Coordination Center in addition to his full-time work as a security officer at the IMF. He monitors radios, collects reports from all the local country emergency response agencies, and he teaches emergency responder courses to other volunteers. Great example, Martin. [Applause]

Second example is Jane Flemion. Jane, would you please stand? [Applause] After retiring in 2006, Jane has spent more time volunteering with the Prince George's County Citizen Corps council and the Laurel, Maryland Community Emergency Response Team, the CERT. Her dedication has won her awards, and she's now been appointed to coordinate the efforts of all of the city of Laurel's first responder volunteers. [Applause]

And next is Marina Kromah. Marina? [Applause] Marina has been an active Red Cross volunteer for over a year at the Walter Reed AMC [Army Medical Center]. She went on a disaster relief mission to North Dakota this March where she coordinated relief assistance and communications, and later received a certificate of appreciation from the state of North Dakota. Thank you so much. [Applause]

So we say—to begin—thank you again to Martin, to Jane and Marina—to the many of you around the country who are taking positive steps to make our communities better prepared. Thank you again. [Applause]

We thank you, and we thank the more than 2,500 organizations who have joined the National Preparedness Month coalition this year. And during this month, we also mark the eighth anniversary of 9/11, and what has become a national day of remembrance and service. It's a reminder that we may never truly know where or when a disaster may strike. And it underscores the importance of what the American Red Cross, Citizen Corps and individuals and organizations across this country do every day to prepare for disasters and threats of all kinds.

So this is a very good time to take stock and talk about how we go about building a more ready and resilient nation. A ready nation is one where communities are prepared for the types of emergencies they are most likely to encounter.

It's one where federal, state, local and tribal governments are working in harmony with local communities, the private sector, and individuals; taking steps, big and small, to be better prepared for natural disasters they may face. But they also prepare for the seemingly random but deliberate attacks that can occur.

Being resilient means having the plans, the resources and the capacity to bounce back quickly, adapt to changes, and emerge stronger than before when disasters strike. We need to have both readiness and resilience. We think of them like twin strands that make a stronger cable once they are woven together.

So let me give you my frank assessment right up front: Our nation may be better prepared then we were before 9/11, but there is much more we can and that we should do. A survey by the Red Cross found that while most Americans have given some thought to preparedness, far fewer have actually taken the necessary steps to keep their families safe in an emergency.

Now we know that there is great interest in personal and community preparedness, but many people still believe they won't experience a disaster themselves and, if they do, there will be some emergency personnel to come take care of them.

That attitude, more than anything, is what we must change. And we can change it—person by person, community by community. When we act together, we contribute to our nation's security, and that is part of good citizenship.

And when families are prepared, when communities stand together and stand tall, so too does our nation. We send a powerful message to those who would seek to do us harm that we are strong, that we are prepared, that we are resilient.

So if we're going to do this, it takes and it will take some hard work. And it starts with thinking about preparedness in a new way. First, we need to leave behind the notion that securing our nation is a job just for the government. It is not—it is a shared responsibility; everyone is going to have to play a role.

We also need to understand that disasters are not just events that happen to others or that we see on TV. In reality, 90 percent of us live where there is a moderate or high risk of natural disaster. In 2009, FEMA has responded to almost a hundred disasters across 36 states affecting millions of Americans—and that's just in the past nine months.

And in addition—and finally, we need to acknowledge that the threat of a terrorist attack remains. It is persistent—it is an ever-changing threat, and it is not just an issue for big cities. In our global and networked world, the terror threat itself is networked, so we need to build our own networks—physical networks, social networks—stronger, more adaptable and better able to bounce back. That is the essence of readiness and the essence of resilience.

So take the approach that everyone has a shared responsibility, and that is a truly American value. It's part of civic pride, it's part of standing up for what's right, and it is part of being a citizen of this great country.

These values have endured for more than two centuries—they are every bit as relevant for us today as they were for our founders. And so we have to draw on these values and these strengths now to make our nation ever more secure.

The single greatest strength that we possess is the indomitable spirit and capability of the American people. So building a resilient nation doesn't come from a top-down, government-only, command-and-control approach; it comes from a bottom-up approach; it comes from Americans connecting, collaborating; it comes from asking questions and finding new solutions. And it comes from all of us as a shared responsibility.

Now since our earliest days, every time we have been challenged or have seen tragedy, Americans have shown a sense of purpose and resilience. We've been robust in our defenses, we've been adaptable in our responses—we've been swift in our recovery.

And these are qualities that we can build upon. These are qualities in which we should be proud. And these observations aren't new. They are rooted in our nation's history. America's history, when you really think about it—when you really think about it, America's history is not written by the tragedies that have befallen us, but by how we responded to them.

During the Revolutionary War, the Minutemen helped the colonies respond quickly to new threats. A generation later, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote with astonishment about the civic mindedness he found here in America—a nation founded on ideals.

And in fact we've involved our citizens more formally in preparedness and national defense since we established the country's first civilian defense office in 1916. A few decades later, during World War II, when our economy was mobilized for war, the American people found a way to feed themselves by growing 40 percent of all the vegetables we needed in 20 million victory gardens.

That's resilience, and those are historical examples of how our country has employed that concept. And of course, after 9/11 we saw an enormous outpouring of generosity and public spiritedness. We saw thousands of first responders come to Ground Zero knowing there were risks involved, but determined to do anything they could to save a life.

Those terrorists sought to deal a devastating blow to our country, but thanks to resilience—thanks to resilience they failed. That strength and resilience showed in the families who lost loved ones, the strength and resilience showed in the tremendous courage of the passengers in Flight 93—that strength and resilience showed in the fact that the New York Stock Exchange was closed for only four trading days—four days after the 9/11 attacks.

That's America, that's who we are. We are strong, we are prepared, we are resilient. Not too long ago, I visited Greensburg, Kansas.  Now, in 2007, a powerful tornado hit Greensburg. It hit it straight on. Ninety-five percent of the town was destroyed. This town was flattened.

But out of their grief, the residents saw this tragedy as a way to regroup and rethink. They decided to rebuild their town, to be stronger and better, including making a commitment to the highest standards of environmental responsibility. They built it to LEED’s [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] standards; they made their town green. That's resilience, and that's what we need to build in the heart of each and every American community.

So how do we proceed? Who should do what? Well, let's begin with individuals and their families. We know that disasters are chaotic and disorienting. But if you've taken the basic steps, you'll have a big head start. You can react with control, not with fear.

You are the ones who will know where to go, what to do, how and where to meet up with family members after a crisis. You can pre-plan evacuation routes and assemble an emergency go kit with enough food and water for three days.

You can enhance these types of efforts, so that in addition to taking care of yourself, you can take care of your neighbors. You can take CPR training here from the Red Cross. As mentioned, my staff recently got CPR training, and I did do very well. [Laughter]

You can train with a community emergency response team for search and rescue, crowd control or first aid. And again, you can plan to know when it's best to take shelter or to evacuate.

If a disaster strikes your hometown, that training—those skills—those plans would free up first responders and emergency personnel to focus on those most in need. So part of resilience is that individual and family effort.

Communities—becoming a ready and resilient nation goes beyond individuals and families. It means giving something back. It means working as a community. Now that community spirit is alive and well. Since President [Bill] Clinton created AmeriCorps in 1993—now with President [Barack] Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama's strong support, service is at the forefront of many people's minds. Last year, 60 million Americans volunteered to help others across America. Think about it—60 million.

And that's what I find so exciting—what Citizen Corps and their many partners are doing— with 2,400 councils nationally they provide a strategic partnership between America's long history of community and national service and our duty to engage in civic preparedness. It's a very good model for the future, and we have some very good ambassadors as part of it.

I especially want to commend the 5 million men and women of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars [VFW], who have already served their nation—literally thousands of whom now serve as volunteers through the Citizen Corps. Indeed, today is a very appropriate day, because we can wish our VFW friends a happy VFW day right now—today.

Here's the point: We need ready and resilient communities. And to build these, the country needs you, it needs each individual. It needs you to get involved in your communities on a regular basis—not just in times of crisis—so that taking steps toward readiness and resilience becomes a routine.

So let's have the end of National Preparedness Month of 2009 become the beginning of something much bigger—a grass roots effort to better prepare our communities for any kind of emergency. Today I am calling all of you here, and I'm calling on the many thousands of Citizen Corps volunteers, members of our local CERT teams and first responders. I'm calling on our veterans, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, the faith community, our friends in labor—I'm calling on our federal, state and local government employees—I'm calling on the millions of community organizations and America's 30 million small businesses.

And I'm calling on all of these groups and individuals to do two things: first, take the basic steps. Get an emergency kit, make a reunification plan—get better informed about the types of emergencies your community is most likely to encounter. An easy way to start is to go to Ready.gov or the Spanish language version, listo.gov, which will give you all of the material for that first resiliency step.

And then go one step further. We are not just a nation of individuals and families. We're a nation of book clubs and prayer groups and school boards, alumni associations and other community organizations. This is the fiber of our society, the glue that helps hold us together. And we need to keep that fiber strong if something bad or unexpected happens.

So I'm calling on you—and the President and the First Lady are calling on you—to go one step further, to get involved. And to start that, we're asking you to raise your hand and ask whenever you are in one of those groups, “What's our plan?”. You know, the next time your group meets or your staff gathers for lunch, I want you to raise your hand and ask, “What's our plan?”

Any time that you're with your family and you have a moment, take a moment, say, “What's our plan?”, and take time to discuss what will happen if disaster strikes—if there's an emergency of any type, so that we respond with resilience and preparedness, not with fear.

And finally, of course, government does have an important role—and especially the Department of Homeland Security. I'm proud that Citizen Corps is part of the DHS family, and its contributions have been extraordinary. And likewise, our Ready campaign has become a critical resource for Americans. In fact, Americans have now accessed some 40 million sets of preparedness instructions from Ready.gov since the site was launched—40 million.

Now through initiatives like Citizen Corps, Ready.gov and other programs, DHS is working to make us ready and resilient by providing support and sharing vital information with our partners in state and local government, with our partners in law enforcement, with our partners in the private sector, with our partners in community organizations.

We have announced more than $3 billion in targeted grants over the last nine months to help states and local governments protect their critical infrastructure and bolster the preparedness of their first responders and emergency operations. And that includes a grant of over $14 million to Citizen Corps to engage citizens in community preparedness, response and recovery activities.

Now under the leadership of FEMA Administrator Fugate, we are also holding no notice disaster exercises to ensure that our senior leadership is ready to respond swiftly and effectively to a range of disasters at a moment's notice. That's very different from the past, where all exercises were scripted out well in advance so it felt like we were playing out a Shakespearean drama rather than an actual disaster.

As part of National Preparedness Month, we just launched a series of national public service announcements with the help of the Ad Council. And we've created a weekly "prepare your family" email message that provides practical information to help families plan for emergencies.

We will also be expanding our Secure Communities Network, SCN. That network currently provides members of the Jewish community with security training and rapid information sharing during a crisis. We are expanding that to include other communities as well.

And in the coming year, we will launch a major new national award program to recognize individuals and organizations who are bringing innovation and excellence to the area of resilience and national preparedness.

So those are the things that government is doing now. Let me conclude this way—America is a strong nation, but the source of that strength is not just our prosperity or our military might. Our greatness is a result of the American spirit and the value of shared responsibility that we have brought to all of our great endeavors.

The instincts and temperament—the raw materials to build a national culture of strength and resilience are there. And because we are not invulnerable, we can't simply put the United States under a big glass dome—the threat of attack, the threat of terrorism remains—and there will be more natural disasters with great urgency there as well.

So we need to continue and build upon the great work that our Citizen Corps volunteers and others are doing, so that we can make readiness and resilience something that is at the core of what we do on a daily basis. We should measure our nation's security not just by the borders we strengthen and the laws we enforce but by the strength and resilience of the communities we build.

When American citizens, their families, their communities, their co-workers begin taking the simple, common sense steps that will build this culture of readiness and resilience, our nation will have taken an enormous step toward a more secure future. And we will be there—[the] Department of Homeland Security—as a strong partner every step of the way.

Thank you very much.

Last Published Date: June 29, 2012
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