The overall goal of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), emergency management programs, and the profession of emergency management is to have the disaster system be federally supported, state managed, and locally executed. FEMA maintains a delicate and fragile balance between leading and nurturing this enormous system and this exciting profession. At the same time, disasters are becoming more frequent, more intense, and more expensive. Nevertheless, as the U.S. Department of Defense has said it can fight three wars at once, FEMA and its partners could handle three disasters at once. Currently, though, FEMA is clearly faced with handling much more than three major disasters at once.
Current leadership at FEMA was confirmed in June 2017, when the emergency management community and its partners were pleased to welcome a seasoned emergency manager to the helm. It is hard to imagine the nation facing the onslaught of disasters over the past year, without a strong, experienced emergency manager in charge. Emergency management is exceptional in requiring an intergovernmental, interagency, and interdisciplinary process, often termed “the whole community,” which includes: federal agencies; states and Washington, DC; tribes; territories; counties; cities; special districts; private sector; nonprofit sector; and the public. Every one of those components looks to the FEMA administrator for leadership, direction, and collaboration, as well as deep emergency management knowledge and experience. In June 2017, FEMA was supporting 692 federally declared disasters.
A couple months later, hurricane season hit to an unusual extent, first with Hurricane Harvey in Texas (Category 4), which hovered over Houston for four days. The whole world watched as the city seemed to sink beneath waves of water. Once it became clear that the hurricane was in route to his city, the mayor of Houston decided that the city was too large to evacuate, leaving hundreds of thousands of people sheltering in place. The sustained federal, state, local, and general response phase lasted three months. The recovery phase will last for a decade and more. At the same time, 16 other named storms – including 10 that turned into hurricanes – followed.
FEMA’s After Action Report indicates that 80% of those households affected in Texas did not have flood insurance. As a result, there was very little coverage for water damage, but more coverage for wind damage. However, that distinction is often difficult for clients to prove to their insurance companies.
Meanwhile, the future and form of the National Flood Insurance Program was deeply in debt and its future was being – and continues to be – debated by congress and the administration, which has offered/suggested many major changes. Part of the billions in debt have been essentially forgiven and paid by congressional appropriations. However, there was not much time for talk or thought because, about 10 days after Harvey, Hurricane Irma, which was one of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes on record, passed over the U.S. territories, Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. It also caused extensive infrastructure damage on St. Thomas and St. John, as well as the Florida Keys. Florida successfully evacuated, creating one of the largest and most successful sheltering missions ever. The Seminole tribal community in Florida was also severely impacted and damaged. In addition to Florida, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee were impacted.
At that point, seven states, two U.S. territories, and one tribal community were newly declared disasters, while California wildfires were burning more extensively than ever in history.
Then, on 20 September 2017, Hurricane Maria (Category 5) crossed St. Croix, and then hit Puerto Rico as a Category 4. Maria wiped out Puerto Rico’s infrastructure and created a desperate and deadly situation. FEMA had pre-deployed to the island, both to respond to the earlier damage and to be on the scene as soon as possible after Maria hit. However, the 3.7 million residents were without electricity, making communications nearly impossible for a significant time. The longest ever FEMA air mission ensued to provide food and water.
Distribution efforts were more challenging than any other disaster in history. During that initial FEMA response, Hurricane Jose also threatened Puerto Rico and the eastern coast of the United States for almost two weeks. As FEMA resources and personnel were required for simultaneous response efforts, sea transport of resources to the Caribbean was also challenging. Then, Hurricane Nate made landfall in Louisiana near the mouth of the Mississippi River.
According to FEMA’s After Action Report, FEMA delivered 74 million liters of bottles of drinking water, 17 million gallons of water, 63 million meals, and 1,100 power generators to Puerto Rico in the immediate aftermath of the storm. More than $21.2 billion in assistance has been obligated so far. FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces, with state and local teams of emergency and medical expertise, assisted in the rescue of thousands of disaster victims. Within the first 10 months after the hurricane season, five million applications for disaster assistance had been submitted. Also, the U.S. Department of Defense, the Coast Guard, state and local managers and responders, nonprofit organizations, the private sector, and neighbors helping neighbors, fleshed out the overall response efforts, led and directed by FEMA.
Nevertheless, there was an extensive number of deaths and overwhelming suffering. Within a couple months, nearly 4.8 million households affected by the 2017 hurricanes and California Wildfires registered for assistance, which was more than the previous 10 years combined.
Lessons Learned & FEMA Strategic Plan
Long-range planning becomes the focus for the future, as well as continuing early stages of recovery, after the initial response. Agencies must learn from the challenges related to these disaster responses and recovery efforts in order to build a better, more robust, system for all phases of emergency management (preparedness, mitigation, response, and recovery), its partners, and its profession. To do so, the FEMA administrator initiated a new problem-solving Strategic Plan for FEMA and the profession, and commissioned a robust After Action Report.
In line with the FEMA overall goal of empowering “A Prepared and Resilient Nation,” the Strategic Plan and – in collaboration with states, territories, tribes, cities, counties, special districts, private sector, and nonprofits – a new Strategic Plan was designed and goals were set for FEMA and the profession in 2018-2022. This plan establishes performance measures and highlights its subtitle, “Helping People. Together.” This endorses and builds on the teamwork and partnerships that are so crucial to successful emergency management going forward.
1. To create a culture of preparedness in the country
This goal is key to a workable process toward achieving resilience. It includes: adding emergency management curriculum in schools (e.g., Head Start programs, pre-K through Ph.D.), more support for higher education and training programs in emergency management, more emphasis and investment in remedial mitigation projects; as well as requirements for initial developments, closing the insurance gap, and learning from every disaster on ways to work together better and to build back stronger. Accreditations such as the Emergency Management Accreditation Program, standards such as NFPA 1600, and certifications such as IAEM’s Certified Emergency Managerâ provide support and foundation for many of these processes. The International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) and the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA) are key partners in this process, as well as all the other contributors to professional growth and leadership development for the profession. Learning from past disasters will be promoted and shared broadly throughout the profession and its partners.
2. To reduce the complexity of FEMA processes
This aspect of the new FEMA Strategic Plan includes streamlining/simplifying the whole process of applying for disaster assistance and grantee experience, as well as maturing the National Disaster Recovery Framework, including Public Assistance project worksheets, and Individual Assistance – including sheltering. This would provide innovative systems for essential flexibility to respond to challenging scenarios that cannot be predicted. This goal also will include data analytics to bolster improved decision making and clarity, empowering FEMA staff to make rapid and effective decisions, and enhancing delivery of the agency mission.
3. To prepare for catastrophic events
This includes the streamlining of the currently complex process for disaster assistance applications and building a trained, scalable, and empowered disaster reservist and employee workforce. The administrator is co-locating FEMA employees to several state Departments of Emergency Management and intends to eventually extend this to every state and territory. This will strengthen intergovernmental partnerships, as seen with the first co-location in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina of Bill Carwile (FEMA FCO) and Robert Latham (Mississippi Director of Emergency Management). These new integration teams can help states build capacity and coordination. The difference is that the current rollout of co-location envisions a year-round joint information sharing and joint effort, state by state.
Thus, the new strategic plan postures FEMA and the whole community to be able to provide commodities, equipment, and personnel from all potential and nontraditional sources – both planned and unexpected. It also recognizes the necessary preparedness planning, risk assessments, and hazard mitigation necessary in the pre-disaster period will ensure readiness and resilience in the face of future disasters.
After Action Report
As is the practice after every declared disaster response and every training exercise, an After Action Report was compiled to improve the next response and recovery, including enhanced and robust preparedness and mitigation. FEMA objectively examined its own performance and is driving targeted improvements immediately, including these points, as a sample, of the long list of planned upgrades:
- Enhancing the planning process to make it more usable during operations;
- Using and leveraging capability assessments and exercise findings, especially for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands;
- Revising the National Response Framework to emphasize stabilization of critical lifelines and coordination of critical infrastructure sectors;
- Driving outcome-based recovery through expanded use of the Stafford Act, especially regarding public assistance alternative procedures;
- Building Incident Management Assistance Teams, using the Urban Search and Rescue Task Force capability model;
- Completing a disaster workforce review, increasing certifications, and updating databases;
- Evaluating ways to improve tracking of resource distribution without slowing the process, which includes engaging state and territorial governments;
- Providing more support to the contracting staff, including pre-event contracting, contract enforcement, and vendor-managed inventory;
- Improving the housing inventory process, including consideration for long-term housing; and
- Promoting all-hazard insurance so individuals can reduce their losses and speed their recovery.
The press coverage of and commentary on these disasters is quite helpful to FEMA, its partners, and the profession of emergency management, in that the public as well as FEMA partners can better understand the efforts, successes, and shortcomings of each disaster. Everyone learns together because the whole community is challenged to care for each other and to build back stronger in the face of inevitable future disasters. The press coverage focuses all stakeholders on the support needed for this vital aspect of local, state, federal, and territorial governments and their multitude of partners.