FEMA and Disaster Preparedness


Katrina prompted little reaction from FEMA, but a overwhelmingly reaction from media and citizens. Perhaps FEMA's inaction made us realize the error of our assumptions about government planning at the local, state, county and national levels. If we were once complacent, we're reminded to pay attention and demand that agencies prepare for disaster. As well, we can't be unprepared ourselves.

But before we talk about that, there's one red herring that needs to be dispelled first, prompted by those odious officials who berate citizens for "insisting on living in disaster prone areas". These after the fact know-it-alls use disasters to parade out on their high horses, and crazy as it seems, this always gains traction with the media. The officious adminstrators can understandably never be found before the disaster. They're never spotted standing at the city hailing warnings to citizens as they move in, shop, do business, or go to work and bolster the region's economy. Yet when disaster strikes, there they are, lecturing hapless survivors about their choice of domicile.

Despite the hypocrisy, or perhaps because of it, citizens need to know the risks in their town and state and demand disaster preparedness. Where are the local dams, levees and fault lines? Have you stored extra batteries and gallons of water, noted fire-escapes, and collected valuable papers? Local resources such as chapters of the American Red Cross offer information and courses for family disaster preparedness.

If we are expected to be prepared, and indeed our lives depend upon it, we need leadership too. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina there's clamoring for "experienced disaster management" leaders. But do we know what a capable leader is? Some disasters happen once a century. One person or community's disaster leadership might be capable to handle a Category 2 hurricane, another's might collapse in a 6.3 earthquake, while another leader may fall apart when the toilet overflows.

To this end, FEMA has a cache of information on its website. The site (now being updated) has basic preparedness module descriptions on this disaster page. FEMA's independent study site has 50-60 multi-part training units ranging from "National Dam Safety Program", to "Metropolitan Medical Response System"(MMRS), "Animals in Disaster" and "Government Response to a Disaster Declaration" (The diagram below, though a tad psychedelic, is from this unit -- note the full circle solution)

Click for Larger Image

The "Community Hurricane Preparedness" modules, and these on this site are aimed at professionals -- units like "Leadership and Influence".


"Introduction to Incident Command System" (ICS), which gives disaster coordination guidelines for every event possible event - fires, tornadoes, floods, ice storms, infectious disease outbreaks, Super Bowls and parades.

"[ICS]was developed in the 1970's following a series of catastrophic fires in California's urban interface. Property damage ran into the millions, and many people died or were injured...Surprisingly, studies found that response problems were far more likely to result from inadequate management then from any other single reason. Weaknesses were often due to: Lack of accountability...poor communication...inefficient uses of available communcations systems...[no]systematic planning process..."

One project management perfect storm during Hurricane Katrina was interagency coordination, a management problem that was recognized decades ago before the Hurricane brought it to the fore. Thirty years after ICS was formed, communication in disaster preparedness and mitigation continues to fail, with numbing, mind-boggling regularity. But there's a training module to handle that too.

"Effective Communications" has "Success Tips for Media Interviews", which suggests ideas to "help you stay in control of the interview process". The advice includes "avoid speculation", remember to "speak in 'sound bites'", and "avoid wearing stripes, 'busy' patterns, and red." You should "never repeat inaccurate or damaging information spoken within a reporter's question". It doesn't address how to avoid spewing inaccuracies yourself, except to advise calling after the interview to correct the record.

Some say Brown and FEMA's response is symbolic of this administration or this century. Others say that bureaucracies are always inept. However government agencies can be effective, and as Acronym Required's earlier article, FEMA: Turkey Farm Redux. FEMA was at point, an effective agency. As for us, we can prepare, we do vote, do chose our leaders, our employees, and our politicians. Moreover, we should analyze our political choices with more care.

There is little time to dally. Hurricane Ophelia whirls menacingly off the coast of the Carolinas.

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