FEMA wants local governments to step up

Agency's disaster policy is changing

By DANIEL GERSTEIN
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Contractors apply a FEMA tarp to a home damaged by Hurricane Maria and without electricity on December 20, 2017 in Morovis, Puerto Rico.

(CNN) - FEMA Administrator Brock Long recently told the assembled audience at the annual Governor's Hurricane Conference that "If you're waiting on FEMA to run your commodities, that's not the solution." He went on to caution that FEMA's operational capacity does not grow based on the number of disasters.

Long's language signals that FEMA's disaster policy, upon which so many communities may depend, is changing. FEMA's recently released strategic plan reveals several important shifts in federal disaster relief policy. FEMA is streamlining its mission to focus on coordination with state and local stakeholders before disasters even strike in order to shorten disaster recovery times.

Why the changes? 2017 was particularly full of disasters -- there were 16 events that exceeded $1 billion in total damage. An estimated $306 billion in losses made 2017 the most expensive year ever for natural disasters. Three hurricanes in succession in August and September combined with the Western wildfires greatly stressed FEMA's capacity to support these response and recovery operations.

FEMA already had over 30 ongoing disaster response operations immediately before Hurricane Harvey made landfall over Texas on August 25, 2017. These "ongoing" operations included recovery from disasters dating back to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Each of these recovery operations required dedicated FEMA personnel and resources, meaning they were not available to support the 2017 emergencies. FEMA's longstanding business model -- which included long-term oversight of disaster response and recovery operations -- also contributed to an inability to close out operations in a timely manner.

Recent disaster response and recovery efforts have also been handicapped by decisions made before disasters strike. Less than 20% of Hurricane Harvey's flood victims carried flood insurance. The under-insurance of private property translates directly into a requirement for more federal assistance and contributes to an inability to repair or replace damaged homes as federal relief grants cover only a fraction of a home's value. This lengthens recovery time.

Un- or underinsured critical infrastructure also contributes to lengthier recovery times and frustrates local communities. Shortfalls in individual planning, financial preparedness and public awareness regarding potential disaster scenarios have also contributed to difficulties in response and recovery.

The challenges of 2017 have led FEMA to refocus its mission to help "people before, during, and after disasters." Along with this streamlined mission are corresponding changes to how this mission will be accomplished.

In order for FEMA's new policies to be successful, they will need to be communicated effectively to state and local stakeholders. By developing a coalition with state governments and local communities, FEMA can work with existing stakeholders to increase disaster preparedness capacity and to follow through with plans that have already been developed.

This should help ensure that the next time disaster strikes, local communities will recovery more quickly.

Response to and recovery from disasters under the new guidelines will be federally supported, state managed and locally executed. This reflects a subtle change. FEMA's adage has long been that "all response is local," but under this new strategy FEMA would also shift the management and execution responsibilities for recovery to state and local authorities.

FEMA would continue to provide support, but state and local authorities -- enabled by federal resources -- would be responsible for longer-term recoveries.

FEMA has also been adopting a more flexible approach to response and recovery operations tailored to specific communities. For example, in Houston, FEMA has shifted responsibility for the housing recovery program to the state using FEMA-provided resources.

The new strategy envisions a noticeable shift in pre-disaster preparedness. The plan calls for increased emphasis on individuals, communities and businesses managing risk through insurance to facilitate faster and more complete recoveries. It also allows for new pre-disaster mitigation grants that would enable communities to mitigate situations before a disaster strikes, citing a 6-to-1 return on investment for pre-disaster spending.

This combination of the pre-disaster grants program, greater emphasis on individual preparedness and pushing responsibilities for management and execution of recovery to state and local levels are designed to enhance community resilience.

Continuing to build and enhance partnerships represents both continuity with previous FEMA planning as well as the expansion of potential partnerships. For example, state compacts for sharing mutual aid across state lines would continue to be essential, but so, too, would be closer consultations with real estate agents for increasing the number of insured homeowners and the National Governors Association for ensuring states are prepared to accept more responsibility for managing and executing long-term recovery.

Getting out of longer-term recovery operations and shifting these responsibilities to state and local authorities would support consolidation of assets, allowing FEMA to concentrate its assets on the catastrophic disasters for which they are uniquely designed.

This new FEMA strategy reflects the understanding that FEMA is not a first-responder agency, but rather provides coordination, integration and resourcing for catastrophic disasters. The strategy also reflects the operational necessity of being able to develop preparedness and response capabilities for the greater number and larger disasters that have been occurring recently.

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