FEMA rewrites disaster-relief playbook

Craig Fugate doesn’t wait around for all the facts when disaster strikes.

The administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has spent the first two years of his tenure streamlining operations at the agency and shaking off deeply rooted habits to build a connected team of local, state and federal officials who are ready to move when emergencies happen.

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“I don’t want to be put into the box of ‘We didn’t want to make any mistakes, so we ended up under-responding,’ ” Fugate told The Hill in a recent interview. “Or ‘We didn’t get there fast enough,’ or ‘We were so adhered to following our rules that couldn’t seek the common-sense solution in front of us because we never empowered our people to look at how to solve problems.’ ” 

In a major shift at FEMA, Fugate is looking beyond the information provided by professional first responders during an emergency, instead creating a two-way dialogue with the public, media and private sector to help provide quicker disaster assessments. 

FEMA is looking at people in the affected communities as “a resource and not a liability,” Fugate said.

After the devastating tornadoes in Alabama and Missouri this spring, Fugate said, the first responders weren’t officials in the affected communities; they were neighbors helping each other in the immediate aftermath of the storms. 

“We’ve tried to reset the dial from everything about focusing on government, which is slower and more costly for taxpayers, to expanding to what we call ‘the team’ and how we engage people on that team,” Fugate said. 

In the case of the tornado that hit Joplin, Mo., early photos of the town’s badly damaged hospital posted on Twitter and other social media sites showed Fugate the situation was more dire than expected, allowing him to make a faster decision on when to deploy federal resources. 

Fugate said he’s learned during his years of battling floods, tornadoes, hurricanes and wildfires at the local, state and now federal level that any agency’s response is slowed mainly by a lack of information. 

“I’ve learned that by the time I have all the facts to make the perfect decision, I was too late to respond,” he said. 

“I’m going, ‘Look, if we’re making a mistake for the right reasons because we thought a storm was bad and it turns out it wasn’t that bad, I’m going to take the heat for that,’ ” he said. 

He said the tendency at FEMA in the past was to wait and get a broad assessment of the situation before sending in federal resources, which could mean the agency was days late in providing adequate help. 

“One thing I’ve focused on is a sense of urgency and speed in these disasters,” Fugate said. 

While Fugate “knew there was a lot of work that had to be done” when he took the helm at FEMA, he also knew the agency would not have to be “totally revamped” thanks to legislation Congress passed after Hurricane Katrina. That measure strengthened and clarified the agency’s role and mission. 

Fugate, who spent nearly eight years as head of the Florida Division of Emergency Management before joining the Obama administration in May 2009, said he brought in the best people he could find to fill open slots at FEMA, mostly those with community-level experience.

The top three officials at the agency, including Fugate and deputy administrators Rich Serino and Tim Manning, all came from state and local emergency management departments.

“I think coming in within the first year we built a very strong team,” Fugate said. 

With his leadership positions settled, Fugate said he quickly spotted a fundamental disconnect in the agency’s emergency plans. 

“It really kind of hit me and became apparent to me that every time we had big, complex disasters that we identified a group that had been marginalized and we’d write an annex to the main plan to address their concerns,” he said. “I think it’s how emergency management had evolved over time.” 

He found separate emergency plans for pets, for the frail and elderly, for those in poverty and for children. Fugate wondered, “If every one of these distinct groups is not being addressed in our plan, who do we cover?” 

“We were planning for easy and putting everyone else in the too-hard-to-do box,” he said. 

So he ripped up the agency’s plan, making so-called marginalized populations the primary focus of the response. The new message was that FEMA needed to “plan for who we serve, not who fits our plans,” Fugate said.

FEMA’s response plans had been built around able-bodied adults who have the financial means to meet basic needs and take care of themselves in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, he said. 

That led Fugate to press his team to change the federal government’s food delivery response, adding in packages for infants and children that included formula, baby food and diapers. That was a big change from the previous policy of only sending out Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) without any consideration for what groups of people were most affected.

“I do try to be very clear about the outcome I want and give people the leeway to figure out how to get there,” he said. “The more I push people, the more I get them out of their comfort zones, the better they get at solving these problems.”

Fugate, who professes to have the “patience of a gnat,” ensured that his team solved their differences and moved forward, making the plan operational this spring.

“We have to try new ways to do things,” he said. 

One new project is a mobile webpage for disaster victims that can be read on a smartphone.

The agency also recently streamlined its debris-collection management, giving FEMA broader authority to clear out residential areas so people can focus on rebuilding. 

Fugate said FEMA has been helped greatly by improvements in disaster response at the state and local levels.

“It gives you a degree of competence we wouldn’t have had three to four years ago,” he said. 

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Following the recent tornadoes in Alabama, state officials told Fugate they were prepared to deal with the initial response. And by the time his federal team arrived in Joplin, less than 24 hours after the storm hit, the first search and rescue missions had been completed with local and mutual aid “working as a team,” he said. 

“That goes back to the investment made since 9/11,” he said. “A lot of these homeland security dollars have built a lot of capability and capacity to respond, and we saw that in Alabama and Missouri.”

That preparedness leaves more federal resources in reserve for the next, unforeseen event, he said. 

He said FEMA’s new team structure was on display when federal and state officials, the Red Cross and other rescue agencies recently briefed President Obama on hurricane season. 

“We briefed the president the way we respond,” he said. “It was the first time I ever heard it happen like that.”