We talked with Administrator Fugate about improving disaster response and developing more resilient communities.
Craig Fugate took over as FEMA’s administrator in May 2009, and has instituted many approaches to emergency management that have taken hold and helped push the U.S. to become better able to respond to and mitigate hazards. We talked with Fugate about those efforts and where improvements need to be made to develop more resilient communities.
Answer: If anything, when I arrived at FEMA, we were still very much reactive to issues and not being proactive. My approach is that it doesn’t get better with time. I would rather get the bad news out first and let people know where they are and move forward. It was almost as if our culture was that we didn’t want to give people bad news so we oftentimes would delay answers. I would say, “Look, we owe people honest answers, and if the answer is yes, tell them yes. If the answer is no, tell them no, [and] if the answer is maybe, let’s get to the right answer quickly — speed not haste.”
I want to speed up the response, and look at every step that we are introducing as to why it was taking us longer and longer to get things done and why it took us the time that it took to make decisions and shorten it. The example is, when Sandy was making landfall and coming ashore, the president had already issued emergency declarations up and down the coast through the areas likely to be impacted. Some were not significantly impacted and others were devastated.
Not by any means am I saying that it was a perfect response, but we were able to speed up decision-making and response because we had started out clearly articulating that these were our authorities, these are our responsibilities and these are the actions that we can take within those to speed up that response.
When you look at what we were able to do [during and after Hurricane Sandy] and took all the tools from post-Katrina and we took the authority the president had in his declarations to issue them.
We were able to work with the federal partners to speed it up, and probably our biggest accomplishment was that we’ve sped up the response process. There is a lot of work still to be done, but I put a premium on getting the right answer fast. I want to speed this up, and I don’t want haste. I want it right the first time, and it may take us a bit more to get that right answer, but what I don’t want to do is get behind responses because we are waiting for information, we aren’t certain of our authorities, we aren’t sure of our ability to execute.
This comes back to the debate that we have had about the thresholds for disaster declarations. And the first thing is, there are a lot of disasters that are not declared and that are not covered by insured losses that local taxpayers and states pay for already; they already absorb this cost whether it is a direct or indirect cost.
The question is: Is the outcome here to reduce the federal taxpayer costs and is it just shifting them to the local and state taxpayer? What is the appropriate level of that, and are we building capacity so that states have a reasonable expectation of what the budgeting gets from their recurring disaster threats? But if you do get a disaster declaration, those funds go back to your first dollars at cost-share rates. So we want to look at how we adjust the shared responsibility at the state and local level with the federal government in such a way that it gives states more predictability. You can’t predict the frequency of a disaster, but you should at least have a good expectation of what level you would expect federal assistance and what state and local governments need to be prepared for in the absence of a declaration.
When you are in budget-cutting mode, it is very seductive to cut incrementally hoping that that’s the last cut you are going to make and that next year won’t be as bad. That next year, if your budget requires further cutting, you are having to do more cuts and not really being strategic. Let’s define the outcome the organization is responsible for.
Many of us have organizations that have been built over time and with the increased pressure of budget reductions, we don’t necessarily get to change the outcomes. Doing more with less sometimes translates into doing less with less. So I think that what we are trying to do at FEMA is really focus on what is the outcome, what are the legal obligations that we have and what are the requirements that Congress addressed that we shall perform and not start with the current organization but know where we are going and the resources we have.
If we were to start from scratch, how would we achieve that outcome? I think that in some cases when you are doing budget reductions you oftentimes hit tipping points where you make incremental cuts, where if you knew this was going to be your trend over the next four to five years, you would have done it differently. And we want to start out with a question and how would you do it differently? The cuts may not be as severe and the cuts may stop, but a better question is: Are we optimized to do this the most efficient way possible? Free up resources for other needs versus just saying, “I need to come up with another 5 percent cut this year, so I am going to cut your travel.” Maybe the outcome that I am trying to achieve could be done differently than just looking at incremental cuts, maybe it is structurally.
As technology overtakes past practices, that allows me to optimize this and free up resources for other programs, or absorb impacts and budget cuts without necessarily changing the outcome by changing how I do it. I think too often we start with a question about how we do stuff and never talk about the outcome. So you can end up over time, making cuts that are not sustainable and erode your capability, and you find yourself doing less with less.
I think that as local and state officials go through cuts, you need to look at this as a multi-year process and not just each year you make a cut and hope that it isn’t as bad next year. You really need to answer the question, given where we are and where we’re going: Are we optimized to do our mission, and if we are going to sustain further cuts, would it still look like it does today? Would we still do it the way we are doing it and are we willing to make the changes necessary to continue to achieve the outcome, but not necessarily doing it the way we have always done it?
I think the general assumptions for most people is we are not really moving the dime there. But there was a recent survey done about mitigation and it was about should people be required to build back and elevate their homes in flood zones and 70 percent of [about 700] survey respondents said yes. Now I don’t think that 70 percent of people were impacted by the disaster facing those costs, but I think there is a growing awareness that disasters are not just something governments are supposed to respond to — they are a shared responsibility. It is getting out the perception that the public is going to have ownership of getting prepared, and the next step that I still think in our challenge is, how do we get people to understand that it is a shared responsibility? And it isn’t just about government, it is about all of us doing what we are supposed to be doing to get our families and ourselves ready.
Looking at how we are putting together our workforce. One recurring issue that we have yet to successfully resolve is how to get the right staff into the disaster areas quickly without having to depend upon a lot of people deploying and then rotating them out to bring in other people. And what we find is, in certain things such as public assistance, the quicker we get a stable workforce for the duration that can take ownership of the complex work that needs to be done, the more consistency that we get in the answers.
We think that this has two parts. One is getting our program guidance cleared so that we have repeated results from multiple people looking at the same program, but also making sure that the people deployed early are deploying for the long term and have the core competencies to execute. Public assistance can be very complicated and challenging in some aspects, and a constant issue is the inconsistency in the application of the program or when staff rotate out oftentimes having to start over on projects.
So we are again looking at with Sandy, how do we structure ourselves with our resources to get people in early enough who will be there for the duration of these key projects without having to rotate people after a couple of weeks to a couple of months. They build rapport and working relationships with local officials to work on very complex problems, but when new staff come in, they almost have to start over from scratch.
It has really been the area that we have been focusing on and that’s the catastrophic disaster response and focusing on those best practices, such as the storms that we can see coming, but also earthquakes and terrorist attacks. How do we build national capacity — and not just FEMA’s capacity — incorporate that into an effective response, leverage the investments that were made in homeland security grants, leverage what state and local governments do every day, and leverage our National Guard and other resources.