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Remember: All Disasters Are Local, Says FEMA Deputy Administrator

FEMA launches virtual think tank to solicit ideas for improving emergency management and response.

All disasters are local was the theme of FEMA Deputy Administrator Richard Serino’s keynote speech at the International Association of Emergency Managers Annual Conference on Monday, Nov. 14, in Las Vegas. So far this year, approximately 1,000 lives have been lost to disasters and there have been at least 10 disasters have that incurred more than $1 billion in costs. The responses to 2011’s disasters showed that communities — local governments and their residents — are more resilient.

“FEMA started in 1979. Did we have disasters before 1979?” Serino asked. “It was locals taking care of each other, then the states helping and eventually the federal government.”

The emphasis has gone back to neighbors taking care of one another, and local and state governments utilizing mutual-aid agreements and Emergency Management Assistance Compacts instead of waiting for the federal government.

During an interview with the media after the devastating tornado in Joplin, Mo., Serino was asked if FEMA could handle all of the year’s disasters. “If we were doing it alone, no,” he said. “FEMA is just a small part of the team.”

And the team has expanded. A couple of years ago, FEMA started bringing representatives from the private sector into its operations center so government and industry could learn from one another. Representatives from companies, like Verizon, spend three-month rotations in the center, and Serino said initiatives like this should be replicated by state and local governments. “The private sector is what gets communities back up and running,” he said.

Expanding the emergency response team has also included working with the faith-based community and volunteers. Serino said 273,000 hours of volunteer service contributed to the response in Joplin, and there were groups, like AmeriCorps, organizing the volunteers.

That resiliency also is echoed by the public and disaster survivors. Serino said he has seen a renewed focus on neighbors helping one another. “I think we got away from that,” he said. “There was the idea that FEMA’s going to come; that the federal government is going to come; that 911 is going to come.”

Serino said he saw examples of neighbors taking care of one another, and in one example, of even rescuing each other. That is all part of the theme that all disasters are local: When a disaster does strike, neighbors will be the first responders.

To build on the knowledge and ideas of communities and all levels of government, FEMA launched a virtual think tank to provide a place for people to submit new ideas and concepts to the federal government. Serino said there will be a monthly conference call during which four to five of the submitted issues will be discussed. It’s also a chance to think of recovery and preparedness from the survivors’ and public’s point of view. Serino said talking to survivors about what they need isn’t done enough and the federal government also needs to listen to other levels of government. The think tank aims to be a place for people to share innovative ideas and their points of view.

Editor's Note: This article has been updated.