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What Should We Expect from FEMA Post Disaster?

Multi-state disasters create the biggest logistics challenges.

A sobering list of how effective the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been in distributing supplies post hurricanes highlights the need for state and local jurisdictions to do more detailed planning on restoring their supply chains.

See this quick summary from Jason Biermann that he recently shared with Western Washington colleagues:

"I want to share with all of you (sorry if it’s a duplicate) the recently released DHS OIG [Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General] assessment of FEMA’s commodity distribution efforts during the response to Hurricanes Irma and Maria. I found the statistics contained within this report reinforced how vital our planning is. Some examples:

  • It was ten days before first food and water arrived
  • Commodities took an average 69 days to reach PODs
  • Water experienced shipping delays of 71 days
  • Food experienced shipping delays of 59 days
  • Only 37% of water reached its intended destination
  • Only 45% of food reached its intended destination
  • Only 27% of municipalities received sufficient water in the first delivery
  • Only 20% of municipalities received sufficient food in the first delivery
  • Over the first 2 months, 24% of municipalities did not receive sufficient food or water for survivors
  • 40% of municipalities received expired food and/or food that was “nutritionally deficient”
While I’m confident that FEMA learned many lessons from Irma and Maria, the scale of these operations obviously exceeded the available capability and capacity. Due to the number of people affected and geographic spread, a Cascadia subduction zone earthquake will very likely be much worse. Based on that likelihood, I think it would be imprudent of us to rely solely on the traditional, linear “DC – ISB – FSA – SSA – POD” model of logistics. I’m looking forward to reconvening everyone soon and discussing how to align the RCPGP projects with the supply chain resilience TA work done by Snohomish, King, Pierce, and Thurston Counties. I think our region has a significant head start on its engagement with the private sector grocery folks and we should take full advantage of that."

The eight-county Central Puget Sound region he refers to has a project to look at how to provide supplies in a post earthquake environment where transportation routes and facilities — e.g., bridges — have been damaged or even destroyed.

The highlight I always tell people is that earthquakes are "come as you are" disasters. There is no opportunity to see the earthquake brewing for several weeks and get the supply chain moving in advance. In the case of an earthquake, the shaking is your first indication that something needs to be done logistically. Thus, the timelines above will be extended even further. 

I would also like to note that the two hurricanes mentioned above were in the 2017 mega hurricane season and some of the major impacts were to Puerto Rico, which provided additional logistical issues in getting supplies to the island, offloading them and then getting them distributed. 


Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.
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