Acting FEMA administrator Peter Gaynor has a wealth of experience on which to draw and shares his knowledge about the future of emergency management and the nation’s ability to develop resilience.
Gaynor was appointed director of Rhode Island’s Emergency Management Agency by Gov. Gina Raimondo in January 2015, where he advised the governor on emergency management policy and served as the principal liaison between FEMA and local emergency management offices throughout Rhode Island.
Gaynor responded via email to a series of questions for this interview.
You had emergency management experience at the local and state levels of government in Rhode Island. What has surprised you the most about working for FEMA at a senior level?
Having worked closely with FEMA in my positions with Rhode Island and the city of Providence, I knew how committed the men and women of FEMA are to helping people before, during and after disasters. I also knew the value of the agency’s support to states, localities, tribes and territories during disaster response and recovery. Today, having experienced FEMA from the inside, I would say there are three things that perhaps others may not fully appreciate about FEMA’s mission.
First, the importance of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) for our nation’s preparedness. Flood insurance is not only for coastal communities; where it can rain, it can flood. This year so far, policyholders in 49 states have filed a claim with the NFIP (data as of May 31, 2019). Insurance is not just a singular idea about protecting property, it is also about maintaining survivors’ livelihoods, businesses and communities.
Second is the importance of mitigation in our communities. Being an operator at heart, it may seem easy to leave the complicated and time-consuming task of mitigation to the “mitigators.” The trap is, if you do not put the adequate effort and focus into mitigation, you continue to do the same things for every subsequent disaster.
Third, we need to measure success by measuring recovery. Recovery needs to be outcome-driven and it truly is a partnership between all levels of government, the private sector and the disaster survivors.
Hurricane season is here now, and wildfires are already burning. How do you assess the readiness of FEMA to respond to a new round of disasters following all the Midwest flooding that you have already had to respond to in 2019?
Given the historic magnitude of disasters over the past two years, if a hurricane makes landfall or a wildfire breaks out this year, there is a very high chance it will hit an area that is still working to recover from a prior disaster. This means that even smaller and less severe storms and wildfires could have more significant impacts.
To be successful, emergency management must be locally executed, state managed and federally supported, and the public must be prepared. In addition to our more than 3,300 available reservists, FEMA’s incident workforce is always ready to support state, local, tribal and territorial partners in the event of a disaster. We currently have 42 FEMA staff embedded in 22 states full time. In the event a large-scale disaster overwhelms FEMA’s staffing requirements, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) secretary can activate the Surge Capacity Force (SCF).
The SCF is staffed by federal employees from DHS and other agencies assisting Americans in their greatest time of need. We have pre-positioned supplies in locations across the country, and in geographically remote areas. This move will reduce the amount of time needed to get supplies to survivors in the event of a disaster. For example, in Puerto Rico alone, we have over six times the number of commodities on the island as we did before the landfall of hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Some people avoid becoming a director at the local and state levels because they fear the politics of being in that job. What advice would you give them?
Public service is one of the greatest and most rewarding jobs one can do for the community, especially in the field of emergency management. Our nation continues to need leaders who make their communities more resilient to future disasters. This begins with the prepared citizen, but it is the local and state directors who can advise elected officials on legislative changes that can build a true culture of preparedness.
“Resilience” is a buzzword in emergency management today. I define it as “mitigation.” How do you define disaster resilience?
I think resilience flows from mitigation, but it is connected to preparedness as well. Resilience is the ability to prepare for and adapt to changing conditions and the ability to withstand and recover from disasters. Mitigation — acting before a disaster to protect yourself, your family and your home — can minimize disaster impact and help individuals and communities be more resilient. What we do, the steps we take while mitigating, are elements that add to our resilience and ultimately our ability to recover more fully. Additionally, we are urging the public that now is the time to prepare themselves and their businesses for hurricane and wildfire seasons, and with the recent activity, we should not forget it is always earthquake season.
Obtaining insurance is one of the smartest ways for individuals or businesses to financially prepare themselves because following a disaster, government resources will never be able to make them whole. For example, the average Individual Assistance grant from FEMA to disaster survivors following Hurricane Harvey was approximately $3,000. However, the average payout for those survivors with flood insurance was more than $117,000.
I also want to point out that response and recovery planning and execution also add to disaster resilience. When we focus on protecting and restoring critical lifelines like power, communications and health care — and have good plans in place to do so — we can help communities recover quicker.
As you look into your FEMA crystal ball, what predictions, if any, do you see for grant funds in all the different pots of money, and how they might change in the near and long term?
We provide approximately $10 billion annually to recipients and survivors, which constitutes 97 percent of DHS’ grant funding. Through our lessons learned, and the feedback from our stakeholders, our agency is pursuing three goals: Build a culture of preparedness; ready the nation for catastrophic disasters; and reduce the complexity of FEMA. This includes our grants process.
Grants are an important part of how FEMA supports citizens and communities before, during, and after disasters. FEMA administers more than 40 grant programs on multiple systems with multiple processes. To improve the grants experience for our disaster survivors, grant recipients, and the internal partners we serve, we must implement our Grants Management Modernization initiative by operating efficiently and effectively to changing policies, business processes and rapidly evolving technology as an approach to grants management.
In addition, the Disaster Recovery Reform Act (DRRA) allows us to invest more on the front end of disasters through pre-disaster mitigation. Section 1234 of the DRRA authorized FEMA to set aside 6 percent of estimated disaster expenses for each major disaster to fund pre-disaster mitigation. FEMA will use $250 million of the set-aside for the 2019 legacy Pre-Disaster Mitigation (PDM) program. FEMA is prioritizing mitigation through its commitment to reducing risk and building resilient communities by designing a new program, the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program, to replace PDM.
What is GMM?
The Grants Management Modernization (GMM) Program is a FEMA-wide initiative that began in 2015 to modernize and consolidate existing FEMA grants management systems, business processes and manual workarounds into one single IT platform and one common grants management life cycle using an iterative approach to better support the agency’s mission.
The purpose of GMM is to transform the way FEMA manages grants, strengthening FEMA’s ability to execute its mission through a user-centered, business-driven approach. The new IT platform (also known as FEMA Grants Outcomes, or FEMA GO) is targeted toward the entire grants’ community of users, including FEMA personnel and grant recipients and subrecipients across states, local governments, tribes and territorial partners.
Why do we need GMM?
The various grants processes rely on multiple systems operating on multiple platforms, each utilizing different technologies that are nonstandard, and many of the platforms are no longer supported by the vendors. The current grants management processes and systems do not provide data transparency and require users to create spreadsheets and ad hoc manual tools or workarounds to get the required information.
What are the expected outcomes of GMM?
• Improved technology to meet business needs
• Simplified grants life cycle processes
• Improved timeliness of grant awards to survivors and communities
• Access to complete and accurate grants data in one system
• Streamlined and improved business performance by improving business processes and supporting decision-making
• Improved business intelligence and decision-making by increasing access to data.
• Facilitate compliance with regulations and statutes
• Reduce overall sustainment costs by consolidating legacy systems into a single grants management IT platform
• User-centered, business-driven approach to grants transformation founded on active engagement with all stakeholders
The frequency, size and destruction coming from natural disasters is mounting. Sea level rise, which some call “coastal flooding,” is becoming an issue in some places like Florida. How is FEMA looking to address these issues from a policy level?
Ultimately, steps to address issues like a rise in flooding in any area must start at the local level. Zoning laws (where you can build) and building codes (how you should build) are set at the state and local levels.
We have been stressing the need for communities to take mitigation seriously. If you do not put adequate effort and focus into mitigation, you continue to do the same things for every subsequent disaster.
Know your risk! Advocate for stronger building codes and have adequate insurance.
What have you learned about the job of being FEMA administrator by serving in an acting capacity for a number of months?
The people who work at FEMA are an outstanding group of emergency management professionals. They work tirelessly to further the mission, build a culture of preparedness, ready the nation for catastrophic disasters, and support survivors. FEMA has more than 7,860 personnel deployed to 62 open disasters — spanning 39 states, tribal lands and territories. Our staff constantly strives to improve how we deliver on our mission of “helping people before, during, and after disasters.” Through exercises, after-action reports, and a constant review of our programs and processes, we are working to make FEMA a more streamlined agency.
The emergency management workforce is transitioning to a millennial-lead discipline. What advice do you have to this new generation of leaders?
Many millennials are nearing their 40s and have already made significant contributions to emergency management. We encouraged all of our employees to submit ideas to strengthen the agency by bolstering the three overarching goals: Build a Culture of Preparedness; Ready the Nation for Catastrophic Disasters; and Reduce the Complexity of FEMA that make up our 2018-2022 Strategic Plan. We received hundreds of submissions from across the agency, at every experience level. It is important to remember that great ideas can come from anywhere, regardless of your role, or your age.
The preceding have all been tough questions. So, a softball one — what do you do in your spare time, should you have any, or what you’d like to do when no longer deputy FEMA administrator?
I have committed my career to public service, first in the military and then at the local and state emergency management levels. I came to FEMA with the purpose of aligning resources to strategic initiatives that address and advance emergency management priorities at all levels. It is a job that keeps me busy every day but is one I enjoy coming to work for because every day, the men and women of FEMA are helping people when they need it most. When my FEMA career ends, I may have to refocus my efforts, but there is always something we can do to help prepare our families, our neighbors and our communities. We do not have to work at FEMA to make a difference.
Eric Holdeman is a senior fellow and contributing writer at Emergency Management magazine. He also blogs at www.disaster-zone.com