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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

At Hearing, House Homeland Security Subcommittee Chairman Cuellar Asks FEMA For New Preliminary Plan To Increase U.S. Community, Citizen Preparedness

October 5th, 2009 · No Comments

I attended a very interesting hearing on Capitol Hill late last week, “Preparedness: State of Citizen and Community Preparedness,” held by the House Subcommittee on Emergency Communications, Preparedness, and Response which is chaired by Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX).

At the hearing, Bill Jenkins Jr. from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) presented a preliminary report, Emergency Management Preliminary Observations on FEMA’s Community Preparedness Programs Related to the National Preparedness System, which said that FEMA does not currently have an overall strategic plan for community preparedness or the ability to accurately measure the performance of its various citizen readiness initiatives.

“The operating budgets for community preparedness programs currently represent less than one-half of 1 percent of FEMA’s total budget,” the report noted. “In fiscal year 2009, FEMA’s overall budget was about $7.9 billion, of which about $5.8 million was dedicated to operating community preparedness programs and $2.1 million was for the Ready Campaign.”

FEMA’s Deputy Administrator for National Preparedness Timothy Manning who also testified on the panel, said he not yet had a chance to closely examine the brand new GAO report (though he said he didn’t disagree with much of Jenkins’ testimony to the Subcommittee). And in his own written testimony, Manning made this instructive statement: ”Since September 11, 2001, and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the United States has invested tens of billions of dollars in bolstering government’s [his italics] preparedness, while paying little attention to personal and community preparedness.”

At the end of the hearing, Cuellar requested that Manning over the next two weeks develop a preliminary outline of a FEMA strategic plan for community and citizen preparedness that will include the vision, objectives and ways to measure success, and return to the Subcommittee to present it. Cuellar said he wasn’t blaming Manning, who was confirmed just five months ago, and the new FEMA management for the lack of a strategic plan. But by putting a quick turnaround deadline on the request, the Congressman wanted to underscore the need for fast action and for renewed focus on the issue.

Earlier in the week, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano delivered a major speech on preparedness to mark the end of National Preparedness Month. She said that in order to improve our nation’s readiness all Americans should “raise your hand and ask, ‘What’s our plan?’” at meetings of their local community organizations. In some ways, Rep. Cuellar did exactly that at the Subcommittee hearing in regard to the nation’s overall community preparedness plan.

In his testimony, Manning made this pledge: “Increasing individual and community preparedness and resiliency is a FEMA priority; it is also a national priority, and I will make it a personal priority during my tenure.”

The hearing was called in part to examine a recent Citizen Corps survey which had many interesting findings (most of which highlighted shortcomings in public preparedness) and a number of useful recommendations (most of which urged far more attention be given to the subject).

Also testifying at the hearing were Suzy C. DeFrancis, Chief Public Affairs Officer, American Red Cross and Wendy Smith, Assistant City Manager, McAllen, Texas.

In his opening remarks, Cuellar mentioned a recent post from this blog, “On Sept 11, Some Ideas To Improve Emergency Preparedness & Engagement,” and introduced it into the hearing record.

In a statement after the hearing, Cuellar explained why he requested Manning produce a preliminary plan and return to the Subcommittee within a couple weeks:

“There is a new administration overseeing FEMA and I look forward to seeing their vision for how we can create a national preparedness strategy which puts an emphasis on citizen preparedness…It’s been eight years since the attacks of 9/11 and while we’ve been fortunate to not experience an event as devastating we see local emergencies unfolding across the country everyday. Fires, floods, tornadoes, snow storms, hurricanes. During these events, Americans continue to show they’re willing to respond when disaster strikes…We need FEMA to draft a strategy on how we harness that willingness to contribute before the crisis occurs.”

In fact, even the events of the past two weeks — significant terrorism arrests in several parts of the nation, major flooding in Georgia and other Southeastern states, the American Samoa tsunami, Asian earthquakes and H1N1 spreading in all 50 states — would seem to only reinforce the need for bolstering community preparedness. And, with all these crises in the news, one might have thought this hearing would have received a good deal of attention. Yet, there was only one reporter there (Matthew Korade from CQ Homeland Security), which just seems to highlight one theme of the hearing that despite the apparent importance of community and individual preparedness the subject is often overlooked.

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Tags: Congress · Preparedness Events · Preparedness Reports · Public Opinion · Research Studies

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