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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

White House Reporter’s Question To Fugate On Nashville Flood Illustrates Communications Challenge Repositioning FEMA’s Role

May 17th, 2010 · No Comments

During his tenure, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate has been trying to somewhat reposition the agency’s role in the nation’s emergency preparedness for and response to disasters. And that effort was on display last week when he appeared in the White House media briefing room with press secretary Robert Gibbs to discuss FEMA’s activities during the floods in Tennessee and tornadoes in Oklahoma.

Fugate wants to get the message out that the agency cannot do everything, does not have limitless aid and is only part of the “team” (including other members of the “federal family”) that augments the work of the impacted community and its residents. As he told the press corps, “FEMA’s not the only game in town.”

At the same time, Fugate is also running an organization still rebuilding its own reputation with the public post-Hurricane Katrina so he can’t be seen to decentralize responsibility too much. So, he’s not saying that this team approach does not mean the agency’s response won’t be rapid, robust and responsive (as most reports say it has been during the flood and throughout Fugate’s administration). His point is that citizens and communities should look to all stakeholders (ie. private sector, non-profit groups, etc.) to take a leadership role in the effort, and further that citizens themselves have a responsibility to prepare in order to mitigate the damage of these disasters in the first place. There is a limit, Fugate says, what “a governmental centric” response can do.

It’s a subtle message — the cavalry will come, but it can’t completely save the day. The citizen and the community is ultimately responsible for preparation and recovery — and for the choices we make in advance (e.g. to buy flood insurance or not). Yet, managing those expectations needs to be done before the disaster not during it (and Fugate has been on the bully pulpit over the past year pushing his ideas). It’s particularly difficult to state candidly in the immediate days after a disaster, because the focus among the public, elected officials and the media is solely on providing as much help as possible as quickly as possible.

That delicate communications line Fugate has to walk was illustrated by the first question he received from the White House press corps:

Q.    When we were in Tennessee on Saturday, we talked to Secretary Napolitano, and she said that the extent of FEMA’s ability to help was limited. Given how many people there did not have flood insurance, how heavily impacted they are and how limited the FEMA aid is, where do you suggest these people go, beyond that? I mean, obviously $29,000 isn’t enough if you’ve lost your home and you don’t have flood insurance.

The reporter’s question is typical of how we as a nation generally react directly after a disaster. There is a ‘more is more’ expectation when it comes to federal assistance — that somehow FEMA can make everyone whole (as the reporter’s question implied). It is understandable, particularly with media coverage of the victims (or “survivors” as Fugate wants them to be called) circumstances. The challenge is not to sound unsympathetic or ineffective, but also to stick to his philosophy of individual and community responsibility and sufficiency. His answer:

ADMINISTRATOR FUGATE: That is correct. That’s, I think, part of the reason why — we look at disasters a lot differently than probably in the past, and we know that it takes a full federal team to support recovery. We have a lot of programs that Secretary Donovan brings to the table, with the HUD Community Block Development Grant; other types of programs that help. Plus another thing that we’ve not always done well on the federal side, and that is really collaborate with faith-based and volunteer organizations that can oftentimes provide labor and other assistance to people in trying to rebuild their homes, where we can use our dollars for materials.

And so, again, if you come in and you do what I call a federal-centric or government-centric response to these disasters, you’re going to have a lot of unmet needs, because we do have very defined programs and limits to those programs.

But if you look at a team approach and looking at what are the resources in a community; where are we going to be able to pull resources together to address particularly those folks that just are not going to have many other options — for a lot of folks, some of the more affluent neighborhoods, SBA disaster loans will help them get their homes repaired. But for those that don’t have the ability to do the loans and where our grants may not be able to return their home back to a useable condition, partnered with volunteers and other groups as part of a team effort gets us to those unmet needs.

And so this is our approach of not just looking at what one program can do, but how do we leverage the entire federal family to recognize there’s a lot of other resources in the community that we have tended not to bring to bear or work in a coordinated fashion. Often times, they were trying to do one thing — we’re over here, we’re not talking. And we don’t help the survivors.

I thought Fugate did pretty well in sticking to his doctrine without sounding insensitive. He got his message out that FEMA can’t do it all and citizens (and the media) should not expect that. Though he didn’t use the opportunity to say: ‘here’s why you should have flood insurance.’ It’s a subtle balance — you want to use disaster situations to educate the public and the press on what lessons can be learned from the incident, but you don’t want to add to the emotional distress of the survivors. The best time to talk about public preparedness is when you have the public’s attention — during a disaster — but it’s tough to talk policy when water is still swamping a city.

I highlighted the White House reporter’s question to Fugate, because the media has such a major role in shaping public perception and political behavior when it comes to disaster preparedness and response. And, I would argue that in addition to covering disasters in real time, the media has a responsibility to also provide the public with the underlying policy implications during and between crises.

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate answers reporters questions at the White House Briefing Room

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Tags: Federal Emergency Management Administration · Media

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