FEMA chief says pre-staging is key to rapid disaster response

Federal disaster response officials are being trained to leap into action without always waiting for a governor and the president to declare a disaster, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency told a House hearing Tuesday.

While Hurricane Irene was building strength this summer, FEMA had prestaged teams along the East Coast, which "sped up the time it took to get resources" to the affected regions, Administrator Craig Fugate told the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications. "Because of all the advance preparation and pre-positioning leading up to the storm's landfall, state, tribal, territorial and local officials consistently reported no unmet communications requests." Fugate added that FEMA "can do quite a bit without a disaster declaration, but this does get into constitutional issues."

Chairman Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., who called the hearing to review FEMA's performance five years after the 2006 Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act, noted that 2011 has seen a record number of disaster declarations. He also advocated his bill (H.R. 2067) to offer a tax credit to victims of property damage from hurricanes and tornadoes who invest in improved storm-proofing.

Fugate said the 2006 reform act gives FEMA flexibility to begin preparations without waiting for clarification from the formal disaster declaration process outlined in its chief authorizing statute, the 1988 Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act. Thus FEMA and state and local authorities can "speed resources" to where they are needed, taking advantage of the equipment and communications tools more readily available in affected regions thanks to the government's post-9/11 investment in disaster preparedness, he said.

Panel members noted that FEMA's budget is slated for cuts as Congress battles over ways to trim the deficit and the issue of whether funding for relief should be offset with other spending cuts. The Disaster Relief Fund this summer sunk to a low of $100 million at a time when a serious hurricane can run up costs in the billions, Fugate said. Planners must use the fund to be prepared for future disasters as well as to pay off benefits to claimants from past disasters, he said. He told the committee that FEMA would work to focus on priorities that reflect "the national interest."

Other improvements to FEMA's performance under the 2006 law include "getting rid of artificial divisions" by operating as "one team rather than identifying oneself as state, local or federal," Fugate said. "One of the huge, unheralded milestones" in emergency response is new cooperation between the Defense Department and state National Guard officers using so-called dual-status commanders, whose authority reduces duplication and minimizes confusion, he added.

Stepped-up coordination with the private sector is another plus, he said, noting that FEMA now receives reports from big-box stores, drugstores and hardware stores about the availability of supplies for disaster victims. In addition, during the recovery process, FEMA has moved away from contracts with national firms to tap local small businesses, which is seen as faster and aids economic recovery.

In the future, Fugate said he'd like to see more use of visual data on ground conditions furnished by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Information from the public -- increasingly through social media - as well as input from local and national news media "can all be put together for a better operating picture," he said.

Panelists asked what Fugate will be watching for on Nov. 9, when FEMA will join the Federal Communications Commission and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to conduct the first-ever nationwide test of the emergency alert system. The three-minute test alert sent out through an array of public and private broadcast, satellite, cable and wireless outlets will be heard beginning at 2:00 p.m. EST. Many parts of that infrastructure are old, "legacy systems," Fugate said, so officials will be looking at the "primary entry points and looking for gaps."

Fugate was asked by Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, whether FEMA could do more to help Texas in its battle against wildfires. Fugate said he would consider it, but the recent Texas fires were a "symptom of a larger issue, which is drought," and noted that primary responsibility rests with the Agriculture Department's Forest Service.

Subcommittee ranking member Rep. Laura Richardson, D-Calif., said she was concerned about funding cuts in FEMA's new Office of Disability Integration and Coordination, which helps the deaf, for example, respond to disaster warnings. Fugate said he would review the extent to which every FEMA region has a full-time disability coordinator.

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