Saturday, February 12, 2011

FEMA, Catastrophes, and the Whole of Community

During one of the recent Snowmageddon's FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate was severely chastised by a Good Morning America interviewer because he wasn't rushing federal resources to rescue stranded motorists. On the other end of the spectrum are web sites proclaiming that Craig is erecting "FEMA camps" to house citizens who resist federal agents sent to seize their guns (Yes, these sites are there, I saw them).

We have a long way to go on educating the general public about roles and responsibilities in a disaster but after almost two years in charge Craig has finally found the button at FEMA that gets everyone in the organization's attention. He pushed that button and now everyone at FEMA is talking Catastrophes and Whole of Community.

Whole of Community is a concept and a philosophy that goes to the heart of roles and responsibilities in a disaster. Whole of Community means that when a disaster strikes everyone in the community has a role, and everyone must take responsibility for some part of the response and recovery. The more severe the event, i.e. when a disaster becomes a catastrophe, the greater the roles and responsibilities of the individual citizens. In other words, if you are waiting for FEMA to come and pull your car out of a snowdrift, what will be your response when nothing is left of your entire city but rubble and survivors?

The old joke in emergency management says that a disaster is when a tree falls on your neighbor's house, and a catastrophe is when a tree falls on YOUR house. Very few people have experience in catastrophic events. When I was in Hancock County, MS, a few days after Katrina, I ran into someone from the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. He had come to Florida in 2004 to help us on the hurricanes and we were in Mississippi returning the favor. I asked him what happened, and he said they had a plan, but the extent of Katrina's damage had overwhelmed it.

I have heard Craig Fugate many times define an emergency as an event where the responders outnumber the survivors and a disaster as where the survivors outnumber the responders. A catastrophe is where the event overwhelms the plan. The only thing worse than a disaster overwhelming your plan is entering a disaster without any plan at all.

How many jurisdictions today have a catastrophic plan? I don't know, but I don't think very many. The state of Florida has an excellent catastrophic plan. I know, I helped write the mass care feeding and sheltering annex to the plan. Hundreds of local, state and federal workers participated in the development of this plan over a period of several years. The process was one of the most educational and informative periods of my emergency management career.

The person who drove us to write Florida's catastrophic plan? Craig Fugate.

And now Craig wants us all, from small town to big city, from sea to shining sea, to start thinking about catastrophes, and how we can get the whole of the community to pitch in and help when one may happen. I am an emergency manager in one of the most high risk states in the Union. I think about catastrophes all the time, and what I have to do to get ready should one suddenly arrive.

But that's just me.


  1. Anonymous11:48 AM

    Excellent. Too often these days people forget about 'personal responsibility'. We all have a responsibility to be prepared. If we live in 'snow country' we should be prepared for what may happen there, if we live in Hurricane country, we prepare for that, etc.!

  2. Anonymous7:04 PM

    Good theory and the process that you and other planners went through is no doubt helpful to the people who reviewed and provided input.

    Unfortunately, without letting the other 99% of the "community" in on the plans, we cannot ground our assumptions to prepare our plans.

    Placing non-sensitive parts of a plan on an accessible website is one way of encouraging all to take responsibility.