A Look At Disaster Lessons Learned From Hurricane Irene

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By Kenneth Mallette

As hundreds of New Jersey’s emergency managers gather in New Brunswick at the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness Annual Conference this week, it is the opportunity for New Jersey’s local communities to take stock of what lessons were learned during Hurricane Irene.

The nation’s current economic situation and growing deficits should make state and local governments more focused on getting their fiscal preparedness in order. Most of our communities across New Jersey are ready for the response, but many could learn more about getting ready for the long term recovery. Last week’s passage of the FEMA Disaster Relief Fund legislation by the House might cause some people to relax, but an effective and efficient recovery process will only be realized by those communities that get their disaster-related financial health in order.

The dynamics of disaster recovery has changed. Traditionally, communities could fully rely on long-term, seemingly limitless financial support from the federal government. However, given the past, and what seems to be an expected prolonged financial crisis in our country, communities may receive adequate levels of federal response support, but are mostly left to themselves when it comes to long term recovery.

In an effort to expedite a successful recovery from unforeseen incidents, communities need to focus on having financial components in place that are designed to ensure continuity of government, economic revitalization, and restoration of public trust. To do so, every local jurisdiction should institute the following essential steps:

  1. Review and assess that the emergency authorities currently in place to help with financial recovery. Consider whether a) municipal administrative code and/or community by-laws provide a clear chain of authority and ensure the continuity of government; b) emergency procurement authorities are consistent with both federal and state requirements; c) those authorities provide the ability needed to loosen requirements for building permits, allowing for a more rapid recovery; and d) emergency provisions address how code enforcement may be accomplished under the immediate demands surrounding disaster reconstruction.
  2. Have no-cost pre-event contracts in place for post-event recovery activities. These agreements often save communities from wasting time finding vendors and contractors who can help in the recovery when they should be responding to the disaster. Pre-event contracts also enable local officials to bring in pre-selected expertise when the immediate pressure of the crisis begins to subside.
  3. Augment the municipal, county, and state emergency management staff. Maintaining the necessary capacity of response staff on a full-time basis is cost-prohibitive to most communities. Additionally, many past employees from non-emergency agencies previously assigned to support emergency operations in the event of a disaster have been laid off, further limiting the response capability. Having an adequate number of well-trained staff on stand-by to activate when disaster strikes is not only prudent, but can be included as part of a pre-event contract.
  4. Maximize public infrastructure grants, and have access to personnel experienced in managing FEMA public assistance programs. It is important that a community not be exposed to Public Assistance programs for the first time when disaster strikes. Personnel familiar with eligibility criteria, applicant responsibilities, mitigation opportunities, and documentation guidelines can be critical to a jurisdiction’s ability to maximize eligible reimbursement dollars.
  5. Keep an eye on cash flow. Most communities get in a cash flow crisis in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, and do not have the matching funds required by FEMA available to kick-off their long term recovery process. High-risk communities should consider establishing a “rainy day” fund well in advance of a disaster to provide the seed funding needed for initial recovery efforts. The availability of such funding can help fill the gaps between the time a disaster occurs and the time when insurance and government financial help arrives.

New Jersey first responders and emergency managers will come together this week to look at what went well after Hurricane Irene and where things need to be improved, but we do know that with the current economic volatility of our country makes it imperative for local communities to look at these critical components of financial planning for disaster response and recovery efforts.

As the saying goes – “A lack of planning on your part, does not constitute an emergency on mine.” And if current trends are any indication of future actions that may very well be the only answer local jurisdictions get back in response to their request for federal disaster assistance.

Kenneth Mallette is Vice President of Preparedness at Witt Associates, a public safety and crisis management consulting firm based in Washington, D.C., and founded by former FEMA Director James Lee Witt.

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