The Federal Emergency Management Agency has begun inviting private-sector executives to work at its headquarters for the first time, part of the agency's renewed outreach to corporate America and a tacit acknowledgment that government cannot handle disasters alone.
Under the program, a key initiative of FEMA administrator Craig Fugate, corporate executives in industries ranging from retail to energy spend three months at the agency's response coordination center and serve as a liaison to the business world, particularly during a disaster. The executives also get a seat at the table for key meetings to provide a private-sector perspective.
"You can't be successful if you only look at what government can do," said Fugate, calling such an approach "myopic." "This is kind of like everybody figuring out what you're really good at."
The role of the government in disaster response has become the center of intense debate since Hurricane Katrina destroyed the Gulf Coast nearly six years ago. After the storm, companies such as Wal-Mart were heralded for the sophisticated logistics and planning that allowed them to respond quickly to even the hardest-hit areas - often before federal officials.
Fugate said that he saw the disconnect firsthand when Hurricane Wilma slammed into Florida a few months after Katrina. Fugate was director of Florida's division of emergency management and had planned for the Category 3 storm to hit the state's west coast. But Wilma caused more damage as it moved over Florida's eastern shore, stranding supplies and emergency workers on the wrong side of the state.
Retailers flew into action, Fugate said, hauling in generators to power darkened stores and setting up circus tents to distribute supplies. By the time state emergency workers arrived with water and ice, many residents showed up to wait in line with burgers from local fast-food restaurants.
"We found ourselves competing with the retail sector," Fugate said. "We weren't talking to them, so we didn't know they were learning and getting better."
Several states, including Florida and Louisiana, have since developed partnerships with local businesses and trade groups to coordinate their response to disasters. And as part of a restructuring of FEMA by Congress, the agency created an office in 2007 dedicated to working with the private sector. Still, business groups and government officials say the effort to bring corporate executives into the agency is an unprecedented step.
"I really feel like we have the pipeline in now to FEMA," said Joe LaRocca, vice president of loss prevention for the National Retail Federation, a trade group. "Over the past year, they have taken a fresh approach."
Kathleen Tierney, director of the Natural Hazards Center and professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said the focus on partnerships is part of a broader trend toward government contracting for services ranging from defense to electricity. (The executives working at FEMA's coordination center remain on their own company payrolls.)
"We've moved beyond a sort of 20th-century concept of government that focuses on what public agencies do and more to a concept of government that emphasizes relationships," she said. "This is simply a recognition of the way that the world has changed."
FEMA officials said that they reached out to the retail industry first because it provides critical goods to residents during a disaster but that they are hoping to work with leaders from other industries, too. An executive from Target launched the program in November, and a representative from discount retailer Big Lots is slated to take her place this month.
On a recent morning, Katie Dempsey, senior assets protection investigator at Target, blasted e-mails to her contacts at retailers across the country as a major snowstorm prepared to strike the Midwest and Northeast. She wanted to know how many stores were closed in the affected regions.
The answers began trickling into her inbox: Three SuperValu stores near King of Prussia, Pa., were out of power. Lowe's had 11 stores closed, but they could reopen later in the day. One store remained open because its skylight allowed in the daylight.
The information is compiled into a map under a test program that FEMA officials hope will eventually show the status of major retailers' stores across the country. Dempsey shares other data with liaisons from other government agencies who sit next to her in FEMA's emergency coordination center.
"You get up and literally walk over to their desk," she said. "My position helps to open that two-way dialogue."
FEMA's private-sector office also asked retailers to participate in National Preparedness Month last September, prompting Target to sell disaster kits using a list of products from FEMA, Dempsey said. A FEMA representative is scheduled to give a talk at a retail industry trade group meeting next month. And retailers will be more involved in the agency's annual simulated disaster training.
"Retailers play a significant role, not only in response during a crisis, but in preparedness, so that communities can get back on their feet sooner rather than later," said Lisa LaBruno, vice president of loss prevention and legal affairs at the Retail Industry Leaders Association, a trade group. "It's an incomplete solution if you don't have retailers."