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FEMA insights from a departing chief of staff

Jason McNamara served as FEMA’s chief of staff for the past four years, helping the agency deal with disasters that included this month’s massive twister in Oklahoma, the BP oil spill, the Joplin tornado, and hurricanes Irene and Sandy.

On Friday, McNamara will leave the agency to work as a consultant with Obsidian Analysis, a firm that helps decision-makers navigate the FEMA, national security and intelligence bureaucracies — ethics rules prohibit him from involvement in deals with the Department of Homeland Security.

McNamara, who served as the top aide to FEMA administrator William Craig Fugate, shared some of his insights into the agency during an interview this week with the Federal Eye.

First things first, the departing chief of staff said FEMA expects damages from the Oklahoma tornado to amount to less than $500 million, based on early estimates from the insurance industry. The agency still had nearly $12 billion remaining in its disaster relief fund before the storm struck.

Former FEMA chief of staff Jason McNamara. (FEMA). Former FEMA chief of staff Jason McNamara. (FEMA).

McNamara said FEMA has already delivered about $4 million in individual assistance to victims of the recent tornado.

In terms of how FEMA has changed during his tenure, McNamara said the agency has worked to strengthen its partnerships with state and local partners, having recognized from past events that preparing and harnessing those resources are critical to speedy recovery efforts.

“What I’ve learned is that the federal government can’t solve every problem, and that the best way to address that is to build the capabilities of your partners — the private sector, the media, volunteer groups, and all the folks that understand the affected communities,”  McNamara said. “You have to bring everyone to the table and make it more of a team thing instead of a chain-of-command thing.”

One of the more difficult tests for FEMA in recent years came after Hurricane Sandy, which caused widespread power outages that tested the agencies capabilities.

McNamara admitted that the agency did not anticipate the extent of the problems that would arise. “The sheer magnitude of the power outages and the number of people affected overwhelmed our ability to respond the way we like to,” he said. “We got resources out there quickly, but we didn’t anticipate and were not fully prepared for some of the things that happened.”

Nonetheless, McNamara said FEMA implemented some innovative solutions and learned valuable lessons from that event, including how to quickly identify areas worst-affected and dividing impacted regions into manageable sectors.

McNamara also said the agency was able to test new approaches designed to knock down barriers to aid. “Before, it was a matter of making the disaster fit the programs as defined by law,” he said. “We’ve in many cases turned that around. You don’t want to make the survivor fit into the program. You want to work with the programs to meet the needs of the survivors and the affected communities.”

FEMA also adopted new methods for estimating disaster damages after Sandy, adopting an approach more in line with insurance-industry standards, according to McNamara. In the past, the agency developed myriad policies as it responded to criticism, and it ultimately had trouble following its own guidelines.

“It became unwieldy,” McNamara said.

Natural disasters have a tendency to turn political as elected officials try to protect their reputations and assure constituents that they have the situations under control. McNamara suggested neither party has proven itself immune to pointing fingers when discontentment arises.

“It’s political, but it’s nonpartisan political,” McNamara said. “Governors recognize it as a defining moment of their tenure, and they don’t want to get blamed when something goes wrong.”

McNamara added that the federal government often ends up as a scapegoat in those situations. “No one is afraid to beat up the federal government,” he said.

(In 2009, the watchdog group Project On Government Oversight raised concerns about McNamara’s role with FEMA due to his previous role as a former senior official with a firm that had done $1.3 billion in business with the agency.)

For more federal news, visit The Federal Eye, The Fed Page and Post Politics. To connect with Josh Hicks, follow his Twitter feed, friend his Facebook page or e-mail josh.hicks@washpost.comE-mail with news tips and other suggestions.

Josh Hicks covers Maryland politics and government. He previously anchored the Post’s Federal Eye blog, focusing on federal accountability and workforce issues.

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