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New FEMA initiative puts federal response teams in place before disaster strikes

Rescue teams head to Mexico Beach, Fla. to assist and evacuate residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael’s devastation. (Video: Jon Gerberg/The Washington Post)
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As Hurricane Florence’s destructive winds dropped over North Carolina’s coast last month, a call for help came into the state’s Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh, the nerve center of the official response. The swift water rescue crews were hampered in their efforts to reach people stranded by the storm because they didn’t have the communication equipment they needed.

Sometimes, responses to such requests are delayed by state and federal bureaucracies learning to work together on the fly. But in this case, FEMA staffer David Musick knew where to find the needed satellite phones and which state employee could distribute the 200 devices. He got up and jogged across the building where he has been working alongside state emergency workers for the past few months, and set the process in motion.

“Once they knew where to go, where to sign off and where to find them, it went very quickly,” Musick said.

It was a small success story in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s most recent effort to overcome the challenges responders face as they navigate separate state and federal systems. Musick is part of an initiative that the agency launched this year, embedding a small group of FEMA employees in state agencies full time to create a more seamless response.

The one-two punch from hurricanes Florence and Michael in North Carolina were the first major test since the initiative started there in April.

The FEMA Integration Teams, or FITs, now exist in five states — Oregon, Tennessee, Indiana and Virginia, in addition to North Carolina.

The Florida FIT team was not in place to help prepare for Michael, but is expected to be staffed later this year, along with four others.

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Dove Rest RV Park in Marianna, Fla. was left in shambles after Hurricane Michael hit. Neighbors say no city personnel has shown up to assist with the damage. (Video: Whitney Leaming, Melissa Macaya/The Washington Post)

The strategy reflects a philosophical shift for the federal agency. FEMA officials have long said that the agency is not supposed to act as the first responder. Now, the FIT teams are there before disaster happens to help create efficiencies between state and federal systems, while still encouraging each state to develop its own “culture of preparedness.

“We will talk to, and learn from, each other during blue sky days, not just when disaster strikes,” FEMA chief William “Brock” Long said at an April gathering in Raleigh, surrounded by many of the same state and regional officials who were at his side five months later as he coordinated the response to Florence.

The innovation came as the agency faced criticism for its handling of disasters in the past year, including Hurricane Maria, which prompted a chaotic response after it hit Puerto Rico in September 2017. More disaster survivors registered for assistance because of the 2017 disasters — ranging from California wildfires to hurricanes — than in the previous 10 years combined, according to FEMA’s after-action report.

A Government Accountability Office “performance audit” released last month found that “FEMA’s available workforce was overwhelmed by the response needs,” which often placed staffers in positions for which they were not prepared. FEMA staff deployed to Puerto Rico “were not physically able to handle the extreme or austere environment of the territories.”

The new initiative is designed to streamline the logistical challenges that abound when a federal team flies into a state emergency operations center right before a disaster.

“There is always that period of start-up,” said Don Riley, former deputy commander of the Army Corps of Engineers, who worked with FEMA in many natural disaster responses. “There’s a lot of anxiety, getting to know people and processes and who even sits where. When the storm hits, the action really goes fast.”

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A top priority for the new FEMA embeds is to get to know the state and its resources, allowing them to activate faster in an emergency, said Jordan Rink, a member of the FEMA FIT team in North Carolina. He was deployed to the city of Kinston on the Neuse River at one of the state’s regional coordination centers before Florence came ashore. Rink said his knowledge of the local geography, personnel and processes helped once the storm struck.

The team members could be involved in various parts of emergency management, from streamlining the immediate response to disaster mitigation or the distribution of aid after the crisis has passed.

North Carolina, the FEMA chief’s home state, received the first team of embeds. Long has long-standing contacts with state staffers and North Carolina’s sophisticated resources, including its Flood Inundation Mapping and Alert Network, an online system that provides in-the-moment rainfall and flood information.

“If I can model this state and take it across the country, I would do that,” Long said at a briefing after Florence landed.

While the FIT teams are new and still being tested, Rink and Musick said they believe the incremental steps they took in North Carolina helped produce a more efficient response to Florence.

“If you are saving 30 seconds or a minute every 10 or 15 minutes, it adds up during the day,” Rink said.