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Post-Sandy Analysis Reveals Challenges, Successes for FEMA

A shortage of trained, experienced personnel and the inability to integrate approaches established by the National Response Framework (NRF) were just a few of the problems the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said it experienced in its response to Superstorm Sandy, which ravaged the East Coast in October of 2012. But the agency’s use of information technology to coordinate relief efforts and assist survivors was a notable success.

Sandy left more than 8.5 million customers without power, caused tens of billions of dollars in damage, and killed at least 162 people. The agency’s administrator, Craig Fugate, directed the establishment of the Sandy Analysis Team to evaluate its performance in preparing for and responding to the storm, the results of which were published in July of this year in the Hurricane Sandy FEMA After-Action Report[1].

The 44-page document outlines a number of areas in which FEMA demonstrated strengths in preparation for Sandy, including its pre-deployment of over 900 FEMA personnel before the storm hit, activating the National Response Coordination Center, and deploying its six Mobile Emergency Response System detachments to key states on the East Coast. As the paper points out, “prior regional catastrophic planning coordination between FEMA and the impacted states facilitated these decisions.” The agency also positioned 165 ambulances and medical teams and deployed nine National Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces.

FEMA’s use of an online crisis management system, WebEOC, also proved to be one of the agency’s strong points during Sandy. This online platform helped to coordinate response efforts by facilitating information sharing among FEMA and federal personnel involved in disaster response. WebEOC was used for “multiple activities, including supporting resource requests from the field, coordinating Energy Restoration Task Force activities, maintaining situational awareness, monitoring and tracking national hurricane plan tasks, and tracking assistance delivered to survivors.” The report says that Sandy was one of the first implementations of the WebEOC system, and that more than 60 percent of personnel using the system rated it as “effective” or “very effective.”

Despite pre-deployment of staff, when Sandy made landfall personnel issues quickly rose to the surface as one of the biggest challenges for the agency. The report points out that Sandy “revealed challenges in FEMA’s ability to deploy sufficient numbers of credentialed personnel for a large incident.” For example, more than 1,700 Community Relations Specialists were sent to affected communities, but a lack of training led to confusion about responsibilities and proper procedure. In fact, many staff “had only taken a three-hour training course,” while “half had no prior disaster experience.” This, in turn, caused frustration among residents who were being visited by community relations staff multiple times before actually receiving resources, according to the report.

Restoration to infrastructure was also a major obstacle for FEMA after Sandy, as massive power and fuel outages plagued the affected communities. FEMA did carry out the President’s mandate of establishing an Energy Restoration Task Force, and deployed the largest number ever of power restoration workers (over 70,000). The task force also coordinated with the Department of Defense to disburse 9.3 million gallons of fuel in New York and New Jersey for first responders. But the report points out a difficulty in coordinating support functions to support infrastructure recovery, citing that these teams had “adopted a more department-centric approach to response operations, rather than the integrated functional approach” prescribed by the NRF.

The report notes that in terms of coordinating relief for affected persons, FEMA experienced success with informational tools. The agency provided a “Check Your Home” mobile application for survivors who were unable to return to their homes, which allowed them to enter their address and view aerial imagery of their residences. FEMA also coordinated with Google to distribute a map showing the results of damage assessments conducted by volunteers, who used information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Civil Air Patrol. That effort was facilitated by an organization called the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap.

The paper outlines several steps that have already been taken in response to areas identified as needing improvement, including the establishment of a Continuous Improvement Working Group, which first met in February of this year, and an update to FEMA’s Incident Management Handbook in January “to clarify command relationships across its numerous field structures and enhance coordination with state, local, territorial, and tribal partners.”

Additionally, Congress passed the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act of 2013 in January, and FEMA is working to implement the changes outlined by the legislation. As FEMA administrator Craig Fugate writes in a letter accompanying the report, “We still do not go big enough, fast enough, or smart enough…. Now is the time to refocus on our FEMA mission and ask how—in each and everything we do – we can more efficiently and effectively meet the needs of disaster survivors.”