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Illustration by Michael Waraksa

After Hurricanes Tested Capabilities, Mass Care Organizations Regroup

More than 28 million people were affected by three catastrophic hurricanes—Harvey, Irma, and Maria—that made landfall in the United States within a four-week time period in 2017. These storms caused a combined $265 billion in damage, according to the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and their effects continue to ripple through the affected regions, especially in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The flooding, property damage, and infrastructure failures caused by the storms forced many people out of their homes; those displaced people required shelter, food, water, and other supplies. FEMA and the American Red Cross are the primary agencies responsible for coordinating mass care relief during federal disaster responses within the United States and its territories, but the size, scope, and frequency of recent natural disasters are pushing the agencies to reevaluate their preparedness and partnerships.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reviewed FEMA and Red Cross responses to the 2017 hurricanes in a 2019 report, Disaster Response: FEMA and the American Red Cross Need to Ensure Key Mass Care Organizations are Included in Coordination and Planning. The report found that the two agencies benefited from locating key mass care partners—such as the Salvation Army and the Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD)—in their state and local emergency operations centers. This co-location enhanced interagency cooperation and contributed to ongoing relationship building between the partners.

“Co-location meant workers could communicate face-to-face, as key partners needed to collaborate and communicate resource requests to FEMA and other agencies,” the GAO report said. This type of collaboration was critical, especially when power and cell phone services were out. It was particularly acute in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, which experienced prolonged power outages following the 2017 hurricane season.

“As noted in the GAO report, co-location of staff enhances interagency collaboration by contributing to relationship-building,” says a FEMA spokesperson in a statement to Security Management. “This in turn facilitates the communication and coordination of mass care services. FEMA’s National Response Coordination Center (NRCC) is a multiagency center that coordinates the overall federal support for major incidents, including major natural disasters. The NRCC coordinates with the affected region(s) and provides resources and policy guidance in support of the incident. Emergency Operations Centers are physical locations where emergency information and resource coordination occurs. These Emergency Operations Centers are primarily staffed by state and/or local partners.”

“A true benefit of co-location is the real-time collaboration that happens, particularly when communications are down,” says Katherine Galifianakis, senior director of response services for the American Red Cross. “During those times together, we’re able to do data sharing and information sharing, which is critical to get situational awareness around that response.

“Having that in-person time together allows for task forces—like sheltering, feeding, and reunification—to convene and problem-solve around specific issues related to that disaster relief operation,” she adds.

A FEMA liaison is currently present in the Red Cross disaster relief headquarters, and a Red Cross liaison is stationed in the NRCC, Galifianakis says. By including representatives from key mass care partners in emergency operations centers, response teams can quickly collect food inventories, supply trucks, high-water vehicles, and boats.

During Hurricane Harvey, for ex­ample, the Red Cross had a difficult time getting adequate personnel and supplies to key locations in Texas, Galifianakis says. However, by being in the same room as other government agencies responding to the disaster, Red Cross staff were able to partner with the right stakeholders to get resources moved to where they were needed.

Despite the successes of the 2017 emergency response, the GAO found gaps in planning and capabilities. In particular, miscommunication with organizations outside the regular roster of partners led to confusion and lost or damaged supplies. Some perishable baby formula and food remained at a port in Florida several weeks after delivery instead of promptly being distributed, for example.

Unaffiliated organizations that are not formally part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) or FEMA emergency response framework plan, such as churches or community groups, were left in the dark on supply chain coordination, the GAO found.

According to Kathryn Larin, director of education, workforce, and income security at the GAO, smaller organizations did not know how to tap into larger frameworks or response organizations. Although local advocacy groups and faith-based organizations had collected food, water, and supplies, they were unable to easily connect with FEMA or other officials to distribute the donations to disaster victims.

FEMA and the Red Cross could do more to reach out to these smaller organizations in advance of disasters. The agencies already build similar partnerships with local governments and voluntary mass care organizations to educate them about resources, introduce them to information-sharing platforms (such as RC-View from the Red Cross), and learn more about what community intelligence and resources these organizations have to offer, Larin tells Security Management.

“By not engaging in information sharing with unaffiliated organizations, FEMA and the Red Cross may miss opportunities to more accurately and efficiently coordinate mass care,” the GAO report says. “As a result, those in need may not receive critical assistance in a timely way.”

Preexisting agreements with emergency response organizations did not always result in a seamless rollout, however. “When counties did have written agreements with the Red Cross, the agreements did not always clearly define responsibilities,” the GAO report adds. “The agreements also did not specify how and at what point sheltering and feeding needs and capabilities should be communicated by the Red Cross to counties, which exacerbated challenges in providing these services after the hurricanes.” For example, some counties in Florida were surprised when they learned that the Red Cross could support only a few emergency shelters—a substantial decrease from previous years.

“When an agency, government, or organization does not specifically indicate how much shelter and feeding assistance it can provide in a disaster, its partners may have unfounded expectations,” the report continues.

In its response to the GAO’s inquiries, Red Cross officials acknowledged the need to be clearer with local jurisdictions about their capabilities, especially during peak disaster seasons when their services, staff, and resources might be required in multiple response efforts.

Climate change is also forcing agencies to reevaluate emergency response. According to Larin, the increasing scale of storms and disasters is adding to the complexity of emergency response. When multiple disasters hit in rapid succession, there is only one major national disaster workforce available to respond to all events simultaneously. This increases the need to rely on local partners, she says.

In addition to pursuing new partnerships and relationships with local community organizations, the Red Cross is hosting large-scale exercises—including participating in the annual National Mass Care Exercise—to help identify gaps in coverage and response capabilities, especially in tougher, multi-event scenarios. The exercises also help familiarize new and old partners with the latest capabilities and communication methods before a disaster strikes, Galifianakis says.

The GAO concluded its report with a number of recommendations, including having DHS direct FEMA to periodically review the current structure of mass care coordination leadership and roles. It recommended that FEMA develop mechanisms to leverage local community groups to ensure that assistance reaches all survivors; create systematic, documented protocols for follow-up and feedback to partners after an event; and require grantees to solicit information on key mass care service or delivery providers’ capabilities. DHS disagreed with this last recommendation, arguing that being too prescriptive with voluntary organizations could discourage their participation.

The GAO also recommended that “to better clarify what mass care services voluntary organizations can provide, especially for severe or overlapping hurricanes, FEMA should strengthen its guidance to state and local governments to emphasize the importance of clearly defining roles and responsibilities related to mass care.”