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Getting Better Every Time: Learning From Past Disasters

DATE: April 2, 2013

By Ken Burris
CEO, Witt O’Brien’s

Why keep looking back at past events? Why dwell on damage done instead of just looking forward?

The fact is we learn how best to move forward by assessing our past actions, particularly when it comes to disaster preparedness and recovery.

Has the way we handle disasters changed in recent years?

The simple answer is yes. To illustrate the major changes in emergency management, it is easiest to compare the handling of Hurricane Katrina to Hurricane Sandy.

Hurricane Katrina, still known as one of the deadliest and most destructive Atlantic hurricanes in the last 100 years, hit land in August 2005. Whether you were directly impacted by the storm or just followed the news coverage, everyone was aware of the extent of the damage. There was one silver lining to this tragic storm: emergency management reform.

Hurricane Katrina allowed the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to assess where improvements were needed in the emergency management system. This realization led to the Post-Katrina Emergency Reform Act of 2006 (PKEMRA).

What is PKEMRA?

On October 4, 2006, President George W. Bus signed the PKEMRA into law to be enacted on March 31, 2007. This act amended the Homeland Security Act (HSA) and the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (the Stafford Act). PKEMRA enhanced FEMA’s responsibilities and authority to address many issues realized during Katrina.

The act aimed to strengthen the department’s ability to prevent, prepare for, protect against, respond to and recover from hazardous threats. PKEMRA was the first time Congress formally defined the mission and responsibilities of FEMA. Among the more significant mandates in the act:  

  • Formally established FEMA as a distinct entity within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
  • Directed the head of FEMA, now called the Administrator, to lead all federal efforts related to the newly defined mission of the agency
  • Reformed FEMA’s response and logistics capabilities

Additionally, the act defined FEMA’s role to collaborate with non-federal entities and partners including non-profit organizations and private companies. This means non-federal entities can aid in emergency management before, during and after a disaster strikes.  

Did these changes make a difference during Hurricane Sandy?

When Hurricane Sandy was approaching shore in October 2012, some of the changes implemented following Hurricane Katrina became apparent. Federal support successfully pre-positioned and mobilized supplies and equipment in preparation for Hurricane Sandy. The coordination between states and FEMA was vastly improved compared to seven years earlier and logistics supply chains were more transparent. But federal emergency management is still not perfect.

Hurricane Sandy has helped to point out a few areas that could still use some work. The National Disaster Recovery Strategy mandated under PKEMRA is still very young and has not been perfected yet. Also, FEMA’s disaster recovery programs and housing disaster programs are still difficult to navigate.

Overall, PKEMRA made significant strides in establishing FEMA as the emergency management agency it is today. But perfection is hard to come by and there are always improvements to be made. Now we have to look for the lessons learned from Super Storm Sandy that will probably help to improve national disaster recovery for the future.  Interested in learning more? Follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook or connect with us on LinkedIn.

Witt O’Brien’s is a global leader in preparedness, crisis management and disaster response and recovery, committed to controlling the outcome and focused on finding solutions. Witt O’Brien’s professionals have extensive experience providing services along the entire disaster life cycle and are uniquely positioned to bring together leaders from all levels of government and private sector partners.

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