Hurricane Katrina was a tale of three disasters. The first was natural, a violent storm that devastated the Gulf Coast. The second was man-made, the catastrophic failure of levees protecting New Orleans. Together, these disasters killed more than 1,800 people and displaced half a million families. Damages ran into the billions, and the recovery continues even now.
The third was also man-made, and the most maddening: the failure of preparation, logistics, and action at every level. The Federal Emergency Management Agency drew widespread criticism for a slow, disorganized response that bordered on incompetence, and its poor communication and coordination with local and state authorities.
If such a disaster occurred today, FEMA insists it would respond swiftly and efficiently. It points to the leadership of Craig Fugate, whom President Obama tapped to head the agency in 2009. Fugate, unlike his much-maligned predecessor Michael Brown, is a former director of the Florida Emergency Management Division and has extensive experience managing disasters responses, particularly hurricanes.
No less importantly, FEMA has embraced key reforms, not the least of which is the authority to act immediately. Until 10 years ago, the agency had to await a governor’s request for federal aid before jumping in.
“One of the most important improvements we’ve made came as a result of congressional action to authorize FEMA to deploy resources to states before a presidential declaration request has even been made,” says Ted Okada, the agency’s chief technology officer. “If FEMA believes that a situation will require a presidential disaster declaration, we’re now authorized to expend funds out of the Stafford Act to prepare. By pre-staging resources such as water, generators, and staff, we’re able to faster mobilize response efforts.”
FEMA hasn’t faced a test quite like Katrina, but its ability to move quickly has changed how it responds. Even before Hurricane Sandy pummeled New York in October, 2012, FEMA deployed truckloads of food, water, generators and other supplies. Some 900 employees were standing by, primed to provide any assistance once the storm made landfall.
A post-Sandy audit by the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees FEMA, gave the agency top marks. “FEMA prepared well for this disaster, overcame operational and staffing challenges, quickly resolved resource shortfalls, made efficient disaster sourcing decisions, and coordinated its activities effectively with State and local officials,” concluded the report. State and local officials, including New Jersey governor Chris Christie and New York senator Chuck Schumer offered similarly positive reviews.
The change in attitude and policy proved instrumental in setting FEMA on a new course. But technology played an equally important, if somewhat less obvious, role in how the agency and its counterparts at the state and local level, prepare for and respond to a crisis. These changes run the gamut from a comprehensive smartphone app to broader adoption of drones and robots.
The agency’s embrace of new tech prompted it to formalize the role of CTO, consolidating roles held by various people before Okada came aboard. It was a wise move, given how quickly things have changed in the past decade. When Katrina hit, social media was in its infancy, people still got a lot of their news from television and radio, and Blackberry and Razr phones were state of the art. These days, 40 percent of Americans use their phones to access government services, and 68 percent of them use phones to keep track of breaking news events, according to the Pew Research Center.
“FEMA must be able to reach at-risk populations that get their information from Twitter and Facebook,” Okada says. “We use social media as a platform to get information out, but also engage in widely distributed conversations. Better situational awareness allows us to improve decision making, leading to better survivor outcomes.”
According to FEMA, the app has been downloaded more than 200,000 times since it launched in 2011, and the organization has hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter and Facebook. Social media played a larger role than ever helping FEMA and local organizations communicate to residents during Hurricane Sandy. To combat false information on Twitter during the storm and its aftermath, FEMA created a “Rumor Control” page and has done the same during more recent emergencies.
At the state level, disaster-response teams also are embracing social media. Bryan Koon, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, says the agency has streamlined statewide communications during events and created a two-way street of communication.