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Emergency Management Lessons: What Can We Learn from Recent Hurricanes?

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By Randall Hanifen
Contributor, EDM Digest

Numerous record hurricanes this year provided lessons to emergency managers, enabling them to determine what worked and what needs improvement. For example, Harvey hit Texas, Irma hit Florida and Maria hit Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Texas experienced significant flooding and Florida took a near miss in terms of the expected storm track and hurricane damage. Puerto Rico and other U.S. Virgin Islands experienced devastation on a scale almost beyond imagination.

From these events, we can draw lessons in preparation and response that will allow us to improve emergency response and coordination in a number of ways. While there are many political drivers related to any analysis in today’s society, emergency managers should focus less on politics and more on capturing great achievements and finding ways to improve performance.

Using the Whole Community Concept for Disaster Recovery

Involving the whole community paid dividends in each of the hurricanes. Because the local community is always present at every disaster, it serves the community best to be involved in response and recovery.

After Harvey, the Cajun Navy rescued numerous individuals in need of rescue. Although first responders could have reached hurricane victims given enough time, willing citizens made it easier for those rescued to more quickly receive the help they needed.

Accurate tracking and accountability makes the best use of all personnel, especially local, state, and federal responders who have a limited amount of specialized equipment and training that must be used in the proper places to ensure the greatest efficiency. Although Puerto Rico engaged its whole community, that community was limited to the island and to people who lost as much as hurricane victims.

The whole community concept will not work well if first responders lending help are already in need of help themselves. This fact is one of the considerations and limitations of a great concept.

Florida Evacuation Provides Lessons in Damage and Injury Avoidance

Florida conducted wide-scale evacuations in many areas, including the Tampa/Clearwater area. While Hurricane Irma did not produce the damage that was envisioned during the days leading up to the event, the evacuation potentially saved lives.

Reporters asked Tampa's mayor, Bob Buckhorn, if he prematurely evacuated the city and if it was the right decision.  Fortunately, Buckhorn stood up to this Monday morning quarterback type of questioning and said we should envision the loss of lives if the storm had followed the predicted path and there were no evacuations.

Early and complete evacuations are vitally important to success. If an evacuation is not feasible, then structures must be built to fully withstand major storms. For Puerto Rico, a large-scale evacuation would have been helpful, but evacuating everyone was impossible considering that Puerto Rico is an island and the nearest mainland is a considerable distance away.

Coordination and Logistics Lessons from Hurricane Katrina

Coordination and logistics continue to be the biggest success points related to disaster response. The ability to move emergency management requests, declaration and coordination from one level of government to the next is still a top priority.

During Katrina, the local government was unaware of the need to move the requests through the state's system to the federal government. Also, they did not understand how to convey the information necessary to ensure a disaster area declaration from the federal government.

It is all about the declaration process and proving the need for assistance. If emergency management is unfamiliar with the process and do not know who they will interact with prior to and during disasters, that creates problems.

Federal agency personnel do not magically appear on one's doorstep. It is vital for emergency managers to build plans, train people, conduct practice exercises and revise those exercises to improve performance. Most importantly, emergency managers must interact with federal agencies before disasters occur.

Improvement Also Needed for Air Transportation Logistics and Coordination

Logistics continue to hamper response operations, especially when norms are changed and air transportation is needed.  While we have seen vast improvements in recent years, there are still many emergency managers who do not understand the air transportation system and its operation. They are often placed in roles that are way out of their league.

Air transportation is best left to military forces, because the military has clear orders of whom they answer to regarding mission needs. For emergency managers, this is a hard practice to follow, as the military usually answers only to themselves.

Coordinating with the military on air transportation is a policy and training point that still needs work. But in recent times (a span of where people working today would have been employed in the same agency), there hasn't been such a large need of air logistics during a disaster.

Learning Lessons Now Helps Communities and Future Emergency Managers

In comparison to Katrina and similar disasters, the response and recovery to Harvey, Irma and Maria were well above these lows in emergency management. But as we begin to write after action reports and determine what areas to improve, we owe it to the citizens and future generations of emergency management to fully understand any failures and work to fix errors. We will only be as good as we desire to be.

Start an Emergency & Disaster Management Degree at American Military University.

Randall Hanifen Dr. Hanifen serves as a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area. Randall is the CEO/principal consultant of an emergency services consulting firm, providing analysis and solutions related to organizational structuring of fire and EMS organizations. He is the chairperson and operations manager for a county technical rescue team. from a state and national perspective, he serves as a taskforce leader for one of FEMA's urban search and rescue teams, which responds to presidential declared disasters. From an academic standpoint, Randall has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctoral degree in business administration with a specialization in homeland security. He is the associate author of “Disaster Planning and Control” (Penwell, 2009), which provides first responders with guidance through all types of disasters.