By Dr. Randall Hanifen
About two weeks ago, Hurricane Ian slammed through the Caribbean, Florida and South Carolina, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. Although no hurricane is good and many people lost everything due to high winds and flooding caused by Ian, all levels of government were prepared for this disaster and ready to send assistance.
With Florida’s governor sending immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard just weeks prior to Hurricane Ian, there was a good chance that Florida politics could interfere with disaster recovery. Instead, we witnessed good interaction between local governments, the state of Florida and the Federal Management Emergency Agency (FEMA).
Coordinated Disaster Response Is No Accident
When Hurricane Katrina unfolded in 2005, the disaster response was a complete debacle due to several factors, including the actions of various government agencies from New Orleans and the federal government. The 9/11 attacks had occurred just four years earlier, and FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had sworn to overhaul disaster response using the lessons learned from 9/11.
This time, Florida cities ordered evacuations before Hurricane Ian struck and were prepared to meet their citizens’ needs. Tragically, some residents chose to stay rather than evacuate and lost their lives.
Once the storm passed, local responders began to triage areas affected by Hurricane Ian and request the necessary help. This effort was assisted by emergency declarations that were made as Hurricane Ian grew stronger. These declarations allowed the pre-deployment of resources, such as federal Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) teams, as well as other response and recovery teams and equipment.
The pre-deployment of resources ensured that teams and equipment from Ohio and Indiana would be in Florida within a couple of hours after the storm, as opposed to a day or two away. This action was a provision of the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act, possibly one of the best items of legislation ever passed.
Once local responders hit communities to triage what areas needed help, local Emergency Operations Centers were able to collect information and relay it to the state Emergency Operations Center. Since the emergency declarations had already occurred, Florida could have easily ordered more resources from the federal government. However, Florida’s state and local resources provided much of the disaster response.
Also, the same Florida US&R system that responded to the Surfside condo collapse disaster was put into action to help Floridians recover from Hurricane Ian. In presentations made after the Surfside event, the US&R coordinator for the state noted their successes and described areas to improve, including some logistical support.
Ensuring Your Community Is Prepared for Major Disasters Like Hurricane Ian
To properly respond to disasters like Hurricane Ian, an investment in time and money is the key to disaster recovery. However, there are various areas of emergency management that need this investment.
The first area is program development. Emergency managers should have written plans that are validated regularly. Often, disaster response plans are written and look good in someone’s office, but they fail to work when they are put into action. Testing and honesty about how well the plans work are crucial.
Second, it is necessary to invest in US&R, incident management and medical programs. Unfortunately, this investment is hard to maintain, because cuts appear during every budget season.
Because many states are fortunate not to have regular, large-scale disasters, these types of programs can be seen by decision makers as excessive or unnecessary. Even if they viewed as necessary, legislators often reduce funding to disaster programs to pay for other programs. Ensuring that you have champions among decision makers for these valuable programs helps ensure they are not minimalized and underfunded.
Third, first responders need proper training. My fire department has people on local, state, and federal US&R teams, as well as local, state, and national incident management teams. While our organization must handle the overtime and deployment costs and then file for reimbursement, we have loyally participated on these teams since 2002.
Additionally, our personnel return from disaster recovery efforts with a plethora of experience, which can then be passed to other first responders. Furthermore, we ensure that our first responder systems are reviewed annually, in addition to the required National Incident Management System (NIMS) training and the training and testing of our Emergency Operations Plan.
Fourth, the purchase and maintenance of the equipment needed to conduct response operations is important. Without the proper equipment to perform disaster response and recovery, most first responders are just overcompensated spectators. A balance of good people, trained well, with the proper equipment is what is needed for every situation from an everyday fire to a major disaster like Hurricane Ian.
Success in Disaster Response Requires Both Preparation and Dedication
Success in responding to disasters such as Hurricane Ian only happens due to years of preparation and dedication to appropriate programs. As the saying goes, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” I wish all of the affected residents and visitors of Florida a speedy recovery and hats off to all of the first responders involved in helping others recover from Hurricane Ian.