In the wake of a disaster, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) plays a critical role in meeting the needs of affected populations in the United States. Consider Tropical Storm Irene, a major disaster that hit the East Coast in September 2011. In response, FEMA approved more than $16 million in assistance for individuals and families within the first month. Services included low-interest loans for homeowners, renters and businesses; grants for flooded basements; unemployment assistance; legal services; and well and septic system repair.

evacuationrouteThe challenge, however, is that regardless of the size of the disaster, some affected individuals do not meet eligibility requirements for government disaster aid—and still others will have unmet needs even after receiving federal and/or state assistance. As FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate has said, “There’s no way government can solve the challenges of a disaster with a government-centric approach. It takes the whole team. And the private sector provides the bulk of the services every day in the community.”

FEMA is the government agency charged with supporting U.S. citizens and first responders “to ensure that as a nation we work together to build, sustain, and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from, and mitigate all hazards.” FEMA’s emergency support functions (ESFs) range from transportation and communications to logistics management and public safety and security. But effective disaster preparedness requires more than FEMA alone can provide.

Key Facts

  • FEMA, in the words of at least one disaster expert, is not a sole power supply. Rather, it is like an extension cord—and therefore, must have something to plug into. The agency works best as a public-private partnership, with shared best practices, established protocols, joint training and preparation, shared situational analysis, and the full awareness of area resources.
  • FEMA works only at the request of the state government. The governor of the affected state must make a formal application for help, either for an emergency or more severe major disaster.  The governor may request disaster relief for individuals, for the restoration of public systems and facilities, or for matching mitigation funds to reduce the area’s future vulnerability. But affected populations—especially in rural areas—will need help, perhaps sooner than federal assistance is available.
  • Inclusive planning is needed. Though disaster preparedness efforts are essential in mitigating damage, too often the focus is on the able-bodied, teaching them what to do to be “ready.” Assistance also must be given to non-governmental agencies that work with marginalized populations to ensure, for example, those who would need portable oxygen in the case of an incident are identified and cared for, or the number of people in a certain area that might need public transportation is accurately known.

How You Can Help

Remember that private dollars are generally more agile than public ones with disaster relief. As such, donors can complement FEMA efforts through the following strategies:

  • Support inclusive planning efforts. Offer grants, for example, for disaster-preparedness training and programs that specifically incorporate plans for vulnerable populations.
  • Build the capacity of intermediary agencies such as healthcare providers and food banks that already work with vulnerable populations. Shoring up their ability to meet needs before a disaster will help reduce exacerbation of those needs when disaster strikes.
  • Be a connector. Create opportunities for private and public representatives to form relationships and share resources, ideas, skills, and capacities before a disaster hits.
  • Provide post-disaster expedited loans and grants for small businesses. Currently, federal loans to help small businesses recover from disasters are capped at $1.5 million.  That may not be enough—and it may take too long for that assistance to arrive to be most effective in stimulating recovery.
  • Fund public awareness and other campaigns. Foster conversations at the community level about available services, limitations, and preparedness to overcome distrust of government assistance.

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