Overhauling Relief Logistics

Overhauling Relief Logistics

By all measures, Hurricane Katrina was the largest natural disaster that FEMA has ever been called upon to support. Although FEMA pre-positioned significant numbers of personnel, assets and resources before the hurricane made landfall, we now know its capabilities were simply overwhelmed by the magnitude of this storm.

One of the first things we must do is to re-tool FEMA and enhance this vital agency's capabilities so that it can fulfill its historic and critical mission supporting response and recovery.

FEMA must be better prepared to deal with all stages of a truly catastrophic event like Katrina. For the vast majority of natural disasters, FEMA's current capabilities are sufficient to handle the needs of affected populations. We saw this in 2004 when FEMA responded to a record 68 major disasters, including 27 hurricane-related disasters in 15 states.

But with Katrina, these capabilities were pushed beyond the breaking point. FEMA must be prepared to anticipate both short-term and long-term needs of impacted communities.

That includes having housing plans already in place for feeding and sheltering in excess of 500,000 evacuees, improving our system for rapid distribution of emergency funds, working with federal partners to develop effective anti-fraud measures, and having debris removal plans in place so that supplies are not held up because of impassible roads and so communities can more quickly begin rebuilding and repopulating impacted areas. State and local governments will need to have full awareness of how these capabilities link up with their efforts.

In Katrina, FEMA faced challenges in having full situational awareness of where the needs were greatest, getting supplies into affected areas, and tracking shipments of supplies to ensure that they reached the people who need them.

In all of these areas, we want to strengthen FEMA not just for its own sake, but so that we are more effective at helping our state and local partners better respond to and recover from catastrophic events. In strengthening FEMA, our goal is to keep authority at the state and local level, where it belongs.

 

There are four specific areas where we would like to enhance FEMA's capabilities in the short-term.

First, FEMA's system for moving supplies into a disaster area is not adequate for catastrophic events. Many parts of it are antiquated and inefficient. We must more effectively partner with the public and private sectors and tap into their expertise to overhaul our logistics system within FEMA.

We want to learn from and emulate successful distribution and delivery systems, such as major private sector shipping firms and public sector experts in the Department of Defense. FEMA needs to have a "just-in-time" inventory and delivery system that allows it to quickly assess inventory, deliver those goods, and replenish its stocks.

With regard to FEMA's business processes, we need to ensure that FEMA has an effective operations plan in place to perform many of its key disaster assistance functions: answering the phone, registering people for assistance, and getting them the benefits they need. We need to strengthen FEMA's management of the toll-free disaster registration hotline, including figuring out ways to rapidly expand call center capabilities in the event of a major catastrophe.

We also need to evaluate FEMA's disaster registration processes and databases to make sure we have a high degree of confidence in those systems. We want to have the flexibility to use that information to provide a level of granular detail that enables us to make informed decisions about where to focus our attention and resources and how to better assist our state and local partners.

FEMA's traditional disaster registration model, which encourages people to come to a fixed location to register for and receive aid, does not hold up when such a vast area is affected by a catastrophic event. One solution may be to have the ability to surge more people more quickly and dispersed more broadly in a disaster area - teams with the necessary training, equipment, and resources to operate in difficult circumstances.

We also need to ensure that FEMA has mature, solid contracting and procurement systems in place before a disaster - and that those systems include a special focus on procurement integrity.

Sufficient communications capabilities must also be in place and able to function during the worst phases of a hurricane or incident. The sheer force of Hurricane Katrina disabled many of the communications systems that state and local authorities and first responders rely upon to communicate with each other and with FEMA. This was not an issue of interoperability, but of basic operability resulting from wind, flooding, loss of power, and other damage to infrastructure.

In the future, FEMA must have its own increased communications capability so we do not face a similar situation. While satellite phones are helpful, they are not a panacea. We are looking at ways to adapt military and advanced private sector communication technology for emergency use - to help state and local first responders as well as FEMA support personnel.

Excerpted from Chertoff's Oct. 19 testimony before the House Select Committee on government response to Hurricane Katrina.