The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA was created by order of the president on 1 April 1979 with the main purpose of coordinating disaster response in the United States (E.O. 12127). This is especially true in situations where the scale of the disaster overwhelms the resources of state authorities and they require augmentation from the federal government. In order for FEMA to operate in a given state there must be a state of emergency declared by the governor and a concurrent formal request to the President to deploy FEMA. In addition to its charter role as supporting recovery efforts, FEMA is also involved in the funding of reconstruction efforts with the assistance of the Small Business Administration. Finally, FEMA is also involved in training state level disaster response assets. It is FEMA’s function in assisting reconstruction efforts that will be the main theme of this paper. Specifically, its role in providing recommendations for improvements to the housing program utilized during and after disaster response as well as the pros and cons of using trailers for temporary housing. This paper will also discuss the implications of FEMA’s steps as compared to what we have learned in Disaster Management.
Trailers as temporary housing
The main advantage of using trailer homes is the ease with which they can be deployed. Even prefabricated homes require some assembly, during this period the victims are left in even more rudimentary housing than trailer homes. By comparison a trailer need only be brought to the resettlement area and it is ready for occupancy. Since, in theory, the trailer is only a temporary resettlement its relative lack of creature comforts can be excused. For example, the cramped space of a trailer can be overlooked considering that the alternative is to be completely homeless. As will be mentioned later trailers, of the kind used by FEMA, were said to contain dangerous carcinogens. Given the desperation of the situation of the disaster victims there was little time to test for the presence of the same. Experience taught us that another disadvantage is that because the people were already given temporary housing it reduced the urgency of government agencies in providing for replacement housing during the rebuilding effort.
One of the main criticisms about FEMA’s role in post-disaster resettlement is that it is slow to react to crisis that occur in the resettlement areas. Rick Jervis reported that the Federal Emergency Management Agency didn’t react quickly enough to reports of toxins in trailers housing victims of Hurricane Katrina, endangering the health of thousands of victims across the Gulf Coast, according to a new report by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General (Jervis 2009). The situation includes more than 25,000 such units in Louisiana (Gyan and Shieds, 2008).
According to the report many of those who were provided Trailers as temporary housing suffered from bloody noses, blackouts, headaches and other more severe problems due formaldehyde exposure. Formaldehyde, is a carcinogen which is colorless, strong-smelling and used for the manufacture of building materials.
The accusation was that at the time FEMA did not have a sense of urgency when responding to the significant health risk to the people who were occupying the trailers. Apparently, it took over two years before FEMA admitted the presence of high levels of formaldehyde in the trailers they were providing. Even if there were policy changes to address the matter, these were slow to occur.
FEMA caused a two-month delay in trailer testing in 2007 because it didn’t have a public communications strategy in place for Congress, the media and trailer occupants. The emergency agency didn’t do enough quality control to prevent obtaining the formaldehyde-affected trailers in the first place. FEMA conceded to the OIG report and will implement policy changes to improve air-quality standards in future temporary housing. As of June 2009, almost 3000 trailers are still occupied in the gulf coast by storm victims from the original number of 134,000 when Hurricane Katrina struck. The priority of the agency was to evacuate people from the formaldehyde positive trailers.
After the issue with the carcinogenic homes was settled a fresh criticism arose with respect to the new carcinogen free homes which turned out to be slow to assemble. For example, in 2008 it was reported that while the new trailer homes used are now Formaldehyde free they are slower to deploy. During the recent Hurricane Ike FEMA’s housing deployment rate was 1/10th of what it was during. At certain stages they were delivering houses at a rate of about 50 homes a day.
Part of the problem is the fact that the mobile homes FEMA used in this instance are larger and more comfortable than the travel trailers, but their size makes them more difficult to distribute and install, contributing to delays (SNYDER, 2008). The other part of the problem is that officials in the affected areas were unwilling to allow FEMA temporary housing into their areas because they would give the impression that the town was not rebuilding after the disaster.
Another problem officials had with the resettlement was that they were afraid that the trailer park’s residents would never leave creating a negative image that the area had trailer parks. Regrettably, due to the federal nature of FEMA local politicians find it convenient to lay the blame on FEMA’s door steps (Anonymous, 2008).
A consequence of these recent apparent failures on the part of FEMA there is little faith in its storm plans. In an article written by Stewart Powell for the Houston Chronicle (Powell, 2008) it was alleged that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is still not ready to respond to a Gulf Coast natural disaster akin to Hurricane Katrina despite its success in flooded Midwestern states (Powell, 2008).
The report pointed out that FEMA would have a hard time providing housing in the Midwest and many will be forced to find temporary housing in communities across the country. Officials expect a mass migration similar to what happened when Hurricanes Rita struck.
In response to this FEMA created a new set of plants for how the victims were supposed to find refuge shelters. The new plan called for relocating people whose houses suffered severe damage to the nearest apartments, hotels and motels. They will only be placed in emergency mobile homes as a last resort considering how much controversy they caused during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In an effort to raise FEMA’s capability to deliver emergency services at par with the people’s expectations it is working to improve its ability to track supplies and is in the process of establishing advanced contracts for bus evacuations.
Trailer parks are necessary during the post Hurricane crisis. They are places where the trailer homes are gathered. Even when the travel trailers are replaced with mobile homes they are still occupying camping grounds or parking lots. Thus some counties are rethinking their authorization of FEMA mobile home parks as concerns grow that the mobile homes will become more permanent fixtures in communities (Smith, 2006). Due to the slow pace of reconstruction, FEMA temporary housing tends to exceed the emergency period it was originally allotted. Some sites have begun to charge rents after the emergency period expired.
Naturally, both FEMA and the local government is working to find solutions, long term housing solutions. This is mainly the province of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, which is hoping to provide 36,000 to 50,000 affordable rental units, primarily in the New Orleans area (Moses, 2006). Considering that Louisiana funds are limited, it is only natural that FEMA is still being involved in the process. Especially since in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina many of the citizen were desperate to leave their homes and go back to a normal life. The reconstruction efforts are further hampered by the on going recession.
One suggestion for the housing problem is to limit the number of new houses to be built in vulnerable areas like bayous or other flood prone areas. People who build homes in such areas are there for the scenic view and should thus suffer the consequences of their location choices. In other words they should be aware of the risks. Housing should be disaster resistant and owners aware of the risks and prepared to deal with them.
As disaster management is about avoiding risks the ideal would be that FEMA would focus on preventing these risks from even occurring. Once disasters do occur it would be FEMA’s task to mitigate the effects of the disaster and ultimately to coordinate the reconstruction efforts. The ideal then is that the victims could rebuild their lives after the tragedy. An Emergency management service like FEMA must be able to have a centralized plan for all levels of involvement. The steps behind Disaster management are mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery.
Mitigation was something that FEMA was not really able to do for Hurricane Katrina. Much of the disaster was caused by Katrina changing directions unexpectedly leaving Disaster management units out of position. Aggravating this was the fact that Katrina caused damage of an unprecedented scale overwhelming resources. Another reason for the sever damage was the fact that many homes were built in vulnerable areas which were susceptible to flooding such as bayou regions.
The main goal of mitigation is to attempt to minimize or prevent potential hazards from becoming full blown disasters and to reduce the damage when it does occur. Mitigation is the most long-term of the four parts of disaster management because it has a factor of attempting to minimize long-term risk.
In the future mitigation will be easier as the citizens are more keenly aware of the risks they expose themselves to. In addition, as technology advances future housing will be more resistant to disasters. Finally because FEMA has been greatly strengthened over the past few years it will be better able to mitigate the damage suffered from a disaster.
Preparedness is the phase when the disaster managers create their plan of action for dealing with a disaster when it inevitably strikes. It involves developing lines of communication, procurement and maintenance of emergency gear, mustering human resources and educating the people on what to do during a disaster. This is also the stage where the Disaster manager develops his evacuation and shelter plans. It is important that communities are involved in the preparedness stage because more often than not during a disaster, emergency services are overwhelmed. Thus it is critical that the community have some ability to respond to a disaster on its own. Like all other planning, the preparations for a disaster must be flexible, holistic and able to respond to a rapidly changing scenario.
As mentioned earlier, FEMA was not able to respond well to what happened during Hurricane Katrina. However the silver lining is that FEMA has realized its weaknesses and has had several major calamities to perfect the techniques it will employ for the next disaster. As a result of much controversy related to its past actions FEMA has been making many adjustments to its preparations. Only time can tell if the adjustments will make it a better coordinating agency.
Response is the actual mobilization of the required emergency services and first response units to the afflicted area. In general this will be firemen, police, emergency medical teams. Once first responders are deployed more specialized emergency rescue teams might be deployed as well.
Ideally, rescue efforts must be swift because the response is just following a well developed plan. Once any injuries, fires or other situations that will require immediate attention are dealt with the disaster managers must look to the food and shelter of the victims.
The scale of Hurricane Katrina is an example of what can happen when emergency services are overwhelmed by the scale of a disaster. Rescue efforts were hampered because there was a very wide area of devastation. Specialist rescue teams had to be employed just to save people who were trapped in their waterlogged homes. To complicate matters there were not enough temporary homes for the evacuees. Furthermore, the ability to supply crucial goods and services were also limited aggravating human suffering.
With respect to the response stage, FEMA is largely just a planning and coordinating agency. It serves as a central command during a major calamity. The first responders most likely will be the local authorities who will also call upon FEMA when they are already overwhelmed by the scale of a calamity. That being said, FEMA is steady improving its ability to respond to disasters and coordinate the agencies needed during a calamity.
The slowest and most tedious phase is the recovery phase. It aims to restore an area to its state before a disaster struck. This is not response because unlike response, this stage involves the issues and planning that must be made after the immediate emergency needs have been addressed already. For example, recovery efforts will be concerned with rebuilding destroyed homes, reemploying people rendered jobless by the calamity and repairing damaged infrastructure. One unique aspect of recovery is that early on drastic changes to a locality can be made in the name of improving preparedness because the people are still affected emotionally by the scale of a previous calamity.
FEMA still coordinates at this stage by virtue of the National Response Plan and will coordinate the provision of technical and financial assistance for the recovery efforts in the devastated regions. It is here that FEMA often gains the most flak. As noted earlier many families overspent their stay in temporary housing because of the very slow reconstruction. Just to give an idea of the glacial pace of the reconstruction, the New Orleans Hornets left their home city in 2005 in the wake of the disaster and only came back in 2008 more than 3 years after the disaster struck. In truth such criticism may be unfair considering that it is only coordinating reconstruction efforts with the local authorities. Local authorities must share the blame in the slow reconstruction.
FEMA is the main disaster coordinating agency, although far from perfect it is the United States federal agency which deals with disasters on a scale like hurricane Katrina. It suffers from its share of critics yet as the central planning agency FEMA ensures to its best efforts that we are prepared to handle a disaster. It works to provide a timely response to calamities and helps in the efforts of local authorities to recover from the damages. While recent events suggest that FEMA is not as effective as it should be, FEMA is also changing and improving itself to be able to face the challenges of tomorrow.
- E.O. 12127–Federal Emergency Management Agency. Federation of American Scientists. Web.
- Jervis, Rick. ( 2009). Report hits FEMA’s handling of toxins in trailers. USA Today
- Snyder, Mike. ( 2008). Thousands waut for FEMA to put a roof overhead / New trailers take longer to assemble, while some officials resist installation. Houston Chronicle, pg. 1
- Anonymous. (2008). FEMA blamed for slow housing response to Ike. Hearst Newspapers Division, pg. A.3
- Powell, Stewart. (2008). LITTLE FAITH IN FEMA’S STORM PLANS / Despite success in Midwest floods, agency not ready for a Gulf disaster like Katrina, expert and officials say.Houston Chronicle, pg. 1
- Gyan, Joe Jr. and Shield Gerard. (2008).FEMA to step up effort to empty travel trailers *** Some cite lung problems, suspect formaldehyde. Advocate, pg. 1
- Smith, Quincy Collins. (2006).Rethinking rules: More permanent FEMA parks?.Knight Ridder Tribune Business News, pg. 1
- Anonymous, (2006). SEN. VITTER BILL WOULD IMPROVE FEDERAL EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY TEMPORARY HOUSING.US Fed News Service, Including US State News.
- Moses, Jennifer. (2006). Post-Katrina trailers are not a home; [THREE STAR Edition].Times Union.. pg. A.9
- Anonymous. (2006). DISASTER HOUSING PROCESS: FEMA STRIVES TO MEET TEMPORARY HOUSING NEEDS.US Fed News Service, Including US State News.
- Sullivan, Eileen. (2009). FEMA trailers nicer, less toxic Orlando Sentinel, pg. A.5