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FEMA Chief Preaches Local Preparedness For Disasters

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Governor's Press Office
The Florida Channel
Gov. Rick Scott talks with an emergency official during hurricane recovery.

Local officials across Florida shouldn’t rely on the federal government to be on the ground everywhere a day or days after the next natural disaster, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said Wednesday during the annual Governor’s Conference on Hurricanes.

FEMA Administrator Brock Long bluntly stressed that his agency and others that offer disaster assistance have been stretched thin after a series of 2017 storms and wildfires, as well as the ongoing volcanic eruption in Hawaii, so local officials should have their own plans to provide water and other essential services for the first few days following a disaster.

“If you don’t have the ability to do things such as provide your own food and water and your own commodities to your citizens for the first 48 to 72 hours, and I’m asking you to consider pre-event management concepts, I’m questioning whether or not you’re an EMAP (Emergency Management Accreditation Program) accredited emergency management agency,” Long said while appearing at the week-long training event at the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach.

“If you’re waiting on FEMA to run your commodities, that’s not the solution,” Long added. “I can’t guarantee that we can be right on time to backfill everything you need.”

With the start of the six-month hurricane season two weeks away, Long said FEMA isn’t “going to back away” when disasters strike. But he said local and state capabilities need to be strengthened, such as signing deals with private water bottlers and debris haulers and hardening local communications systems.

He talked of a need to revamp the national flood-insurance program, saying that due to “affordability” about 80 percent of homeowners in Houston didn’t have flood insurance before Hurricane Harvey hit last year.

Long said he’s also trying to revamp FEMA’s business model, as he estimated the agency spent about $300 million a day responding to disasters in 2017, with hotel bills at $3.5 million a day for displaced residents due to hurricanes Irma in Florida, Maria in Puerto Rico and Harvey in Texas, as well as floods, tornadoes and fires.

“The bottom line is that my operational capacity internally does not grow with the number of events that we have,” Long said.

Long’s comment came after Rep. Jeanette Nunez, a Miami Republican who oversaw the state House’s response to Hurricane Irma, encouraged emergency managers to keep pushing for storm hardening projects. She noted many storm-related proposals failed to advance during this year’s legislative session when lawmakers redirected $400 million to respond to the February massacre at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

“We really had to struggle at the end to find a way to keep our budget balanced but also address that particular tragedy,” Nunez said.

Lawmakers approved storm-related money for such things as farm repairs, affordable housing in Monroe County and to help students displaced from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Still, many of the high-profile measures crafted in response to hurricanes Irma and Maria failed to win support. They included strengthening the electric grid, creating a strategic fuel-reserve task force, requiring the Division of Emergency Management to use certified sign-language interpreters during emergency broadcasts and using rail-tank cars to bring fuel into evacuation areas to avoid a repeat of runs on gas stations.

“Those are good baselines to start for the upcoming session, next year,” said Nunez, the chairwoman of the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness who will not return for the 2019 session due to term limits.

Meanwhile, Gov. Rick Scott told people attending the conference to “pray” Florida won’t be impacted by hurricanes for the third consecutive year.

“Hopefully we won’t have any hurricanes. It would be nice not to have, in my eighth year, any hurricanes,” Scott said.

Scott also praised people attending the conference for their work to restore services following hurricanes the past two years.

The governor’s office announced on Wednesday the state has submitted a $616 million request to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for ongoing Hurricane Irma recovery efforts.

HUD has 45 days to respond to the state’s request for the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery program money, which would go into providing assistance to impacted businesses, repairing homes, building new affordable rental units and buying land for affordable housing.

The federal program requires at least 80 percent of the money go to the hardest-hit counties and ZIP codes. As part of the state’s request, the areas listed in the application include Brevard, Broward, Collier, Duval, Lee, Miami-Dade, Monroe, Orange, Polk and Volusia counties, as well as ZIP codes 32136 in Flagler County, 32091 in Bradford County, 32068 in Clay County and 34266 in DeSoto County.

The money would also help Puerto Ricans who have relocated to Florida due to Hurricane Maria.