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In the early morning hours of August 29, 2005, a Category 3 hurricane roared through the tepid Gulf of Mexico waters, causing massive storm surges and wind damage from central Florida all the way to Texas. Hurricane Katrina was so devastating to the Gulf Coast that the emergency response systems in many areas were disabled, causing countless people to be left on their own with little to no help from authorities. Communication was almost impossible. Reports of damage and requests for assistance could not be transmitted, and responders were not able to report to duty. No communication meant no permission from the state to interfere, so the federal government was unable to offer assistance where it was so desperately needed. People were left on their own—most times, confused or angry, because they had come to rely on the government to come to their aid. And it all fell on the shoulders of FEMA … or so people think.

WHAT IS FEMA?

It is not uncommon shortly after a disaster strikes to hear media and citizens criticize that the Federal Emergency  Management Agency (FEMA) took too long to arrive on scene and offer support. Most people do not realize that FEMA is only a coordinating agency and does not actually perform a physical response such as search-and-rescue or food distribution. Once the president makes a disaster declaration, FEMA assists by providing logistical support wherever services are needed. FEMA does this through prearranged agreements with a multitude of government agencies and non-government contractors.

About the only direct contact FEMA has with the public is through disaster assistance, which is usually through financial grants or loans. FEMA will announce qualification criteria and may send inspectors or outreach teams into the field to verify qualifications or communicate with residents.

NEW ORLEANS, La. (Sept. 1, 2005) — A Coast Guard Guard member looks on as a tug and barge brings approximately one thousand New Orleans residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina to a safe haven near the Algiers Point ferry terminal Sept. 1, 2005. USCG photo by PA2 Bobby Nash.

HOW IT WORKS: THE DISASTER RESPONSE SYSTEM

There are many moving parts in a severe disaster response-and-recovery situation, but here is how the system works: If a disaster event of national significance strikes local authorities become overwhelmed and state that assistance is requested. If state resources are not sufficient to deal with the crisis, the governor requests a disaster declaration from the president. If approved, FEMA responds by sending support from various agencies suited to the event.

Because of the levels involved, the system needs time to activate. Each increasing level of support cannot happen without an official request from the level of government just below it. Only in very extreme circumstances can federal agencies involve themselves without state approval first. These relationships are outlined in the Stafford Act and, in some cases, an emergency declaration is initiated prior to an impending event to speed up the process.

NEW ORLEANS (Aug. 30, 2005) – Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Scott D. Rady, 34, of Tampa, Fla., pulls a pregnant woman from her flooded New Orleans home here today. Rady is a rescue swimmer sent from Clearwater, Fla., to help aid in search and rescue efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. U.S. Coast Guard photograph by Petty Officer 2nd Class NyxoLyno Cangemi (Coastguard.dodlive.mil/files/2015/08/Katrina2.jpg).

So, how does the flow of information happen? Who are the first people on the ground right behind the initial local response? In a major disaster event, personnel groups called “strike teams” are deployed to gather information regarding which areas need help and what type of help they need. We must understand that when lines are down and roads are blocked, the survey times may be severely delayed. During the damage assessment, survey reports are generated and, passed up the chain of command, each level organizes and prioritizes the work by deploying incoming resources, such as people and specialty equipment.

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All-Hazards Approach

Once you’ve identified potential threats in your area, try to take the “all-hazards approach.” We cannot prepare for everything, but we can find the similarities between various hazards and prepare for those. This will simplify how your family prepares in general.

What does this mean? There are similarities between infection controls for the common flu and a pandemic: Both use similar equipment and skills, so you can combine your efforts when it comes to supplies. There are similarities in hunting and self-defense, in repairing your home after bad weather and building a shelter, and between camping and evacuating.

YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN

Until the pieces are in place—and even then, for some time afterward—you are on your own and might not see much happening. All responders will be on emergency duty in a severe event. Medical services will be very busy evacuating patients; law enforcement will be performing security operations; and utility crews will be surveying and clearing debris for travel and recovery. groups to assist one other and project an image of power, which further reduces the number of individual eyes on the street until outside assistance arrives. Another thing to note is that local responders may, themselves, be victims of the disaster and may not be available to respond to calls for assistance.

“People were left on their own– most times, confused or angry, because they had come to rely on the government to come to their aid.”

This was the case in New Orleans immediately after Hurricane Katrina. The entire police force was essentially  incapacitated as a result of officers not reporting for work or unable to move about due to various constraints. The hospital system was busy evacuating patients, the disaster disabled a number of critical healthcare systems, and ambulance services were unable to move due to debris and flooding.

BY THE NUMBERS

Under normal conditions, the average ratio of responder to citizen is approximately 1,000 residents to every one first responder.

The citizen caught in any type of event that demands an emergency response should expect to experience restricted travel in and out of the affected area. The larger the event, the more restrictive travel will become. This is not only because of the authorities, but also by the very nature of the disruption. There will likely be confusion and rumors to make the situation worse. It is imperative that emergency managers gain control of the situation as early as possible and quickly deploy the public information officer (PIO) to make a statement about what happened, what the public should know and what they should do and keep the message updated in
a timely and consistent manner. Often, that can’t happen because of power outages.

Sometimes, people are away from their homes when disaster strikes and are unable to return due to roadblocks. Roadblocks are not always official; panic travel, evacuation and debris will hamper movement. It is  not uncommon for people to be prevented from returning home for extended periods of time. Once the restrictions are eased, you will need proof of residency or have a very good reason to be there.

What Should You Do?

What does this mean for you in a disaster situation? Chances are, you’ll be without any real substantive assistance for at least several days post disaster, so 72 hours’ worth of supplies is a bare minimum when it comes to planning. After some of the major hurricanes in Florida, neighborhoods were without power for several weeks and, in some cases, months. How would your supplies hold up? The same can happen after other disasters, such as earthquakes, major flooding, wildfires and even tornadoes.

Immediately after a severe event, you might be on your own for the most part—unless you planned for such an event by forming some sort of survival or mutual assistance group (MAG). You are looking to form a group of people who can provide support to each other in a crisis. In your hazard planning, you would be wise to seek out those around and near you who are assets to your family. Also be aware of those who might be hazards to your family. Remember that with low supplies and high tension, it’s always best to be proactive rather than reactive.

“It is wise to identify various types of hazards and prepare accordingly.”

If the event is of a health nature, such as contagion, the standard operating procedure of the authorities is to contain, or, in other words, quarantine. In this case, everyone will be required to shelter in place as long as it takes, and all travel will be suspended in affected areas. An affected area may be as small as one home or as large as an entire region, depending on the threat. Once a disaster perimeter is established, law enforcement will begin to move about the affected areas and interact with the residents. Their mission at this point is focused on the health, welfare and security of all involved. If they feel someone is at risk, they might be evacuated/detained, and they might also remove any threats, such as weapons.

During a Disaster

THESE ARE THE TOP 10 THINGS YOU NEED TO DO TO IMPROVE YOUR SITUATION IN A FEDERAL DISASTER RESPONSE SITUATION:
1. Know the hazards around your home and places you frequent.
2. Prepare with an “all-hazards approach” (see sidebar above) for your situation to reduce the financial impact on your family and reduce the need for relief supplies from authorities.
3. Understand what the official response will be in case of a severe event in your area
so you can make wise and timely decisions.
4. Have three safe evacuation routes—\in different directions.
5. Take all appropriate papers and identification when evacuating, including documentation to apply for disaster assistance, if needed.
6. Avoid conflict with authorities.
7. Know the new rules, including curfew times, travel restrictions, suspension of rights, etc.
8. Prepare with the critical supplies necessary to avoid standing in relief lines.
9. Secure and protect your supplies appropriately.
10. Do not invite trouble.

KNOW THE SYSTEM

The United States has a very robust emergency management system, but it is imperative that we understand how it works and how we may be affected by the official response. Everyone should conduct a hazard analysis for his own area to reveal what could pose a threat to himself and his family. Most people think about severe weather, fires, earthquakes and such, which is smart, but start to think outside the box: What about technological disasters? Is there a dam nearby that could break or a river that could flood? Is there a chemical plant upwind or near your water supply? Do you live within two miles of a railroad that hauls freight and hazardous materials?

These are all scenarios that could require a federal response and, in turn, affect your family. It is wise to identify various types of hazards and prepare accordingly. Knowing if and when to leave can be the most important decision you make; and if you understand what can go wrong, you can make better and timelier decisions if that time comes.

A helpful local resource is your Emergency Management Center (EOC). Call the center and ask about the hazards in your area and region. The center will already know and probably has plans to respond, should a hazard become an active disaster. The EOC will be happy to share this information with you so you can prepare properly.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the November 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.