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Council of State Governments

National Emergency Management Association–How States Work Together During Disasters

Council of State GovernmentsWhile Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico are still reeling from the recent rash of hurricanes, some states are looking at lessons learned from the devastation for future disaster preparedness, as well as sharing resources and information with affected states.

“I think what should be doing is asking ourselves, ‘What can we do to protect the people of this state?'” Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran told the Associated Press. “Here’s all the things we learned; here’s all the things we can do better.”

Fourteen people who were housed in a Florida nursing home died after the power went out, leaving residents in dangerously hot conditions.  Florida Gov. Rick Scott in September ordered nursing homes and assisted living facilities to obtain generators that provide backup power for up to four days.

After the governor’s order, nursing home administrators from around the state met in Tallahassee to discuss how to comply with the order and keep nursing home residents safe during future natural disasters.

Justin Senior, secretary of Agency for Health Care Administration, said at the gathering that they learned from Irma’s changing path that nursing homes could not always evacuate their residents.  He said the state does not expect nursing homes to provide air-conditioning to their entire building in the case of a power outage, but they must keep patients safe.

The possibility of saving gas reserves to prevent shortages, like those that occurred after millions of people evacuated before Hurricane Irma, is also on the table in Florida.

Corcoran announced in September that he is creating a committee to make recommendations on future natural disaster preparedness. The committee may advise on gas reserves; a dedicated fund for future storm preparation efforts; and possibly even a system of providing food, water and other supplies at rest stops and weigh stations.

In Texas, a new response tool was implemented for the first time with Hurricane Harvey—the Initial Reentry Assessment Team. This multi-agency team entered an impacted area as soon as it was safe to do so to determine immediate needs, for example, water, waste water, communications and electricity. Additional innovations based on lessons learned from past disasters included turning inbound lanes into outgoing evacuation lanes, opening shoulder lanes as actual travel lanes, strengthening the state’s coordination with volunteer organizations such as the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, and bolstering other public-private partnerships, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Because they are responsible for the overall coordination of disaster response across agencies, emergency management officials play a key role in evaluating disaster response after an event and developing improvements in disaster preparedness, said Trina Sheets, executive director of the National Emergency Management Association, or NEMA. NEMA, a CSG Affiliate organization, is the professional association of and for emergency management directors from all 50 states, eight U.S. territories and the District of Columbia.

Sheets said lessons learned from 2016’s Hurricane Matthew on evacuations; sheltering, particularly of special needs populations; and fuel distribution were applied to emergency management plans in Harvey and Irma.

For example, states learned from Matthew and other previous natural disasters that generators are needed at gas stations to ensure fuel can be pumped out of the ground when the power goes out. Additionally, post-storm fueling stations were set up along the interstate at weigh stations so emergency responders would have enough fuel to enter the state and emergency management worked with the Department of Education to use college campus parking lots as fueling locations.

One mechanism by which states share resources during disasters is the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, or EMAC, which is administered by NEMA. EMAC is a legal agreement that allows states to share resources during emergencies and provides legal protections for aid workers who deploy through the compact including tort liability, workers compensation, reimbursement and licensure transfer.

States across the nation have deployed more than 12,500 people through EMAC, in addition to equipment and other resources, to aid in the response to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. They’ve shared search and rescue teams, shelter support teams, medical personnel, animal rescue and sheltering teams, water purification systems, law enforcement, behavior health professionals and more.

NEMA also facilitates communication and sharing of challenges and solutions across states through their national conference and other convening mechanisms.

“We have a lessons learned session after every major disaster at our national conference,” said Sheets. “Emergency management directors have a robust communication system amongst themselves as well. Sharing lessons learned is a basic tenant of emergency management.”