Disaster Discourse: The Hagerty Blog

Responding to Multiple Disasters: Is FEMA Ready?

Matthew Hochstein
Matthew Hochstein
Director of Market Strategy and Implementation

Recently, I spoke with Jessica Wehrman from the Columbus Dispatch regarding FEMA’s ability to simultaneously manage two disasters of the magnitude of Hurricane Harvey and the expected magnitude of Hurricane Irma.  While the total impacts from these two storms are still to be determined, here are a few FEMA figures for consideration:

  • 2.7M Liters of Potable Water
  • 1.8 million Shelf Stable Meals
  • 87,000 damaged buildings with 44,000 completely destroyed
  • 237,000 people requiring shelter

These are big numbers, and seem similar to post-Harvey impact response numbers.  However, these are not from Harvey or Irma, these are planning assumptions for a New Madrid Seismic Zone (NMSZ) earthquake.  In addition, these assumptions only account for 1 of potentially 4 FEMA regions that could be impacted and only for the first three days following the earthquake.  An NMSZ earthquake could simultaneously impact 4 FEMA Regions and 8 states.  Multiplying the above estimates by 4, and these numbers quickly become catastrophic.  This was the focus of an NMSZ planning effort that FEMA completed and Hagerty Consulting facilitated in 2010 to identify how FEMA would meet their life saving and life sustaining missions and support recovery across the area.

FEMA’s Challenge

As the questions about whether FEMA is ready to respond to Harvey and Irma, as well as wildfires in the Northwest, are put forward, the reality is that former Administrator Craig Fugate and now current Administrator Brock Long and their teams regularly plan for the “Maximum of Maximums”, or simply put disaster scenarios that exceed the capacity of local, state, and Federal emergency management.  To provide even greater clarity, consider a sports analogy.  As high school football kicks off this fall and coaches prepare their respective teams, several practice drills will include additional defenders on the field to provide a tougher test for the offense.  A test that would not be seen in an actual game.  While disaster response and recovery is not football, the thought process is the same, prepare for the absolute worst disasters and scale the response accordingly.

Benefits of Pre-Disaster Planning For the Maximum of Maximums

There are several benefits to “testing” FEMA and State/local capabilities and capacities:

  • Maximizing Partnerships:

When planning assumptions identify impacts that easily exceed Federal capability, additional partners must be engaged to develop solutions to address any deltas or gaps.  FEMA regularly uses the term “Whole Community” and that means incorporating organizations outside of local, state, and the Federal government emergency management agencies.  The private sector, non-governmental organizations, and others have tremendous resources that can be brought to stabilize an area following a disaster.  I can remember, now FEMA RIX Regional Administrator, Bob Fenton during the NMSZ planning effort consistently pushing all plan stakeholders to “think outside the box” and consider “systems” to develop solutions in lieu of traditional capabilities and processes.  This was a call to use the Whole Community in the planning effort and bring in resources to develop solutions.  With NMSZ, FEMA understood the value of planning across both FEMA Region and State boundaries to enable coordination of commodities and capabilities to address a 7.7M earthquake that would impact millions.  We are seeing this coordination implemented right now in FEMA RVI in response to Harvey and the regional offices responding to Irma. Planning and testing simulating the the biggest disasters allows for partnerships to form and for these partners to develop solutions to address the reality of responding to multiple disaster incidents.

  • Forecasting For the Outlier:

What is changing with these recent events is the severity and thus, the consequences of these disasters.  Questions have consistently been raised about how well prepared we are for the impacts of Harvey and Irma.  The reality is the time, energy, and resources required to plan for every possible catastrophic scenario, as well as to exercise the resulting plan, would quickly exceed budgetary constraints and is not fiscally responsible.  But if you use the impacts of those catastrophic scenarios, disaster response solutions can be identified across multiple hazards and included in operational plans long before any event occurs.  This is what occurred in the NMSZ planning effort and helped prepare FEMA and state/local emergency management partners for the worst outcomes.  We saw this with Harvey.  FEMA was able to support its state and local partners with significant commodity distribution and shelter capacity to address the needs of flood survivors across Texas and Louisiana.

As the States of Texas and Louisiana move into the recovery phase following Harvey, Administrator Long has called for the Whole Community to support these efforts.  As you know now, FEMA has already planned for integrating all potential partner organizations into this process, and response assets are now turning to fulfilling the life sustaining/life-saving missions resulting from Irma.  FEMA, along with its state and local emergency management counterparts, plan, train, and exercise for the biggest scenarios just for moments like these.  I’m proud to have contributed in assisting in that mission.


Matt Hochstein is Hagerty Consulting’s Director of Market Strategy and Implementation. Matt is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) and completed the Homeland Security Exercise and Education Program (HSEEP). He received a Master of Business Administration from the Kenan-Flagler Business School, University of North Carolina, and, a Bachelor of Arts, Government, from Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He lives in Virginia with his wife and children.