Superstorm Sandy has pushed on northward, leaving some of the most densely populated areas of the country a mess in its wake.  Now, rescue agencies will get in full gear—none moreso than the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). What can the storm’s victims expect from FEMA? And how can we evaluate whether the agency, which so famously bungled its response to Hurrican Katrina, is doing a competent job? To answer these questions, I called on Mark Merritt, a FEMA official under Clinton who spent years coordinating its disaster relief efforts with state and local governments, and who is now the president of a crisis management consulting firm. Merritt and I spoke by phone just after his plane touched down in D.C.—“a ghost town”—on what to watch for as FEMA’s efforts get underway.

What are FEMAs immediate priorities when a disaster of this magnitude strikes?

Mark Merritt: First you’ve got the response phase, and then you’ve got the recovery phase. We’re in the response phase, which is what you saw even before the event hit, and in the immediate aftermath. Depending on how bad an event is, it can go for a couple of days to a couple of weeks … During that time, FEMA is in a supporting role. State and local government do what they can with their own resources, and they can reach out to FEMA for things they need that they don’t have or can’t get access to: helicopters for search and rescue missions, members of the Corps of engineers who can help coordinate infrastructure operations. From my discussions with FEMA officials and my obvservations of FEMA so far, this has gone as a textbook response.  They learned from Katrina, which is a little scary, because these were all things they knew how to do when Katrina hit, it was just poorly coordinated.

TNR: What did FEMA provide to places like New York and New Jersey before the storm hit?

They predeployed instant management teams down to the state levels. These guys identify what local needs might be. … They try to parse what they are seeing, sometimes in spite of the 24-hour news cycle, which can be a blessing and a curse, because what I call a 27-inch view of what’s going on may not be where the big picture is.

What does FEMA provide in a disaster like this?

Equipment, advice, direction, coordination—all of the above. A state might lack funding for all the overtime rescue workers—FEMA can provide that. They can cover fuel costs for helicopters and boats, the basics, like ice and water, and then the overall, big picture thing, they can provide funding. All these things that the states are doing are reimbursable through the Stafford Act. They help coordinate the departments of transportation to assist with evacuation.

And all with more coordination and at a quicker rate than we saw with Katrina, it looks like.

Absolutely.

But, unfortunately, emergency management works like a pendulum. It swings from one issue to another. After 9-11, everybody swore we’d never be attacked like that again, and so FEMA got a little distracted, it kind of got away from the all-hazards approach, which led to some of the confusion and inefficiency we saw with Katrina. And after Katrina, everybody swore we would never have a Katrina-like response again, and it was much easier to get federal money to prevent that. Now, though, the terrorism money is drying up and some of the funding that goes to large cities for that is starting to go away. The pendulum is swinging back to that all-hazards approach.

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Are there particular challenges FEMA is going to face due to the fact that so much of the damage was done to Manhattan, rather than a less dense, less economically vital area?

Yes. It’s all about managing expectations now. A large number of unhappy people make more noise than a couple of unhappy people. The damage is incredibly widespread. It’s not just in New York, and it’s not just in New Jersey, although those places seem to be the hardest hit. This disaster ranges all the way up from the Mountains of North Carolina, which are getting 1 to 3 feet of snow, up through Virginia, West Virginia, Connecticut, Massachusetts... That’s going to be FEMA’s biggest challenge, to respond in a timely manner to all of those needs simultaneously, or keep people informed. Because everybody wants their assistance yesterday, and if they don’t get it, they’ll blame FEMA, even if it’s a state issue, or a local issue.

There seems to be a general sense that New York was not very well prepared for this storm. Do you consider that to be the case?

Oh no, not at all. I think in New York City, the mayor was on top of it. It’s a huge decision for any local elected official to order an evacuation, and when they do, they tend to wait ‘til the last minute … You don’t want to get caught crying wolf, there’s a huge economic impact, and no one likes to be told what to do by government. Throw on top of that that you’re talking about New Yorkers, and I think they did a top-notch job. The challenge with an island city like that, which sits at sea level, with a full moon, and high tide. I hate to reuse a used phrase, but this was a perfect storm.

FEMA’s grown in terms of resources and improved in terms of coordination, but at the same time, state resources have shrunk. Has FEMA grown enough to close the gap?

That’s gonna be the challenge going forward, especially with funding. I don’t know how to say this in a way that it doesn’t sound… But it’s easy to make decisions when lives are at stake. Arguing over how the recovery should take shape, where the money should come from, that’s much harder, a much more of a drawn out process. The state governments have taken more of a hit. Congress has cut the grants FEMA provides to states to help hire emergency workers who the state can’t hire because they face long gaps between crisis events. We’re making up some of that with public-private partnerships, but these efforts can’t be led by the private sector. It has to be led by someone who doesn’t have a stake in the profits. Not that they would necessarily be driven by profits.

How can people assess FEMA’s response going forward? What would constitute a good response, rather than a bad one?

Once people are back in their homes or some form of non-shelter environment—whether that’s a rental provided through FEMA or the insurance company, or with a friend or family—that’s a great metric. Getting critical facilities off of temporary power is another key measurement. Hospitals and schools need to be on their own systems as quickly as possible. And getting debris picked up. As soon as you have the pile that was the old oak tree with the tire swing cleared away, that has a huge positive mental impact. … As soon as you’ve done those three things,  you know your response is humming.

As for recovery, that’s something I’ve been asked a lot, and it’s really hard to put your thumb on. It’s more abstract. Do the states and the locals have what they need to get done what they need to do? States need to put together comprehensive recovery plans which FEMA has a role in. Then you need to ask, has FEMA done everything in their authority to allow the state and locals to recover as quickly as possible?

We need to stay away from the question, did it go back to the way it was before? It should not go back to the way it was before. It should be better and safer than it was before. There should be a new normal. Yes, this was a hundred-year event. But how many times have you heard the phrase, hundred year event, in the last ten years? It could happen again tomorrow. So we can build it back better, or we can wait until June 1 to relive it all over again.

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