FEMA administrator: Government agencies don't often plan for worst-case scenarios

When it comes to planning to natural disasters, we need to plan for what could happen, not what's already happened, and planning should involve the whole community, not just government agencies.

Posted Updated
Craig Fugate
Nate Johnson
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — When it comes to planning to natural disasters, we need to plan for what could happen, not what’s already happened, and planning should involve the whole community, not just government agencies.

That was the message from Craig Fugate, administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, when he spoke Wednesday as part of the Natural Hazards Resilience Speakers Series, presented by UNC-Chapel Hill’s Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence.

In recounting a number of lessons he “learned the hard way,” Fugate said government planners too often fall into the “trap” of emergency planning based on what their agencies can do and hoping it would scale up for a large disaster rather than truly assessing their risk and planning for an actual worst-case scenario.

“All too often we plan based on what we’re able to provide rather than planning for the worst that could happen,” Fugate said, arguing this leads to “government-centric planning” that results in emergency agencies not getting sufficient funding.

He also said planners shouldn’t look at the public as untrained or unable to assist. In larger disasters, he said, the first effective help is usually provided by neighbors, not police, fire, or other emergency responders.

"I call people ‘survivors' and not ‘victims’” Fugate said, telling planners audience their plans need to engage the public as well as the private sector and involve them early on rather than waiting until disaster strikes.

“If the bulk of services people rely on are provided by utilities and private sector entities, why aren’t they in our plans? They should be," he said.

Fugate went further when talking about how agencies view the public in disasters.

"We have marginalized the public in day-to-day emergencies to the point that they die,” he argued, using one item of classic advice as an example. “What do we tell people to do with injured people? Don’t move them and call 911.”

That advice, he said, is based on concerns that moving an injured person might exacerbate a spinal injury. But in an active shooter situation moving someone who had been shot and applying pressure quickly to gunshot wounds would be more likely to save their life.

Fugate also addressed issues of insured and uninsured losses from disasters.

“We have natural hazards; they only become disasters when people move into these areas,” he said.

Asked about the National Flood Insurance Program, which offers flood insurance, Fugate said we needed to move toward selling that insurance at actuarially sound rates; however, making that jump too quickly would be too harmful and would “penalize the wrong people.”

On the topic of climate change, Fugate acknowledged the role sea level rise has already played, but said drought has an even bigger potential to disrupt society long term.

Drought could become far more frequent, and that’s problematic, Fugate said, because many communities’ only plans for dealing with drought boil down to “wait ’til it rains."

If droughts become longer or more frequent as a result of climate change, that could disrupt water supplies, change agricultural practices and make it harder to grow food, and raise the risk of wildfires.

One key message came out during the question-and-answer period, when Fugate was asked about public trust in government.

“They don’t trust government," Fugate said. “We need to demonstrate we’re there, design our systems to serve the public’s needs instead of making our own jobs easier.”


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