Alexandra Travis is the Director of FEMA’s Strategic Communications, a mathematician by training, and this shone through in her presentation, a sense of steely calm in a whirlwind of chaos. She focused on the challenge of managing not one, not two, not three, but four major disasters in 2017. And there were a lot of numbers in her presentation. Big numbers.
Ally outlined the role of FEMA, which I’d never really fully understood. It started only back in 1979, and was created to bring a range of like functions in federal government Its has a quite a diverse range of functions from response, to preparedness, to recovery grants, to housing standards, to flood insurance. It was some of these elements that surprised me.
She acknowledged with the understatement that “we didn’t that well during Katrina” (doin’ a heck of a job Browny), but dissected that, to the messages that were coming from elected officials were different from the ones coming from FEMA and other emergency management agencies. This led to a loss in confidence and trust in government.
Afterwards they developed a framework with the overarching goal of one message many voices, that are accurate, coordinated, timely and accessible.
They used this framework in exercises to test really large scale scenarios, ie losing the capacity of the state or local government to put out messages. What would FEMA do? They had authority to put them out, but never had to. So they had to think of creative ways of getting, crafting and disseminating messages.
And then the hurricanes came 48 million people affected (15% of the population), 4.5 million registrations, 4.5 people in hotel stays, 48 states responding, the list goes on. Each one was similar yet different. The flooding in Houston, the collapse of systems in puerto Rico, the massive evacuations of Florida, and the levels of non insurance in California with the fires. All quite distinct. And the planning for staffing, they thought they’d need 88 staff. it was closer to 170. For Puerto Rico, it was back to basics. Using radio stations, flyers, word of mouth, news bulletins. And they needed Spanish speakers. Preferable staff, who understood the bureacratese of FEMA
With the 4.8 million registrations, most of it was online, phone etc. However, in Puerto Rico it was all by paper. I remember the days. And we know how well that worked
4.8 mil hotel stays, this is transitional housing into hotels for privacy (rather than accommodating in shelters). The levels of support differed ie Florida v Puerto Rico (many of whom had evacuated to Florida), so they had to manage the different messaging.
Ali talked about her key takeaways, that you need to exercise non traditional challenges, to assess the scalability and flexibility of your organisation, and make time to continuously assess and improve. At the end of the presentation, I was exhausted.