The Tide of Change at FEMA

Serving as FEMA’s chief of staff for the past four years under William Craig Fugate, Jason McNamara has seen many changes instituted with the federal relief agency. To date, McNamara has helped the agency oversee efforts dealing with hurricanes Irene and Sandy, the Gulf Oil Spill, the tornado in Joplin, and the tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma, last month. He shared some of his insights into FEMA’s operations in a recent interview.

The agency still had a disaster relief fund of almost $12 billion before the Oklahoma tornado struck; so as far as the budget is concerned, the agency is okay. Though with seven to 11 hurricanes expected this year, that could change by year’s end.

One of the biggest changes that McNamara encountered during his tenure was the strengthening of the organization’s partnerships with state and local agencies, mainly due to the realization of what the state and local partners can bring to help speed up recovery efforts. In essence, the idea is to involve everyone in recovery efforts, making it more of a team effort as opposed to the old way of using chain-of-command.

Superstorm Sandy was also listed as a litmus test of sorts as it tested the limits of the agency, mainly when it caused widespread power outages. FEMA had not anticipated the extent and ferocity of Sandy, which exposed some areas that need improvement. One of the biggest lessons learned from Sandy was that FEMA must meet the needs of the survivors, not make the survivors fit into the program.

Another area of improvement deals with how FEMA estimates damage in the wake of a storm such as Sandy. In the past, the agency had adopted a multitude of policies that did not meet the needs of those affected by such storms. They were more of a response to criticism of the agency itself, which resulted in a failure by the agency to follow its own guidelines. Now, they have adopted an approach more like that used by insurance companies. In addition to being unwieldy, the former programs did not meet the needs of those they served, which is ultimately the purpose of the agency.

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