FEMA Chief: 'The Key to Resiliency Is at the Local Level'

Relief supplies in Houston, Texas following Hurricane Harvey.

Relief supplies in Houston, Texas following Hurricane Harvey. Shutterstock


Connecting state and local government leaders

Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long highlighted some of his agency's limits when it comes to preparing communities for natural disasters.

WASHINGTON — The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Monday stressed the role of local governments in preparing the U.S. to better withstand natural disasters.

"I do believe that the key to resiliency is at the local level of government, not with FEMA," the agency's administrator, Brock Long, said at an event. "If you’re depending on FEMA to make your community resilient, well, that’s the wrong approach."

He noted that much of the work the agency is equipped to focus on is reactive to disasters, as opposed to preventive.

“We don’t pass building codes and land use planning," Long added. "That’s done at the local level.”

Long made his remarks during a panel discussion, which was part of Infrastructure Week—an annual program that involves industry groups, state and local government associations and nonprofits.

Austin, Texas Mayor Steve Adler was also on the panel. Route Fifty asked afterwards if he agreed with the administrator's sentiment about local governments taking the lead on resiliency efforts.

"I do," he replied. "I see the local communities stepping out first with resiliency."

"Because I think that they're closest to the challenges," he added.

But Adler also said that local governments need federal support on this front, in terms of money and other resources.

"There's only so much you can do on property taxes," he said, noting that many states restrict the taxes that local governments can impose.

Resiliency can be a broadly applied term. And as Adler discussed the topic he described projects that had to do with areas ranging from water and sewer infrastructure, to renewable electricity. He also said in a place prone to flash-flooding, like Austin, resiliency requires making sure people are "building the right way, in the right places." 

During the panel discussion, the mayor noted Austin is now rewriting its land development code for the first time in about three decades.

"It's probably the most emotional issue that we have in our city right now," he said.

Another issue FEMA's Long touched on is how he sees opportunities for "big data" to inform both pre- and post-disaster decision-making.

"What do you fix first?" he said, as he raised questions about how decision-making could be guided by data analysis.

Pointing out that the federal government would likely pump $40 billion to $50 billion into Puerto Rico to aid with hurricane recovery, he added: "What's the best way to use that funding to make sure that we don't go back through what we just went through?"

Long also emphasized the importance of closing what he called the "insurance gap" around the U.S., when it comes to adequately insuring property against natural hazards like floods and wildfires.

“Insurance is the first line of defense, not FEMA," he said. "FEMA can’t make you whole.”

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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