By Eric Berger
Recent hurricanes Ike and Katrina may rank among the three costliest storms in U.S. history, but in preparing for disasters the federal government must think bigger still, says America’s top emergency planner.
Fugate told reporters Tuesday at the National Hurricane Conference in Orlando, Fla., that his agency has been preparing for realistic worst-case scenarios – not just natural disasters, such as hurricanes and earthquakes, but terrorist attacks, as well.
In crafting a strategic plan to guide FEMA through 2014, Fugate said he charged his organization to consider maximum devastation when it comes to disasters.
That includes dealing with catastrophic events in which medical care would be needed for 265,000 casualties, restoring and sustaining basic services for an affected area of 7 million people within 60 days, and helping communities of 1.5 million disaster survivors recover within five years.
Fugate said there are some planners who say the agency should focus on more common, recurring events such as Ike, which struck Galveston in 2008, rather than even larger disasters. But he said ignoring the rare but plausible larger events would be irresponsible.
“People say these are such rare events, and ask why should we really focus on them, instead of what we know will happen?” Fugate said.
“But when does the public need the government most? During the reoccurring events they understand, or those outliers that devastate the community, the local governments, the outlying areas, and really are so massive the ability to localize response and recovery are gone?”
Fugate cited a large hurricane striking in the vicinity of New York City – even at tropical storm strength, 2011’s Irene nearly broached city sea walls – as a mega event.
With a population of 20 million vulnerable to hurricanes, a New York strike could prove incredibly disruptive for the nation, Fugate said.
He also emphasized that government, alone, cannot respond to disasters, and that the private sector must be engaged early and often.
“We need to give the private sector a seat at the table,” Fugate stressed. “When we look at the disasters last year, the unreported story was how the private sector was a part of the recovery team. The sooner we can get private businesses – and government-backed infrastructure – up and running, the sooner communities will recover.”