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FEMA’s Missing Infrastructure

Jerry Strope

In the days before FEMA, there was a robust civil defense research program that included an effort to analyze the performance of State and local emergency forces in major natural disasters. Over a period of years, a pattern emerged that seemed important. A few examples:

  • In 1962, Hurricane Camille, a monster storm, took dead aim on the Mississippi gulf coast. Wade Guice was civil defense director of Gulfport and his wife was civil defense director of neighboring Biloxi (or was it the other way around?) Together, the Guices were widely recognized as among the very best prepared. Evacuation went smoothly except for a group having a hurricane party in a beachside apartment house. The storm wave wiped them out. The real problems came afterward with power out and severe damage to waterworks and waste treatment plants. Emergency crews spent valuable time trying to find needed equipment and tools. Soon, portable electric generators began to come in from distant points by air to Keesler Air Force Base, which lay between Biloxi and Gulfport. As supplies and equipment flowed into the stricken area, Keesler became a supply dump and logistic support center for the neighboring communities.

  • When Hurricane Agnes reached Virginia it was no longer of hurricane force but it dumped fantastic amounts of rain over the whole Northeast, causing every river and creek to overflow. As emergency forces worked to aid communities isolated by the floods, the parking lot next to the State EOC in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, became an impromptu staging area where supplies and equipment were organized to fill the needs of various cities and towns.

  • In northern California, the football stadium and surrounding parking lot on the campus of a state college became a support facility in the effort to control a forest fire in an inaccessible part of the nearby mountains. Helicopters operated from the football field, firefighters going to fight the fires were briefed in the stands and those returning were fed and housed in the stadium itself.

  • After a hurricane hit south Texas, several hundred people were rendered homeless. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), tasked with providing temporary housing, acquired more than a hundred mobile homes for the purpose. The Corps of Engineers was charged with preparing the sites and utilities for this housing. Unfortunately, the sites weren’t ready when the first batch of mobile homes arrived. There was a monumental traffic jam on Interstate 37 until a hardstand was found where the homes could be parked until the sites were ready.

These incidents had common characteristics. A facility was involved in every case. The facility was chosen almost by happenstance to meet a pressing need in responding to the disaster. In no case had the use of the facility been anticipated in emergency operations plans. On the other hand, the needs that were satisfied by use of these facilities were varied in nature. They ranged from supply dumps for food, clothing and equipment to the temporary care and processing of displaced persons. The researchers called these assorted facilities multipurpose staging areas (MSAs.) The ideal MSA would be one able to satisfy the whole range of support needs.

Of course, the biggest drawback found was that these MSAs were creatures of the moment, pressed into service as the disaster occurred. As a consequence, few workers knew of their existence until word passed down. Delays and mixups were common. Wouldn’t it be a great improvement, the researchers asked, if the best facilities were identified beforehand and incorporated into emergency plans?

The researchers proceeded to list the desirable characteristics of MSAs: lots of paved areas to store supplies, trailers and vehicles; convenient access to Interstates and main highways; diesel and gasoline fueling facilities nearby; buildings suitable for temporary housing for workers and refugees; food service and restrooms; maintenance shops and tools; repair shops and metal-working facilities. Moreover, they listed the types of facilities that should be considered as MSAs if a disaster should occur: Airports, fairgrounds, truck stops, college campuses, military bases, large industrial plants, arenas, tourist attractions, some medical or retirement facilities, shopping malls, and the like.

A program to create this valuable logistic infrastructure would be of low cost. After all, the facilities are already there and there is no need to modify them. What is needed is to choose which ones, make arrangements for activation in an emergency, and to incorporate them into local plans. The choices and arrangements should be made at the State and local level using national guidelines. The federal government could show leadership by making the facilities of the various federal agencies freely available for use in disasters. (They always do become available in the event, as was the case of Keesler AFB. The key is to plan it that way.)

Has it been done? Of course not. When the research became available and the suggestion made, civil defense and natural disaster preparedness had been made the responsibility of different agencies. Then came FEMA and the end of all research. One does not even know if the reports still exist.