GAO: FEMA can't measure preparedness - yet

Friday - 3/25/2011, 10:41am EDT

William Jenkins, director, Homeland Security and Justice Issues, GAO

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By Suzanne Kubota
Senior Internet Editor
FederalNewsRadio.com

"[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don't know we don't know." - Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, February 12, 2002

The two weeks since an earthquake and tsunami struck northeast Japan, Congress, like many of us, has had time to wonder "what if it happened here? Are we ready?"

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has asked the Government Accountability Office, "How Ready Is FEMA for the Next Big Disaster?"

The Things We Know

William Jenkins, director for Homeland Security and Justice Issues at the GAO, told Federal News Radio, Congress is "concerned, and particularly they're concerned in this time of potential budget cuts, because without the ability to say 'these are the big gaps and the most important gaps that we have,' then if you're cutting resources back, you can't target those resources to the most important and critical needs because you haven't been able to identify them."

Jenkins was asked to testify "whether or not we know if we're prepared for a major or catastrophic disaster such as the one that occurred in Japan, and basically they (FEMA) don't know, because they don't have a means of measuring preparedness."

Jenkins explained while it might not be possible to know or predict everything, but the GAO has found only limited success in DHS and FEMA efforts to measure preparedness.

"One feature of a catastrophic disaster," said Jenkins, "is that it almost immediately overwhelms state and local capacity to deal with it, and that's where FEMA comes in. FEMA becomes the coordinating agency that identifies and draws on resources from the military, the federal government, other state and locals and unaffected areas, non-profits, et cetera. And what FEMA doesn't know is what capacities are out there that they can draw on and what that would mean in terms of a catastrophic disaster."

Known Unknowns

In order to measure preparedness, said Jenkins, you need to know what risks you face. what are the disaster consequences if those risks come true. what capabilities do you need to address those consequences, and where they exist. "Where are the real shortfalls and gaps."

FEMA, said Jenkins, has been "working on this since at least 2005, and they've tried a number of efforts which haven't worked, but the basic issue that they need to do is they need to define very clearly what needs to be done, who's going to do it, and how well it needs to be done. And that hasn't been clearly defined yet."

The hope, according to Jenkins, is to be able to get the point where FEMA can say "this is what it means to be prepared."

Unknown Unknowns

According to Jenkins, in 2009 "the director of preparedness testified before Congress that they have an intuitive sense that we're better prepared but they can't really tell you how much better prepared we are."

Since then, FEMA is now working on a "Whole Community" approach which will be going through a test this Spring. In May, the National Level Exercise will be the first to simulate a natural hazard with "a massive earthquake in the New Madrid fault around Memphis," said Jenkins, "and that's how they're going to test this new approach, the goal of which is to stabilize the effects of a catastrophic event with the first 72 hours."

This will give FEMA the opportunity to assess capabilities and measure preparedness. "So what's important about the exercises is that they be realistic and they test the system and they stress the system to see where the weaknesses are because, certainly, when we have a catastrophic disaster it's going to test and stress the system just as it did in Japan."

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