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Federal Officials Coordinate Emergency Plans with Locals

July 25, 2007 — Federal emergency officials briefed their local counterparts on St. Croix Wednesday about problems they see with local disaster plans.
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials from the district office in Puerto Rico talked with emergency-service coordinators from several government agencies about a “gap analysis” of local needs and shortfalls related to hurricane and emergency response. The term “gap” here is not an acronym, but a simple declaration of what FEMA is trying to do: analyze the gap between the resources and plans states and territories have in place compared to their actual needs.
“We identify the resource gaps for addressing a standard scenario,” said Matthew Matia, branch chief for operations, plans and response at the response and recovery division of FEMA. “The standard scenario is a direct hit by a category-three hurricane. We collect data and come back, saying, ‘These are the gaps you’ve identified: What can the state bring to bear? Are there enough sandbags, water, MREs (meals ready to eat — a military term), equipment and materials for road repair?’ This information we provide to the state as a planning tool to develop their emergency-management plan.”
The federal information-gathering and -sharing exercise has seven areas of focus: debris removal, housing, shelter, evacuation, medical care, communication and fuel. Matia said the information was “sensitive” and ejected media for the actual briefing, so there are no details on the territory’s specific areas that need attention.
“It is sensitive but unclassified,” he said. “We are trying to control the information — not trying to keep secrets, but to maintain frank and open discussion with local officials.”
Asked who made the decision to not divulge this information and at what level, Matia said the decision was made “mutually, by FEMA and local officials around the country.”
“People in responsible positions don’t want to be criticized for every shortfall,” he said. “It fosters open communication among all the local agencies, both with us and horizontally among one another.”
Matia provided some examples.
“If you had a large hurricane strike, time is of the essence,” he said. “So if we can cut down on the time it takes to get information, it will benefit everyone. There are stocks of equipment pre-positioned throughout the U.S. to go here, but we need to know what the needs might be. … Now we at the national and at the state level have a better understanding of what the requirements are and can better prepare.”
Marie E. Gonzalez of FEMA’s Puerto Rico office provided some broad outlines of the types of discussion they held.
“I organized a discussion of commodity distribution and medical care,” she said. “Questions were asked such as, ‘Do we have a plan for shelter for residents with special needs? Can we project a number of special-needs residents we need to prepare for?’ We asked for local subject-matter experts. It was felt we could get the most valuable input that way.”
Both Matia and Gonzalez emphasized this event was part of an ongoing process, not one that would be completed.
“It’s an iterative process,” Matia said. “We will revisit all of this after hurricane season.” Matia said he and Gonzalez plan to start the process again this coming January and be finished for the year by hurricane season.
While details were scarce, Matia did suggest that shelters be mapped out and identified with global positioning system (GPS) coordinates.
“That way people coming from outside can tell where they are,” he said.
The exercise should foster communication among officials involved with emergency response, said Jacqueline Heyliger, deputy director for St. Croix of the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency.
“We are happy to have the resources of FEMA here,” she said. “My main focus is St. Croix and helping to coordinate emergency response here. The meeting here today was their opportunity to share information with the federal agency and with each other.”
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