THE MAGAZINE

State Perspective - Florida

By Joseph Straw

Q. Can you tell us about your agency’s motto, Semper Gumby?

A. We stole that from the Marine Corps. In a disaster, you have to be focused on what the outcomes you’re trying to achieve. I’ve never had any disaster go the same way. Even hurricanes are all different and you need the flexibility to rapidly adjust and not fixate on things. You keep better situational awareness, you’re adjusting better, you’re not necessarily compromising the outcome, but you’ve become more opportunistic in how you solve problems.

Take 2004 when we lost a bridge carrying I-10 into Pensacola. All of our plans were based on lessons-learned from the previous two hurricanes that year—stockpile everything you ever thought you needed as close as you can, and then load it up on tractor-trailers and ride in like the cavalry. Our plan was that the day after the storm we would be riding across the I-10 bridge with flags flying with literally hundreds of tractor-trailer loads of everything you ever thought you needed, rolling in to save the day. And then the bridge goes out. And the only way to get into Pensacola was to do a 200 mile detour on two-lane highways all the way up and around through Alabama and back down. And you had essentially a quarter million people with a water system that was destroyed, high temperatures, high humidity, no relief in sight, and few if any stores open within driving distance. You’ve still gotta get water there. That’s the mission. Next thing you know we’re gathering everything we can to airlift it over, and shifting procurement to order water in Houston, New Orleans and other places that weren’t impacted by Ivan, and having it come eastbound on I-10 because they could drive in from the West straight into Pensacola. We couldn’t get there from the east side yet because we were initially thinking of a Florida-based response, but the one road that went west was gone, an it was kind of getting people to mentally realize that there was a whole country on the other side of that city—Alabama, Mississippi, all these places we can now be drawing from to get things moving. And oh, by the way, clock is ticking because this is the first full day after the hurricane, we’ve got to get supplies on the ground today.

Q. How do you characterize your office’s relationship with the federal government?

A. It’s healthy. But I also think after Katrina, there’s a tendency on the federal side to now look at it like all states must be incompetent and need everything done for them. The result is a heavy-handedness and a sense on the state side that the feds know best, and they’re going to come in and help us manage our disasters. But that doesn’t take into account that every state has different areas of expertise and experience and resources and capabilities and a one-size solution doesn’t fit all. And I’m particularly troubled by the tendency of the federal government to come in heavy in the smaller disasters, because it sets up local and state governments to think, “If they’re going to show up here every time for everything, why do we do anything? We’ll just let the feds run it.”

This spring we were in the middle of our statewide hurricane exercise, and a state official asks me during the drill, “Do we have a federal declaration?” I said, “No, and what difference does it make?” We have the governor declaring a state of emergency. We don’t have to wait and get permission from the federal government take care of our citizens. And I felt the driving force behind that question was “Who’s paying?” Well, when the governor of Florida declares an emergency it opens up our state fiscal reserves. We’ll pay the bills until we get reimbursed if we get a federal declaration. But whether we get declared or not is irrelevant. If there’s a need, let’s take care of it. If you’re asking the question who’s paying, it’s either not that bad, or you’re in over your head. And so I say we’ve got a healthy relationship with our federal partners because I look at them as partners, not as my superior, not as someone I seek permission from, and not as someone where I’m only going to base my decisions on whether or not they’re paying. What we’re doing here needs to be the same whether we get a Stafford Act declaration or not. It should be if someone else is paying and considers it an emergency.

But I think (FEMA Director) Dave Paulison is aware that all states aren’t equal. There are other states that are far ahead and may need support with the resources, but that the feds come in so heavy-handed. After Hurricane Katrina, NORTHCOM’s mindset was “We’re gonna have to federalize the mission, and the miltiary’s going to have to run it because civilians just can’t do it, they’re not capable of doing this.” Then last tear, NORTHCOM’s new commander, Gen Gene Renuart comes in and says, “Guys, that’s taking our mission to the point where we’re gonna fail, because if local and state government still don’t have part of the ownership, and are part of the solution and we’re coming in to run stuff, they’ll sit back and not do anything and we’ll get massive mission creep.” And so again I think there’s people that recognize you’ve gotta have the healthy balance, and put more onus on local and state governments to do more with their resources before they automatically default to the federal side, but having federal partners that come in that are supportive and can fit the state’s needs without necessarily one size for everybody.

We also recognize there’s gonna be times when there’s gonna have to be a lot of federal participation. Like I try to explain to people, we’re not proud. We’re gonna ask for stuff. But if we’re not asking for it, don’t assume we need it, because we are addressing those with resources we have either through our Florida National Guard or the Emergency Management Assistance Compacts. We have very strong statewide mutual aid so we can literally go to any of our non-impacted governments at the state level and move tremendous resources. That’s how we did our responses throughout the ’04 and ’05 season. In hurricane Katrina we had over 7,000 responders deployed to Mississippi over a 30 day period. Over half of those folks came from local governments.

Q. Has the state conducted any major exercises lately?

A. We do “thunderbolt” exercizes. They’re no-notice, close-hold drills that staff are not briefed on. They can be as simple as the fire alarm goes off and state employees think it’s a routine fire alarm, and head out to the parking lot. Then we announce this is a continuity-of-operations exercise and they have to implement the continuity-of-operations plan. And if they don’t have it in their hands they’re not going back into the building to get it.

We had the opportunity last year, at the direction of Gov. Crist’s chief of staff, to do a no-notice exercise of a terrorist attack against the governor and his agency heads that resulted in the death of one third of the agency heads, the incapacitation of others, and left the remainder in a situation where they had to figure out how to reconstitute their agencies and get state government back on it’s feet, both dealing with the an ongoing threat and the business of the state. And it really put things into perspective. A lot of people, when they start talking about continuity-of-operations plans they glaze over and they start writing documents that are feet thick. For a lot of agency heads, that drill made it crystal clear that if these plans aren’t things that people understand intuitively and you need enormous, thick plans to do it, it probably won’t help you work fast enough to serve the needs of the citizens. And so they really got back to very basic concepts, versus trying to take complex plans and make those response documents. And as we do these exercises over and over again, it exposes people who have not been in actual events and to some of the stress and uncertainty, it continues to allow us to use these as training to reenforce lessons. And it gives us a chance to look at things that may not have otherwise happened, and allows us to ask questions.

This year we had the disabled spy satellite the risk of an uncontrolled re-entry. As soon as we even about it we basically Googled everything we could find on it, putting together a scenario, and we launched an exercise. And we pretty much came back from the exercise thinking that this would be like the 2002 shuttle re-entry disaster. We were on the periphery, but it set up a framework for things like jurisdiction,  impact reporting systems, advisories for handling debris, and howto you secure stuff. We worked it out and established an incident action plan if this thing comes down in Florida. We figured we’d have to do conference calls to the counties, issue advisories to the public, and set reporting mechanisms. NORTHCOM would be the lead agency and we would need to be able to refer all of the technical questions and stuff like that to them. We would stay in our lane. We worked all this stuff out about a week and a half before the federal government even began talking about it. So when I went to my first briefing up at FEMA Region IV, and the regional administrator gave us this briefing, we actually had more information than he had in his briefing, and we’d actually gone through the same scenarios that were kind of hush-hushed at that point, short of shooting it down, they were basically following the shuttle disaster model. The bottom line was that what we came up with was pretty much already aligned with what FEMA had been doing for several months without telling us, that they had to plan for the scenario that they had not yet made public, that this was going to be a possible impact for the United States.

Q. How does your agency’s budget break down?

A. Right now Florida’s in pretty much a severe economic downturn, which impacts the state’s finances. The state budget was a little over $72 billion as submitted this year. The 2008 budget that has been presented to Gov. Christ is about $66 billion, so statewide we’ve had a fairly significant reduction in funding and for us in the Division of Emergency Management, we have lost about $1.3 million in general revenue annually. We’ve lost that, but we do have something we created after Hurricane Andrew that has helped cushion us and provides funding both to the state and to the counties, and that is the state Disaster Trust Fund. It’s the emergency management enhancement and preparedness trust fund. It essentially is a surcharge on homeowners and business insurance policies. And those funds provide for our funding as well as pass-though dollars to 67 counties, now that’s a little over 6.7 million that goes to the local governments. They get a little over $100,000 each and somebody says, well, I’ve got counties that are extremely rural, small, and I’ve got Miami-Dade county, which is bigger than some states, how do you guys decide $100,000 for everybody. It actually started before I got here, but it was based upon building a critical mass in every county of having a full-time emergency manager program. Now a lot of the small rural counties, up until the trust fund was passed after Hurricane Andrew, never had a program. Hurricanes and other disasters are equal opportunity disasters that hit the well-prepared, well-equipped areas of the state, and that has helped prepare these small communities, but these small communities have been the ones to respond elsewhere in the state as well as to other parts of the country, such as the folks who went to Mississippi. So that gives us a reoccurring funding source that even with the significant reductions in the state budget. The Florida legislature has recommended to Gov. Crist that there be no reduction in those funds for local governments, even though state trust funds are being significantly reduced across the board to make up for budget shortfalls.

So the funding for local governments was held to the level they had been receiving, and then with the emergency management preparedness grants on the FEMA side, we are able to match with those trust funds, we will provide even additional money this year for local governments, even though they’re taking financial hits in local revenue and many other state programs. Their emergency management programs that come from us will actually see a slight increase this year.

Q. What are your agency’s goals for the coming year?

A. Well, we were the first emergency management programs to receive full accreditation under the Emergency Management Accreditation Program, and we’re up for reaccreditation this year. We also have just revamped our emergency operations center, our state Warning Point, which is our 24-hour answering point for the state. It’s not a fusion center, but it took on elements relevant to a fusion center, but we reevaluated how we were staffing things in disasters, particularly the small events and events in their initial phases. We have meteorologists, planners, and duty officers, but they were all in different parts of the building. So we just renovated the state Warning Point to provide work stations for all of those positions in the same area. We’ve also increased the amount of information coming in there to ensure that we don’t end up waiting for reports from county or from federal agencies that something is happening, but also monitor the news networks, everything we can keep our eye on, to maintain a much higher degree of situational awareness. Our state fusion center, which is over at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement needed a resource—when an event occurs—to look at the current situation and see if there are any additional impacts, is anything out of sync, is there something else going on. So we’ve basically become the sounding board for the fusion center when they’re dealing with a security issue to look at what else is going on that may either be enhancing that threat or may indicate a threat may not have been identified: what’s going on in the real world so you can bounce that security threat or that escalation off of that to have some idea what is your base level for that type of event

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