On Monday afternoon (May 19, 2008), I had the opportunity to participate in another Bloggers Roundtable with DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff and FEMA Administrator David Paulison. The theme for our discussions was the Department’s preparations for Hurricane Season 2008 and the readiness of the hurricane prone states/communities and their citizens for Mother Nature’s potential fury.

It was another spirited session with a lot of back and forth discussion between the principals and the bloggers, and it was obvious the confidence both men had in the steps their respective organizations have taken to be ready for whatever comes their way this year. Besides recounting the range of impressive statistics of what’s in place to be ready to go, both gentlemen issued fervent pleas that citizens take the time to also make themselves and their families ready. Sec. Chertoff went so far as to call individual readiness the “cornerstone of preparation.”

His point was echoed by Administrator Paulison when he offered that no matter how good the preparations undertaken by FEMA and the various state, local and tribal governments may be, nothing can replace a prepared individual.

Other key points that were offered during the Roundtable session included:

• A metric to assess individual preparedness is how many people listen to and (more importantly) follow evacuation orders when a storm or other event occurs. Citizens who disregard such direction and are in need of eventual rescue are taking first responders away from other important duties, such as providing assistance to those persons (elderly, infirm, disabled, etc.) who otherwise would be unable to evacuate on their own.

FEMA’s IPAWS Program is being offered to state governors as the communications model to provide comprehensive emergency alert services to their citizens. DHS and FEMA are also providing flexibility on the use of grant funds to help states pay for these services if needed. Special mention was made regarding this program’s ability to reach the deaf and hearing impaired communities.

• While the Department has had success with its Ready Program, there is still a fundamental need to get the public educated and engaged on ‘preparedness.’ The nation’s schools could play a critical role here in helping spur acceptance, understanding and action on this issue. Sec. Chertoff cited the issue of global warming as an example of how young people have mobilized to address environmental issues in their homes and communities. Administrator Paulison pointed to the National Fire Protection Association’s ‘Learn Not to Burn’ Program that has helped educate school-age children on fire prevention and safety. Both saw a need for improved marketing to get the message out there and thought the media could do a lot more to drive this message home.

Sec. Chertoff also shared that whenever he or the Department goes out to talk about preparedness, charges of ‘fear-mongering’ are often hurled their direction. I couldn’t help but feel that this was one of those ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t situations’ that he and DHS often find themselves in. His response to this line of questioning was exceptional and ought to be referred to by his successors in future years when they are running the Department and encounter similar flak.

• Louisiana, the focus of so much ridicule for its performance during the Hurricanes of 2005, has made tremendous improvements in all areas of preparedness. While it has received significant attention and assistance by FEMA and others over the past couple of years, defining new evacuation routes and shelters, and other warning and response efforts, the State has graduated to a point where it is in better shape than ever before. Sec. Chertoff and FEMA Administrator Paulison credited Louisiana for stepping up to improve their response and recovery abilities.

• I had an interesting exchange with FEMA Administrator Paulison about the two FEMAs I have observed of late: the forward leaning and public-engaging National Preparedness Directorate that always seems willing to openly discuss items such as the National Response Framework; and the less than forthcoming and engaging Logistics Directorate. Per the DHS offered transcript, I have also cut and pasted that exchange for readers to review. Additionally, I have posted a separate Blog on the Security Debrief site that offers my observations about both of these two FEMA components in greater detail.

• In response to previous comments by Sec. Chertoff and Administrator Paulison about training and readiness for emergency shelters, I asked how they were prepared to deal with convicted sex offenders who could possibly occupy one of these facilities during an emergency. This hot button issue revealed itself during Hurricane Katrina when mass evacuations occurred and impromptu shelters were opened. It was obvious to me in the strong response and body language of both men that as long as they had watch over their respective programs, the term ‘never again’ should be applied on this issue. Administrator Paulison offered a convincing and forceful statement that FEMA had been working with the Justice Department and other law enforcement officials to meet this issue head-on, but he declined to go into specifics given the sensitivities of the matter. He emphasized that the Department and FEMA would be always mindful and respectful of the relevant privacy laws, but you could see and feel his commitment (and that of the Secretary’s) to ensuring public safety at shelters and throughout the disaster response and recovery process. I have posted the transcript of that exchange as well.

Like the first Bloggers Roundtable I participated in, the entire session projected the Department’s confidence and focus, especially when all of America starts looking at news reports about the forthcoming Hurricane Season. Both leaders left no doubt that their organizations are prepared and ready to go for 2008 Hurricane Season, as well as anything else that might come their way.

Rich Cooper blogs primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More