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U.S. Response to Natural Disasters Taps Broad Range of Assets

By Bridget Hunter | Staff Writer | 31 October 2012
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie greetingPresident Obama (AP Images)

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie greets President Obama as they prepare to survey the devastation left by Hurricane Sandy.

Washington — When disaster strikes the nation, all elements of the U.S. government work together to save and sustain lives and restore livelihoods. Superstorm Sandy is no exception.

At the direction of President Obama, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), working closely with state and local governments, coordinates federal government assistance, including aid provided by the Defense Department’s military assets.

In such situations, the FEMA administrator — currently William Craig Fugate — is authorized by the president to ensure that federal partners make available all resources needed to support state, local, territorial and tribal communities.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with those in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states who've been affected by this storm,” Fugate said in an October 30 statement. “FEMA continues to provide the full support of the federal government for the life-saving and life-sustaining activities such as search and rescue, power restoration and debris removal that remain the top priorities of state, tribal and local governments.”

State governments identify what types of aid are needed and which communities need them. The governors of affected states contact the president to request a state-of-emergency declaration. Such a declaration authorizes deployment of federal assistance. Currently, much of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions of the United States are identified as operating in a state of emergency.

As of October 30, more than 1,900 FEMA personnel were working to support Hurricane Sandy disaster response and recovery operations, including search and rescue, situational awareness, communications and logistical support.

FEMA also reported nine federal urban search-and-rescue task forces were staged along the East Coast and are deploying into affected areas as needed, with an additional six federal urban search-and-rescue task forces placed on alert for activation if required.

Another element of FEMA response is logistical support. Mobile emergency response teams have been deployed to provide states with voice, video and information services, as well as operational support. FEMA also sent personnel to advise state and local emergency management authorities on alert and warning, evacuation and sheltering needs.

The agency maintains stockpiles of commodities, including more than 5 million liters of water, 3 million meals, 900,000 blankets and 100,000 cots at distribution centers strategically located throughout the United States and its territories.

WHOLE-OF-GOVERNMENT RESPONSE TO CRISIS

In a national disaster, FEMA is on the front lines of emergency response, but it draws on the assets of many other federal entities.

Department of Defense personnel and equipment are helping affected communities by drawing on supplies positioned in advance of the storm at incident support units at Westover Air Reserve Base in Massachusetts and Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey.

More than 7,400 National Guard forces are directly supporting the governors of New York, Massachusetts, Virginia, New Jersey, Delaware, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Maryland by helping local first responders at evacuation shelters, clearing roads and delivering essential equipment and supplies.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers mobilized temporary emergency power resources to provide support to areas affected by Sandy while other teams help with debris management, infrastructure assessment, temporary roofing, water planning and remediation of flood waters.

While the full extent of infrastructure damage is being assessed, the Department of Transportation announced October 30 that $13 million in quick-release emergency relief funds are available to New York and Rhode Island to help begin repairing damage already identified.

The Department of Health and Human Services activated ambulance contracts to evacuate patients as needed and requested by states. The department also deployed two 50-person medical assistance teams to provide triage and basic care in shelters in New Jersey.

The Department of Energy worked closely with state and local officials responsible for coordinating with utility companies as they prepared for the storm and now work to restore power.

In preparation for the storm, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) placed inspectors in all nuclear power plants at risk for negative storm impacts. Out of caution, three reactors were shut down during the storm, while another plant, Oyster Creek in New Jersey, was closely monitored. The NRC will coordinate with other federal and state agencies prior to the restart of the affected plants.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service worked closely with local emergency management officials to track the storm, and its navigation response crews are beginning waterway surveys in the affected areas.

Along the nation’s East Coast, the U.S. Coast Guard, part of the Department of Homeland Security, conducted search-and-rescue missions and continues to assess and advise on the status of ports.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development is identifying available housing units to temporarily shelter those displaced by the storm. It also is speeding federal funds to New York and New Jersey to help homeowners and low-income renters forced from their homes by Sandy.

The Department of Agriculture’s regional Food and Nutrition Service leadership is working with state commissioners and program administrators to meet food needs for emergency shelters and feeding sites and to assist with Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program requests.

The U.S. Postal Service is taking steps to restore mail service, including ensuring timely delivery of mailed ballots for the November 6 elections.

Throughout the affected area, state and local governments are cooperating with the American Red Cross to operate emergency shelters along the East Coast.

“The great thing about America is when we go through tough times like this we all pull together,“ President Obama said October 29 in advance of the storm’s landfall. “We look out for our friends. We look out for our neighbors. And we set aside whatever issues we may have otherwise to make sure that we respond appropriately and with swiftness.”

Crew member hoisting survivor into helicopter (AP Images)

A survivor is hoisted into a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter after a replica tall ship caught in Hurricane Sandy sank in rough seas off North Carolina October 29.