Federal Employees News Digest

Fed agencies play huge role in Harvey, Irma rescue efforts

Federal employees in the tens of thousands are participating in the rescue and cleanup efforts in the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Harvey reached Category 4 status, with peak sustained winds of over 130 mph, while Irma was an even more powerful Category 5 monster storm—with winds topping 185 mph.

Harvey made first landfall on the continental U.S. on Aug. 26, battering Texas with high winds and dumping more than four feet of rain across a wide area. The storm went on to cause further significant damage in Louisiana.

Irma reached hurricane-speed winds on Aug. 31, smashing through the U.S. Virgin Islands and on across the Caribbean, the Florida Keys and northward up the length of Florida—bringing severe flooding even to Georgia and South Carolina.

A minimum of 32,000 feds representing 17 federal agencies were mobilized to help with Hurricane Harvey response alone, according to a spokesperson for the Federal Emergency Management Agency—which took the federal lead in rescue and other disaster response efforts.

Some 3,200 FEMA employees were operating in Texas and Louisiana in response to Harvey—with FEMA teams being crucial in the rescue of over 2,500 people and supplying more than a million gallons of fresh water, nearly 5 million meals and thousands of people with bedding just in the first two weeks of ongoing operations.

The American Federation of Government Employees, the union representing thousands of employees from several agencies, elaborated on the federal effort.

“Last count we were over 5,000 total employees, from response to recovery, tracking storms in the National Readiness Command Center (NRCC), to pre-staging commodities, from logistics and warehousing to urban search and rescue, to contracting, to budget,” Steve Reaves, president of AFGE Local 4060, said Sept. 7.

Brock Long, FEMA administrator, said that ultimately nearly half a million hurricane victims are expected to file under the flood insurance program.

AFGE provided a listing of federal agencies and the size of their footprint in the Harvey emergency. The U.S. Coast Guard, for example, has positioned “nearly 2,000” employees to help in the event, along with 27 Coast Guard helicopters, 3 other aircraft and 28 shallow-water response boats involved in search and rescue. These employees and their equipment have rescued in excess of 4,200 persons and 1,000 pets, according to an Aug. 29 tweet and other government releases.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, meanwhile, had over 700 employees actually living day-by-day at Houston-area facilities, all engaged in providing care through the disaster to over 400 patients—including homeless veterans brought in from the storm, according to the VA.

The Department of Health and Human Services has a large presence in the first storm, with more than 500 personnel on the ground in Texas and Louisiana and 1,300 more on standby. Through the crisis, the agency is operating a 250-bed federal medical station at the George Brown Convention Center—where thousands of people were forced to take shelter and seek care. HHS employees helped evacuate patients from local health facilities to safer hospitals and sites, well outside of the affected region.

The Departments of Homeland Security and Defense had large numbers of employees engaging in work related to Harvey, and as the second storm approached Florida, in the disaster preparation and relief relating to both storms. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Departments of Agriculture, Interior, Transportation and Energy all also had sizeable presences working in the lead-up and aftermath of the storms.

As AFGE noted in its roundup of the federal effort, some 700 AmeriCorps Disaster Response Team members were actively working the storm effort or were placed on stand-by. The AmeriCorps crew was tasked with aiding in “shelter operations, debris removal, and volunteer and donations management.”

Residents and business owners in the affected areas can apply for assistance by registering online at www.DisasterAssistance.gov or call 1-800-621-3362. Federal employees affected can also seek aid at https://feea.org/our-programs/disaster-relief/, and can volunteer to help further in the effort at https://www.nvoad.org/ .

Disaster chief seeks prevention in future

Federal employees from many more agencies are also responding to the dual disasters, both in their work and with donations of their own money and personal time. And, so far, there is every indication that operations are functioning against steep odds—and deep water.

Yet, it is worthwhile noting that many top experts have concluded in evidence-based research that more investment—including federal investment—must go into preventing more of the worst human impacts of such storms as Harvey and Irma, as we cannot prevent the storms themselves.

Along these lines, FEND asked Karl Kim, the executive director of the National Disaster Preparedness Training Center, located at the University of Hawaii, how well feds and their state and local counterparts are doing in helping in Harvey and Irma.

“While there are improvements since [Hurricanes] Katrina and Sandy, every disaster presents unique challenges making it difficult to generalize,” Kim told FEND. “One area that we've been working on is the use of social media for not just improved communications but for gathering information about impacts and damages as well as locating stranded people in need of assistance.”

“My major concern is our inability to understand and manage extreme events,” Kim told FEND.   “We need to do a better job protecting vulnerable populations, like the elderly, those with disabilities and medical needs. Also, we need to do more to integrate resilience into our building codes, siting, zoning and development policies.”

And, along with these longer-term improvements—especially in protecting vulnerable populations—Kim noted our society, led by our governments, needs to leave more space as environmentally-sound buffer zones against high winds and storm surges that make such storms so deadly and costly in their aftermath.

“We need to limit development in hazardous locations,” Kim continued. “We should use open space, parklands, and landscaping as buffer zones, and natural areas that are ‘safe to flood.’  We are paying the price of reckless development of floodplains and building too close to our coastlines.  Global warning, sea level rise and climate change will exacerbate these threats in many cities.”

Kim said improvements, of course, still need to be made across the board, no matter how well federal employees and their colleagues manage the current post-disaster landscape across the South.

“[We] need to improve and invest in training for first responders,” Kim concluded, “we [also] need to strengthen disaster recovery efforts.”

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