Agencies collaborate before, during, after Irene

Jason Miller, Executive Editor, Federal News Radio

wfedstaff | June 4, 2015 10:28 am

By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

Agencies across the government are going full bore in preparation for Hurricane Irene. But agencies also are ramping up response and recovery efforts ahead of the storm.

“We have a whole of government approach that means all the federal agencies under [Secretary Janet Napolitano’s] leadership and the President have been working together to get ready to support the governors and their teams,” said Craig Fugate, FEMA’s administrator. “It’s not just about government. It’s about non-government organizations and the private sector.”

Fugate detailed the Homeland Security Department and FEMA‘s plans in preparing for the hurricane to make land fall this weekend and move up the east coast at a press conference Friday in Washington.

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Napolitano said the government is trying to get ahead of the storm.

“We have mobilized significant assets,” she said. “The President has directed us to ensure all needed resources are available and that we should coordinate with our state and local partners who actually are the first responders in this storm situation. We are doing just that. I have been in touch with the mayors and governors in the storm path and we also are in touch with all of the first responders in the storm path along the East Coast.”

White House principal deputy press secretary Josh Earnest said today during a briefing that in 2009 the government conducted a national exercise where the scenario was a category 3 hurricane hitting New York City.

“This is an exercise that the President participated in, in 2009,” he said. “And the reason I raise this is because the federal government’s preparations for this storm didn’t just begin as the clouds started to gather and form a tropical depression, but rather that the federal government, and this administration in particular, is constantly exercising and preparing and testing and evaluating our readiness for situations like this.”

Earnest said the table top exercise evaluated interagency response to the disaster, including steps the federal government could take to support state and local counterparts and the value of pre-deploying some assets in the area in advance of a storm.

Among those resources is FEMA’s disaster relief fund. Fugate said the fund currently has about $900 million to help victims with housing assistance, low interest loans and money for other disaster-related needs.

“We will have the resources we need to respond to this hurricane,” Napolitano said. “There will have to be some financial stuff done with the relief fund, but in terms of immediate needs and the immediate needs aspect of the relief fund we will have the resources made available.”

Along with FEMA, other agencies have been busily preparing for the hurricane.

The Army is moving the last remaining patients from Walter Reed Army Medical Center to a new facility in Bethesda, Md.

The Postal Service is preparing for possible delays or stoppages of service because of the storm. USPS says employees in the Capital Metro Area will be working around-the-clock to secure the mail, postal facilities and equipment in advance of the arrival of Hurricane Irene.

The Coast Guard Water Science Center is deploying crews to North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Maryland to deploy storm surge sensors to coastal areas. It will add sensors to waters around Florida, Connecticut and New York.

The Department of Health and Human Services is coordinating with public health and emergency management agencies in U.S. territories and states along the projected hurricane path to make information available on how people can protect their health as they prepare for and respond to hurricanes and other natural disasters.

Earnest said the government also has activated a national disaster medical system. The government can deploy doctors, nurses, emergency medical technicians and paramedics as necessary.

“Those medical professionals, last I heard, had not yet been deployed, but again, they have this system in place so that they can be in support of hospitals and clinics in areas where it’s most needed,” he said.

The General Services Administration’s USA.gov has a Web page up dedicated to preparing for hurricane Irene, and it includes links to find post-hurricane information.

The Office of Personnel Management also wants federal employees to be prepared for the hurricane. It released a memo in June just as hurricane season started detailing everything from pay and benefits to telework to emergency hiring and other hiring flexibilities during disasters.

OPM reminded agencies that benefits remained unchanged during emergencies, meaning all health, life or even long-term care insurance remain the same and in effect.

As for telework, OPM highlighted that an agency may require teleworkers to continue working at their alternative worksites, if they are able to do so, on their telework day or on any of their regularly scheduled workdays during emergency situations when the agency is closed as long as it’s part of their telework agreement. Agencies do not have to designate teleworkers as emergency employees in order to require them to work during closure.

The memo also reminded agencies of the different hiring authorities, including annuitants, Senior Executive Service limited appointments, direct hire authority and others.

Just as Hurricane Irene is heading to land, FEMA and other agencies are putting the people and pieces in place to respond and recover from the expected damage the high winds and rain is expected to bring.

“When people think of Katrina, they think of the homes destroyed with the flooding and that may be something we see in the storm surge areas along the coast,” Fugate said. “But here in the District, here is what you need to be prepared for: power outages that could be days or longer and the further away you are from the urban areas that could be up to a week or more. You are just not going to get everything back on quickly. A lot of rain and flooding. Strong gusty winds.”

Bill Reid, director of the National Hurricane Center, said the storm could bring 5-10 inches of rain. He said those totals are on top of an already saturated eastern seaboard, which received 300-to-600 percent more rain than usual over the last 30 days.

Napolitano said FEMA has mobile disaster assistance teams up and down the East Coast.

“We won’t have to wait for them to get there,” she said. “They’ve been embedded over the last few days so that will make sure we are seamless in our response and recovery.”

Along with FEMA several other agencies are getting ahead of the storm.

The Federal Communications Commission has deployed two Roll Call Spectrum Scanning teams to the FEMA regional offices in Atlanta and Boston. These teams conduct post scans after landfall to determine which critical communications systems might have been impacted.

Additionally, two Mobile Emergency Response System (MERS), one in Raleigh, N.C. and one at Fort Jackson, S.C., are staged to support emergency response communications needs.

The Army Corps of Engineers has started deploying members of the 249th Engineering Battalion to Puerto Rico to assist with restoring power to the island after Irene hit Puerto Rico a few days ago. Engineers also are staged at the Fort Bragg, N.C. Incident Support Base.

The National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service are organizing and deploying Incident Management Teams and Law Enforcement Teams.

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