FEMA to Senator: "We Haven't Been the Best at Learning Our Lesson"
Senator Lisa Murkowski today used the example of the devastating Galena flood last year to illustrate the dysfunction within the federal government when it comes to addressing natural disasters in Native communities. A Federal Emergency Management Agency official who testified before Murkowski acknowledged that the agency "hasn't been the best at learning our lessons," though the Senator remained unconvinced they were tapping into local knowledge in an effective way to handle rural responses.
In a hearing of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Murkowski told FEMA official Elizabeth Zimmerman that there are areas nationwide -- the Gulf of Mexico with hurricanes, the Midwest with tornados and Alaska with ice jams -- where FEMA can anticipate disasters and have a consistent set of guidelines, before she criticized the agency for "rewriting the book" on how to deliver urgent disaster recovery assistance every time a disaster strikes.
Murkowski voiced her frustrations to the FEMA representative, posing a number of questions:
Murkowski first asked: "What have we learned from Galena going forward? Because as sure as winter is going to come, spring is going to follow -- and we are going to have flooding in Interior Alaska." When FEMA official Elizabeth Zimmerman told Senator Murkowski "that's something we continue to try to be better at," Murkowski immediately shot back "Have you changed things, or are you hoping that next time you'll be luckier?"
Zimmerman responded that they were changing the way they were documenting their responses "and trying to learn from what we've done. It's something we haven't been the best at, learning from our lessons. By taking an honest look at ourselves after that disaster, we've put new systems in place for the next time. We've been trying to lean forward more in the last five years for predictable disasters like earthquakes or tsunamis in Alaska, so we want to be able to respond more quickly."
Murkowski followed up by asking why FEMA doesn't take advantage of the shared knowledge of Alaskan communities hit by disasters, instead sending FEMA officials from out of state to assess the situation and decide how to respond, asking:
"Why don't we rely enough on those who are already on the ground, who understand the conditions, who know that you can't do anything beyond September 15 because it's getting cold and freeze-up is coming? What are we doing to increase the number of Native people in the reserve? Can FEMA be doing more in this regard and avoid this top-heavy approach?"
Zimmerman responded that FEMA tries to rely on the regional offices and coordinate responses with personnel closer to the community, saying "The focal point is not here in DC, but that regional, Alaska area representative who will handle the communications and approach."
Murkowski responded by again encouraging FEMA to consider the wisdom of those living in the communities, saying "Those FEMA representatives live thousands of miles away in Seattle, or closer in Fairbanks. How can we truly use the local people, someone who lives in Galena? That's where I want us to go: relying on the local knowledge."