2004 Hurricane Response — Initial Impressions Report

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Between August 12 and September 26, 2004, six tropical weather systems made landfall on the shores of the southeastern USA. Four were hurricane strength when they arrived (75 MPH or greater). In two weeks, they ravaged central and northern Florida as well as southern Alabama. They set into motion a national disaster response effort unprecedented in the history of modern emergency management. Over the two-month period stretching from mid-August through mid-October, approximately 1,900 personnel from the wildland fire community were committed to this hurricane response effort, including 14 of the nation’s 17 Type 1 Incident Management Teams (IMTs), all four Area Command Teams, and all 12 national Buying Teams. The effort was considered the largest  application of the Incident Command System to a natural disaster response. At its height, two Area Command Teams and eight Type-1 IMTs were fielded to manage mission assignments under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which included the management of base camps, special needs facilities, logistics staging areas, and receiving and distribution centers. Based upon the information released by the upper management of the Department of Homeland

Security (DHS), FEMA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the hurricane response effort of 2004 was considered a success on both organizational and political levels. While on an organizational level the effort was deemed successful, the reported ground experience varied widely. Some of the “successes” reported in the field were likely influenced by political or personal agendas, which is not uncommon in such sweeping and politically charged events. Generally, greater success was reported by personnel who participated in the latter weeks of the response than from those who took part in the first weeks. Most respondents in the latter phases of the effort reported success in crafting order from chaos and in delivering the goods to those in need. A majority of respondents reported facing huge organizational and political hurdles.

One of the first (and then repeated) phrases during the collection effort was, “The only thing that remains the same is that it’s different every time.” Respondents reported widely that there was little in the form of procedures, systems, or processes to work with prior to or upon arrival, and that the events were driven as much by personalities and luck as they were guided by standardization. Nearly everywhere that success was reported, it had usually been preceded by a series of failures and frustrations. Many respondents only reported failure and frustration as differing policies, relationships, practices, doctrine, and undefined or poorly reconciled visions produced widely varying problems. In attempting to resolve them, wildland fire personnel sometimes took disparate and unpredictable actions. In most cases, most job stress and frustrations resulted from poor organizational alignment and an inability to act, rather than anything resulting directly from the disaster itself. Managing and correcting these problems, when possible, sometimes took nearly super-human efforts by agency personnel trying to provide aid and comfort to the populace. Many of the wildland personnel who did not get assigned to meaningful or productive assignments became deeply discouraged and depressed, vowing not to accept such assignments in the future.

Respondents emphasized the virtues of patience, professionalism, adaptability and flexibility as keys that kept them functional and positive throughout the experience. During the interviews, leaders continually stressed the importance of building and maintaining positive relationships as a core competency.

At the roots of these challenges are two organizations—FEMA and Interagency Wildland Fire— both very invested in their own systems and processes, both attempting to understand how they fit together and can help each other in a new, all-risk world.

Although all respondents did not succeed in their response activities, all were dedicated to the process of learning and improving based upon their experiences. Yet, few “tactical” lessons, recommendations, or practices captured by the ICT are new. Most have been documented in prior reports or reviews of hurricane response efforts, many on account of a strong conviction that “…we shouldn’t have to keep going through this again.” Many respondents expressed doubt that the contents of this report would make any difference. Most believed that the solutions that came out of previous reports were rarely implemented as a standardized practice, or at best, were implemented by just a few individual IMTs.

Apart from this general report, IMTs, Buying Teams, and other groups will be conducting more detailed After Action Reviews on their part of this response effort. Together, all these reports should provide a basis from which to plan further action.

Full report: 2004 Hurricane Response