With hurricane season underway here in Florida and communities in Alabama and Missouri still recovering from a series of deadly tornadoes, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) gathered leaders from around the country in Clearwater to address the issue of emergency preparedness.
Bilirakis represents Florida's 9th Congressional District which includes Clearwater and other parts of the Tampa Bay area. The Congressman is also Chairman of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications.
Bilirakis says he is determined to make sure agencies, organizations and citizens are ready to take action before disaster strikes.
“We want to make sure there is communication, there’s cooperation between the agencies - whether its state, local - to work together on the federal level with FEMA," Bilirakis said after the hearing. “We have to have cooperation, and we have to be ready.”
Joining the congressman at the hearing were several high ranking officials from various emergency offices, as well as fellow U.S. Representative Hansen Clarke (D-MI). Each speaker brought his or her own issues to the table when it came to emergency response and preparedness.
John “Rusty” Russell, Director of Alabama's Madison County Emergency Management Agency, spoke about the need for rapid response in times of crisis, similar to what he saw after the deadly tornadoes that swept through his state in April.
“In April, we had 103 tornadoes in Alabama alone. On April 27th, 241 people were killed. Thirteen thousand buildings and homes were destroyed. This was Alabama’s largest disaster ever,” he recalled.
“But I’ve got to say, people did a good job this time. They came in, they responded to our needs in an efficient way we haven’t seen in other disasters. But preparedness is not a part of our culture today, and we need to bring that back.”
While many of the panelists agreed that FEMA’s response time has greatly improved since Katrina, others such as Linda Carbone, CEO of Florida’s West Coast Region of the American Red Cross, echoed Russell’s sentiments about preparedness.
“The message of preparedness is…something the public needs to hear in stereo sound. The more prepared our community is, the more resilient our community is going to be.”
Nancy Dragani, Executive Director of the Ohio Emergency Management Agency and the Response & Recovery Chair for the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA), stressed the importance of utilizing social media platforms to interact with citizens during times of crisis.
“No discussion regarding technology and public outreach…would be productive or complete without discussing social media,” Dragani said. “Within the emergency management community, social media has been met with various amounts of support and opinions. But nearly every state agency has a presence on Twitter, and nearly half have a presence on Facebook.”
Again, Carbone agreed with this approach.
"Sixty-nine percent of the public said they expect emergency responders to be monitoring social media sites," she said. "Seventy four percent said they expected people to come in less than an hour after they Tweet or post to Facebook a message about an emergency situation.”
“Those numbers are staggering,” Carbone said.
Bilirakis will present many of the ideas and suggestions exchanged during the hearing at a meeting with FEMA in October.
His hope is that subcommittee meetings like this will have a lasting effect on the emergency preparedness and response of citizens and local groups.
“We have to have cooperation. We need to go into the churches, the schools, businesses… We want people to know that you have to have a plan and you have to be prepared.”
“We never can be too prepared,” Bilirakis said.