WASHINGTON (NNPA) – FEMA’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 reduced the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to a different four-letter word in the eyes of many, especially African-American New Orleans residents, who were disparately victimized and displaced by the storm and the floods that killed more than 1,800 people.
In an effort to reduce future disastrous responses from FEMA in heavily Black populated Gary Flowers, chief executive officer of the Black Leadership Forum, hosted the organization’s first annual FEMA Black Leadership Summit at a Washington, D.C. hotel last week. The conference allowed FEMA executives to engage and form critical relationships with Black local government officials and representatives from key Black non-governmental organizations across the nation.
“Hurricane Katrina in 2005 led us in the Black community to understand one basic fact – The federal government, by way of FEMA, did not know us. And we, by way of the Black Leadership Forum, did not know them,”
Flowers said, “We were not convinced in the months that followed that FEMA knew the links of the Black organizations or knew the Black mayors and local elected officials.”
Like FEMA, the Black Leadership Forum is wide and expansive. Made up of 51 national Black organizations, which has almost 7,000 chapters and affiliates between them and a combined membership base of almost 12 million people, the Black Leadership Forum is the largest organization of its kind. When the Obama administration came in, he promised to close the gaps through FEMA’s currently appointed administrator Craig Fugate, Flowers said.
“I want to be in the initial meetings,” Flowers said. “I want to receive one of the first calls or emails so I can more quickly distribute the information to our nearly 7000 chapters and affiliates across the country who are all on the ground.”
Flowers hopes to take away a new construct between the federal government and states so that the resource deployment is more equitable to communities of color. As of now, the constitutional construct limits
FEMA’s authority to only respond at the behest of a state’s governor but that doesn’t mean that FEMA isn’t allowed to work with and build better relationships with community partners.
“We would like stronger communication channels between the federal government and the Black Leadership Forum,” Flowers said. “Also, we would like to serve as third party responders on the ground so grants and contracts can go to Black organizations to train their people on the ground.”
Building strong community partnerships are critical for FEMA’s mission, said Tim Manning, deputy administrator of FEMA’s Protection and National Preparedness Bureau.
“Historically, FEMA would respond to disasters and would work with anybody that we would come across as far as elected leadership at the gubernatorial and mayoral levels,” Manning said. “In working with the Black Leadership Forum we have an opportunity to strengthen relationships across the country and across service and leadership organizations and all levels of government. We can actually plan for our communities and work with them and not just with those that we traditionally work with.”
He added, “The best thing that we can take away from this forum is how we can do our jobs better.”
FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, flying in from a severely-flooded Nashville, served as the summit’s keynote speaker. His remarks surrounded how his background as a paramedic, fire fighter, a director of Florida’s disaster response agency in a hurricane heavy state helped him “get it”, as one attendee described him.
“[One] thing we cannot do is continue this process where we say that it’s going to be government-centric, that the government has the answers,” Fugate said in a down-to-earth key note address that seemed to connect with the conference attendees very well. “The government doesn’t have all of the answers.”
He said that his agency needs “more voices” and “more connections.”
“The message that came from Administrator Fugate was especially powerful for me,” said Laura Hall, a state representative for Huntsville, Ala. She said that Fugate didn’t speak what she calls “bureaucrat language” and that he has a good understanding of how things should go.
“I think that they are actually trying to reach out is the most important thing,” said State Representative Charmaine Marchand Stiaes, who represents New Orleans 9th ward, the heavily African-American district of the city that sustained the most damage.
“Those coming into the community to assist us didn’t look like the community,” Marchand Stiaes said. “It made you feel like there was a disconnect of community efforts or getting that message that those that are trying to help you look just like you.”
Stiaes said that she found out that during disaster response, recovery and rebuilding periods like the one that’s been gripping her city for the past five years, she will be able to better navigate the emergency process.
“I found out about how things trickle down,” Stiaes said. “At first, we were told that the monies were not going down to our mayor only because we heard that they didn’t trust our mayor [Ray Nagin]. On May 3, Mitch Landrieu succeeded Ray Nagin as mayor of New Orleans.
Stiaes resolves, “So hopefully that we have a new mayor, the dollars will flow down to New Orleans with regard to recovery efforts and getting our buildings and roads back online.”