Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on November 1, 2017.

Helping Hand

Richard Serino, former No. 2 at FEMA, on disasters, recovery, and how the public can play a critical role in emergency response


Over the course of four years, Richard Serino saw more natural disasters first-hand than most people could expect to see in several lifetimes. From 2009 until the end of 2013, he served as deputy administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the agency’s No. 2 man under then administrator Craig Fugate. In addition to overseeing FEMA’s $13 billion budget, Serino was on the ground at nearly every major disaster in the United States during his tenure, from devastating tornadoes and hurricanes to wildfires, floods, and even a tsunami in American Samoa.

Fugate and Serino, who were appointed to lead FEMA shortly after the election of President Barack Obama, were tasked with revamping the beleaguered agency after its widely criticized response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In an interview just before he left FEMA in 2014, Serino told The Boston Globe that he was most proud of FEMA’s transition from a top-down disaster management and planning organization to a “survivor-centric” agency focused on seeing things “through the eyes of a survivor.’’

Today, Serino is a distinguished visiting fellow at Harvard University, working in its National Preparedness Leadership Initiative. He is also the chair of the new NFPA 3000, Preparedness and Response to Active Shooter and/or Hostile Events, technical committee. NFPA Journal spoke with Serino about how civilians are being counted on more than ever in disaster events, what lessons can be gleaned from one of the worst years for natural disasters on record, and the role safety organizations like NFPA can play in aiding the nation’s resiliency.

At FEMA you saw the aftermath of many natural disasters and played a key role in leading recovery efforts. What were some of the personal insights or lessons you took away from your four years?

The main thing I took away was the resilience of the people. I remember in 2011 after the tornadoes in Alabama, I came across three generations of women—a mother, grandmother, and granddaughter. They had lost the grandfather, the patriarch of the family, in the storm, and they were standing next to their destroyed home, which had only a single wall left standing. They told us, “We don’t need any help, go help somebody else who needs it more.” I saw similar things across the country. The resilience of people, the resilience of the human spirit, is what struck me most.

Can you put 2017 into perspective for us? Hurricanes, fires, earthquakes, shootings—it seems like it has been one horrendous event after another.

In 2011 we actually had the most billion-dollar disasters ever in the U.S.—16 for the entire year. Already this year, not counting the recent wildfires in California, there have been 15 billion-dollar disasters, so that record is about to be broken. The difference this year is that there have been three major hurricanes, where in 2011 there were more tornadoes, flooding, and a couple of minor hurricanes.

Remind us what happened in 2011.

A lot of people forget about that year. We normally have about 90 major disasters a year; in 2011 there were 243. One of the most devastating was the Joplin tornado, the largest tornado to ever hit the country—182 people were killed, 8,000 buildings were destroyed, 1,000 businesses were destroyed. Three weeks before that, we had the largest number of tornadoes ever to hit the country in one day—more than 500 tornadoes. Tuscaloosa and other towns in Alabama and Mississippi were demolished. And there was also Hurricane Irene that year, which caused extensive damage in Vermont, and upstate New York, and Tropical Storm Lee, which caused flooding along the east coast. We also had one of the largest ice storms ever. There was extensive flooding of the Mississippi River. It was an extraordinary year.

Logistically, how is FEMA able to handle so many different disasters simultaneously across the country?

FEMA is organized by region, with administration and incident management teams in each region—sometimes two or three teams—as well as national incident management teams. So Harvey happened in Region 6; Irma was in Region 4; Maria hit Puerto Rico, which is in Region 2. People and supplies were already stationed in each of those regions. Obviously, on this large of a scale you also draw from other places, but the infrastructure is in place with regional administrators who take the lead with federal coordination officers assigned to those regions.

Richard Serino talks with a flood victim in an emergency shelter

Serino talks with a flood victim in an emergency shelter in Minot, North Dakota, in 2011. Photograph: Courtesy of Rich Serino

But people also have to realize that it is not just FEMA doing this work—it’s the whole community. It’s bringing together all of the federal government agencies, as well as the state, local, and tribal governments. It’s bringing together nonprofits like the Red Cross, Salvation Army, the Team Rubicons, as well as the faith-based communities and many other volunteer agencies organized by NVOAD, the National Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster. The private sector can, should, and must play a big role in helping in the response and, more importantly, in the recovery going forward. The most important part of that are the people in these communities.

Current FEMA Administrator Brock Long has said that civilians need to take more individual responsibility in preparing for and coping with disaster events. Do you think engaging private citizens to take on a bigger role is necessary going forward?

While I was at FEMA we coined the term “whole community” to describe that concept, and we tried to shift the mindset to look at the public as an asset rather than a liability. I think we need to ask how the public can play an even bigger role. Government plays a huge role, but working together with the private sector and individuals is the only way anything is going to get done. That’s what helped with all the responses in 2011 and it’s what will help us get through 2017 as well. But we can’t just expect the public to do this. We also have to educate people and make sure they’re part of the team and not isolated. It has to be everybody all together.

It’s been eight or so years since FEMA started focusing more on utilizing the public as an asset. What does it look like in practice?

I think we are seeing that develop. Look at what happened in Harvey and Irma, how we saw people utilizing the whole community and neighbors helping neighbors. At one point, the mayor of Houston called on anyone with a boat to come help out and help rescue survivors—that would have been unheard of 10 years or even seven years ago. Very few people back then looked at the public as an asset.

The reality is that after a disaster, it’s members of the community who are the first responders. They’re the ones who are there first to help each other out. They’re the ones who are going to pull people out of a building after an earthquake, or the ones who’ll get people out of a flooded area. We also now look at civilians as people who can provide initial aid, and not only in major natural disasters. We’ve seen it in events like the Boston Marathon bombings and the shooting in Las Vegas. We’ve seen civilians help injured people by applying tourniquets. FEMA recently started a program called Stop the Bleed that teaches civilians how to apply tourniquets. That has saved lives and will continue to.

How do you build those skills, and how do you get the public to buy into the idea of becoming active participants in their own community’s resilience and recovery?

We have a whole section at FEMA dedicated to individual and community preparedness. It can be as simple as teaching people what to do in an emergency, and helping people understand what kinds of things to prepare for based on where they live and what steps they can take. In Boston, we certainly know about hurricanes and blizzards, but we don’t have to worry too much about tsunamis. In Hawaii, they might not have to teach people about blizzards, but they should know about hurricanes and tsunamis. If individuals are prepared, you’ll have prepared neighborhoods, which makes for prepared communities, prepared cities, prepared states, and ultimately a prepared and resilient country.

We can also teach children. FEMA has a program called STEP that teaches fourth- and fifth-graders about what it means to be prepared and what they can do in emergencies, and we have seen great results. I happened to go to a class in Rhode Island where we taught that program, and a few months later they were struck by some pretty bad floods. I went back to that same school, and the teacher told me the kids who’d gone through the program were more resilient, they knew what to do during the floods, and they weren’t as scared. Young folks also take that information back to their parents and the rest of their family.

What role do you see codes and standards organizations like NFPA playing in the overall effort to increase resiliency?

Recovery from Harvey is going to take years. It’s a huge housing mission, one of the largest ever on its own before we even get to Irma or Maria. But crises are opportunities when people are paying attention, and we have to look at it not just as rebuilding homes but as rebuilding communities, and we have to stress that codes and regulations matter. That’s how we’re going to rebuild sustainably and address whatever hazards an area may face, whether it’s earthquakes, fires, or flooding. If we can help rebuild sustainable communities after a disaster because we already have smart codes and regulations in place, that will make a huge difference for the public and for survivors and aid in the recovery.

What’s your take on FEMA’s response to the recent hurricanes?

I want to mention the women and men of FEMA and all of the first responders, EMTs, paramedics, firefighters, police officers, nurses, and emergency managers on the ground at each individual location. Many people at FEMA have now been fully activated for 50 days or more, which is over six weeks of working 12- to 20-hour days with no days off. They have been doing an extraordinary job. The first responders in the communities that have been affected have saved lives. I think sometimes we forget about the people on the ground doing the job.

JESSE ROMAN is associate editor for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images