Deficient IT systems limited FEMA hurricane response

Inadequate IT systems and other problems were identified weeks before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans

Inadequate IT systems at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) hampered the US government’s ability to aid the victims of four consecutive hurricanes in 2004, according to a report released last week by Robert Skinner, acting inspector general of the US Department of Homeland Security.

Although the report was only made public last week, FEMA officials were aware of the problems weeks before Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast.

FEMA is now part of the Emergency Preparedness and Response (EP&R) Directorate in the Department of Homeland Security Department (DHS).

“We’re taking a look at a broad range of issues that have come up as a result of the recent hurricanes,” says DHS spokesman Jarrod Agen. “Obviously, logistics support systems presented some concerns and that’s an area we want to address in the future. While there are areas that need to be improved there have been some steps forward since the inspector general’s report, as well as mischaracterisations of FEMA IT [and] strategic planning activities.”

Testifying before the US Congress, former FEMA chief Michael Brown said state and local authorities were largely responsible for what was seen as an inadequate response by FEMA to Hurricane Katrina in August. The storm killed almost 1,000 people and left New Orleans flooded after it ploughed through Louisiana and Mississippi on August 29.

Despite Brown’s assertions, the Government Accountability Office report noted problems with FEMA’s computer systems that directly affected the agency’s ability to meet the needs of Katrina’s victims.

“Currently, EP&R systems are not integrated and do not effectively support information exchange [with federal, state and local officials] during response and recover operations,” the report says. “Also EP&R has not fully updated its enterprise architecture to govern the IT environment.”

As a result, during significant disaster response and recovery operations — such as in 2004, when four hurricanes pummelled Florida — IT systems can’t effectively handle increased workloads, aren’t adaptable to change and lack needed real-time reporting capabilities, Skinner says in the report.

Those problems forced FEMA workers to devise their own ad hoc solutions, Skinner says.

“FEMA field personnel developed manual work-arounds, adjusted processes and created alternative IT methods to supplement existing response and recovery systems and operations,” he says. “Consequently, this created operational inefficiencies and hindered the delivery of essential disaster response and recovery services.”

FEMA’s systems don’t support effective or efficient coordination of deployment operations because there is no sharing of information, he says.

“EP&R would benefit from strategically managing IT by aligning its IT planning with DHS’s direction, as well as ensuring [that] systems’ users receive more timely training and communication,” he says.

Barry West, FEMA’s CIO, took issue with the findings of the report.

West said he found the report unacceptable because it incorrectly characterised FEMA’s strategic planning and IT activities and needed to be revised.

He also criticised the overall tone of the report, saying it was negative and didn’t acknowledge FEMA’s “highly performing, well-managed and staffed IT systems supporting FEMA incident response and recovery”. This led a reader to conclude that the agency is lacking in strategic planning, involvement in DHS initiatives and progress on the enterprise architecture.

West got the report on June 5 and responded to it on August 3, less than four weeks before Katrina struck. Brown, who resigned as FEMA director after criticism about his job performance but who is now serving as a consultant to the agency, had signed off on West’s comments.

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