by Kristen E. Humphrey, Local Assistance and Training Planner
with Kyle Overly, Director, Disaster Risk Reduction Directorate, MEMA
Typically, when we think of an organization like the Maryland Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), we think of planning and coordinating the state’s preparedness and response to disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, flash floods, terrorist attacks, and the resulting need for interim shelter, feeding, and medical treatment of those injured or displaced. However, MEMA is also the organization responsible for helping coordinate Maryland’s preparedness and response to other types of disasters, including the current COVID-19 pandemic.
MEMA’s mission is essentially divided into two primary functions: Consequence Management, the traditional response and recovery role in the event of and following a disaster; and Disaster Risk Reduction, a less traditional role involving reducing existing vulnerabilities long before disaster strikes (see sidebar for a description of the branches of these directorates).
While the former is focused on what happens after a disaster occurs, the latter is focused on lessening the severity by taking various measures before it occurs. These functions also define the self-named programmatic divisions, or directorates, of the agency. (A third directorate, Mission Support, deals with the financial, legal, physical supplies, and human resources necessary to make the first two functions possible.)
According to Kyle Overly, the Director of the Disaster Risk Reduction Directorate at MEMA, the agency adopted the newer, less traditional role about three years ago as part of a broader agency reorganization. This was in response to research which revealed that for every dollar spent on preventative measures to reduce risks in advance of a crisis, approximately six dollars are saved “on the back end” in response and recovery costs.
Thus, disaster risk reduction measures take a variety of forms, but fundamentally they involve a comprehensive approach to building stronger, more resilient communities and educating the public in emergency preparedness. While hazard mitigation, those actions taken to reduce the impact of disasters, is a traditional hallmark of emergency management, disaster risk reduction is a newer concept in the U.S. Disaster risk reduction which more broadly emphasizes addressing the underlying societal issues that lead to disaster risk.
For example, in areas where the risk of flooding exists, this may include assisting communities to make roads, homes, and businesses less likely to flood by implementing or updating stormwater management. Others methods may include making structures more resistant to flooding by elevating or relocating existing homes and buildings that are at risk and locating new homes farther outside the flood plain and/or constructing them using materials and techniques to make them less prone to flooding to begin with.
Disaster risk reduction also involves making tough choices about the way we develop our communities and building in ways that are sustainable. Simply put, if communities and neighborhood connections are strong, Marylanders will be less vulnerable and better positioned to prepare for, and ultimately recover from disasters.
Public education before a disaster also involves programs to inform residents about what to do and where to go in the event of an evacuation, and how to receive essential services and information. MEMA maintains numerous resources on its website for flood preparedness and other types of disasters, for both residents and businesses.
In terms of Consequence Management, the Maryland Consequence Management Plan outlines the processes and procedures by which MEMA responds to a disaster. This plan is highly detailed and outlines the various roles and relationships of all the potential partners to affect the best, most appropriate, and timeliest response to a disaster.
MEMA’s primary role is to coordinate the efforts of many agencies at the state, local, and federal level that need to work together to implement an effective crisis response. Additionally, a large part of MEMA’s role is to provide information to the public as circumstances arise and develop. At its simplest, MEMA identifies the appropriate lead agency and provides support by assembling an appropriate group of agencies, as well as non-profit, community partners and other stakeholders, to work with the public to solve problems.
But how does MEMA prepare for and respond to a disaster of a different kind altogether, one such as the current pandemic? While the specific nature of the COVID-19 crisis poses unique challenges — given how widespread and complex both the effects and needs are — the key thing to understand is that regardless of the type of disaster or emergency, the systems for preparing and responding to it are fundamentally the same: identify and work in support of the lead state agency by coordinating the efforts of and communications among the numerous groups responding to the crisis, and provide critical information to those affected, other stakeholders, and the public at large.
As an example, preparation begins long before there is a threat of severe weather or other danger. MEMA leads planning, training, and exercises across state agencies and local communities to build response capability. Through these efforts, agencies build relationships and understanding of the capabilities for any kind of disaster. When the time comes that Marylanders are threatened, MEMA opens the State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC) to coordinate the whole of community response.
In the case of COVID-19, the Maryland Department of Health (MDH) is the lead agency. MEMA has been working closely with MDH, coordinating preparations and response efforts since early January. Partner organizations include 26 local emergency management offices, which perform essentially the same services as MEMA at the local level; numerous state agencies including the Maryland Department of Commerce, which is working to provide information and support to the business community through the Maryland Business Emergency Operations Center (MBEOC); and countless non-profit and faith-based organizations to help deliver essential services, supplies, and information to the affected communities. MEMA activated the SEOC on March 4, 2020, and Governor Hogan declared a state of emergency the following day.
The partners assembled to address the pandemic are centered around the critical issues of providing personal protective equipment (PPE) to first responders and medical personnel, in addition to feeding, sheltering, and providing emergency health services to Marylanders. MEMA collects the requests for assistance from local governments, hospitals, and other emergency services and both builds partnerships and leverages existing relationships with other agencies.
As of publication of this article, MEMA has coordinated activities with response partners in the SEOC for more than 75 operational periods (shift days) and counting. One partnership with a faith-based organization, the Seventh Day Adventist Church, whose world headquarters are based in Maryland, is running a donations management warehouse system throughout the state which, to date, has received and distributed roughly 500,000 donated items.
Other partners in the SEOC have worked to address the issues related to increased homelessness, hunger, and controlling the spread of the coronavirus. MEMA has coordinated support to local emergency management agencies who are leading local assistance efforts such as the Camp Hope temporary encampment in the city of Salisbury (read more about Camp Hope in this edition of Planning Practice Monthly [we will include a hyperlink]). Finally, in terms of providing essential information to the public, in addition to the MBEOC, MEMA has been coordinating a Joint Information Center with MDH as part of the COVID-19 response.
To learn more about MEMA, its function and roles in disaster preparedness, prevention, recovery and risk reduction, please visit MEMA’s website or contact Jorge Castillo, Branch Manager Communications and Outreach, at: Jorge.firstname.lastname@example.org.