Former Head of FEMA Craig Fugate’s advice to Menlo Park residents: Be prepared for natural disasters

by Ray Mueller on December 7, 2018

Craig Fugate served President Barack Obama as the Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) from 2009 to 2016. Prior to that, Mr. Fugate served Governor Jeb Bush as the Director of Florida Division of Emergency Management from 2001 to 2009.

In the wake of the recent California wildfires, Craig was kind enough sit down with me to discuss what Menlo Park residents can do to prepare for wildfire and other natural disasters.

Mueller: Thank you, Craig, in addition for your service to our country, for sharing your time with me today.

Fugate: My pleasure, Ray. Always glad to talk about disaster preparedness.

Mueller: In Menlo Park our tree canopy is a major source of pride for our community. We also live at the border of semi-rural communities. Is urban wildfire spread something we should prepare for in our neighborhoods?

Fugate: Yes, with increasing droughts, there are not many places in California that will now face an increasing threat of wildfires near the urban interface. Western Menlo Park and unincorporated parts of San Mateo County lie within wildfire risk areas.

Additionally, areas that may not be directly exposed to fire itself must also be ready to respond to issues associated with the fires, such as risks associated with embers and smoke blown from active fires, evacuation of residents from other affected areas, outages associated with burned power lines, loss of water pressure, and a shortage of professional responders for other emergencies.

Mueller: Many are saying this was the worst wildfire season in the history of the state of California. Additionally, we are always under constant threat of earthquake on the San Francisco Peninsula. In addition to standard emergency response planning activities undertaken by government agencies, what actions would you recommend households in Menlo Park take now to prepare for natural hazard events, such as fire, earthquakes, and floods?

Fugate: Start with something easy – use resources at the FEMA website and build a Family Emergency Communications Plan. Remember, cellular service and phone lines may go down. Should your family be separated in the event, the plan includes listing places to reunite whether that be inside your neighborhood, outside your neighborhood, or outside your city. Have a plan and keep a portable radio in your disaster kit to get emergency updates from your local offices.

1. Collect: Create a paper copy the contact information for your family and other important people/offices, such as medical facilities, insurance, doctors, schools, and/or service providers.

2. Share: Make sure everyone carries a copy in his or her backpack, purse, or wallet. If you complete your Family Emergency Communication Plan online, you can print it onto a wallet-sized card. You should also post a copy in a central location in your home, such as your refrigerator or family bulletin board.

3. Practice: Have regular household meetings to review and practice your plan. Practice texting critical information in short texts. If you are using a mobile phone, a text message may get through when a phone call will not. This is because a text message requires far less bandwidth than a phone call. Text messages may also save and then send automatically as soon as capacity becomes available.

Mueller: Now that we have covered preparing individual households, let’s talk about neighborhood preparedness. Craig, in your experience, what role do private citizens actually play during natural hazard events?

Fugate: The public is often the first response in a disaster, from helping neighbors evacuate, to providing first aid, to volunteering. The public is a vital resource. Advance training and preparation of the public is invaluable and saves lives.

Mueller: What can residents do today to train and prepare to help their neighbors during a natural hazard event?

Fugate: Start with bringing neighbors together to build and review a hazard assessment, what can happen and how it will impact your neighborhood. Consider joining or forming a Certified Emergency Response Team by signing up for upcoming classes .

Another great local resource can be found here online.

Mueller: Craig, you have often shared with me that vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and those with access and functional needs, are particularly at risk in natural hazard events. If a Menlo Park resident believes they may need assistance in a natural hazard event, what steps can they take today to prepare?

Fugate: Contact local emergency services and self identify your location in advance. Build a support network of family, friends, neighbors and local service providers who will assist you during an event.

Mueller: What is the biggest mistake you have seen repeated in jurisdiction after jurisdiction during your career in natural hazard emergency preparation and response?

Fugate: Failure to plan for big events.

Mueller: One last thought to share with Menlo Park residents on this topic?

Fugate: Disasters will happen, being prepared keeps you in control.

Ray Mueller has served on the Menlo Park City Council since 2012; this is a first of a series of conversations he’ll be having with experts, residents and business owners.

One Comment

Greg Baker December 07, 2018 at 4:32 pm

Mr. Fugate, originally from Florida, is known for his “Waffle House Index”, whereby he determines the level of attention a disaster area requires based on whether the Waffle House is open at the time emergency services arrive. Fugate told the New York Times that, “Waffle House has a very simple operation philosophy: get open.” His theory is that if a Waffle House is open, keep driving. If it’s damaged but serving a limited menu then the community needs help. If it’s closed, then it means that the situation is really bad and needs the most attention. The strategy is particularly helpful in the South where Fugate is from, but becomes a challenge elsewhere where the Waffle House isn’t as popular and local chains like Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts do not share the same ‘get open’ philosophy.

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