Posted by: Mark Peterson, Public Affairs
On March 1, 2012, the State of Illinois requested assistance from FEMA to conduct Preliminary Damage Assessments as a result of the severe storms and tornadoes that affected Illinois on February 29. Those same storms caused significant impacts across much of the Midwest and South, and we also received requests to support PDA’s in Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia. Disaster reservists and staff from our regional and headquarters offices immediately deployed to the affected areas to support our states.
Among the staff deployed was Susanna Marking, who in her day-to-day job is a Media Relations Specialist at headquarters. In keeping with the Administrator’s vision that all FEMA employees are emergency managers, Susanna was deployed in support of the Illinois PDAs. I thought I would share, in her words, a little bit about her experience.
“When my supervisor sent me to join PDA teams after some significant tornado damage in Illinois, I had no idea what to expect. While I had worked at FEMA for nearly one year, I had not yet deployed to the field. I was excited to learn more about the work we do every day to support our states and disaster survivors; it was going to be a great opportunity to understand what it is like to work in the field at a disaster as a FEMA employee.
I arrived in Marion, Ill. on March 5 and spent the next several days training with our experienced FEMA public information officers in the field, supporting the State of Illinois on damage assessments. All of these PIO reservists had a wealth of experience and many had worked for FEMA a long time (8-15 years as a reservist), serving communities around the country in their share of disasters – including Hurricane Katrina and 9/11. In just two days, I learned a tremendous amount about the PDA process, and the role of PIOs in the field.
The first day, I was assigned to shadow Dick Gifford, a FEMA Reservist PIO, with his assigned PDA team. Each team was assigned a PIO and specific counties to assess. I learned that the reason we deploy PIOs with PDA teams is to ensure that the media is well informed, while also allowing the teams to continue their work uninterrupted. Equally important, the PIOs can also facilitate the media’s interactions with disaster survivors.
I spent my first day observing Dick and asking him questions about his experience over the years, suggestions on how to work with news media during PDAs, and tips for providing interviews. Dick and I joined the PDA team at the county Emergency Operations Center and listened to a briefing from the State Emergency Management Agency. Afterwards, we attended a press briefing where FEMA and the State spoke to several local media about the damage assessment process. Throughout the day, I helped the media get some footage of the teams going door to door and speak to survivors, as well as field interviews about the PDA process.
As the media began to leave to file their stories, I continued to walk with the PDA teams around the neighborhood and saw many of the homes that were destroyed by the tornado. I spoke with some of the disaster survivors and learned about their experiences. They spoke of how worried they felt about their family members, how they had lost their pets and belongings, and even how their neighbors had helped them after the tornado.
This was a remarkable learning experience for me – not only because I learned more about the role of a field PIO at FEMA, but because I learned so much about the PDA process in general. Throughout the deployment, I learned so much about the emergency management team that Administrator Fugate often talks about. I witnessed the valuable work volunteer organizations do, and the community spirit that comes from neighbors helping neighbors when disasters hit small communities. I learned about all the organizations that are involved in PDAs, what type of data the teams collect, and the type of questions they ask homeowners and the county. And it was awesome meeting so many FEMA disaster reservists – the foundation of our workforce. Some of them are out in the field all day, interacting directly with survivors – and it shows just how important their role is, and how well they represent FEMA as the face of our agency.
My short deployment with the PDA teams and developing my knowledge of the process proved to be an invaluable learning experience for my career at FEMA. Working at HQ can often feel like I am worlds away from FEMA’s work of helping survivors in affected communities. The concept really came full circle for me. Looking ahead to my next deployment experience, I’m looking forward to working hand in hand with the dedicated federal, state, tribal, local and FEMA staff during the next recovery process.”