September 6, 2012
Keeping it local: Researcher finds FEMA has improved community relations, encourages local focus
Since the initial recovery efforts from the tornado that ripped through Joplin, Mo., in May 2011, little has been heard about the city's rebuilding process. A Kansas State University researcher said the silence is all part of the plan.
Jessi Preussner, a recent master's degree graduate in regional and community planning, Delhi, Iowa, studied the Federal Emergency Management Agency's relationship with the communities it serves and what changes the agency made following Hurricane Katrina that were applied in Joplin. The work was for her master's report.
Preussner discovered that not only have the agency's community relations improved since Hurricane Katrina, but that Joplin's success in rebuilding could be partially attributed to preparedness and one piece of advice the town's emergency management director had been given.
"He had been in the field for more than 20 years and had learned an important lesson from FEMA over the years," Pruessner said. "All the news media left after a couple of months, but the community is still there to rebuild. The community's mantra was to remember to keep it local."
The community was reminded that if time is spent focusing on national attention following a disaster, it will be more difficult to rebuild when that attention is gone. Preussner said the residents and leaders didn't let the attention dispel their rebuilding process.
"You don't hear much anymore about Joplin and its rebuilding process because the national attention went away, but it's very much still happening," she said.
Preussner also talked to leaders and community organizations about FEMA's work within their community as well as the correlating positives and negatives. She discovered that the agency had improved its response time and had someone on scene two hours after the tornado hit. Entire FEMA teams were deployed the following morning.
They were most impressed that FEMA members came to the community's meetings, as well as guided them through the process of what was realistic and what wasn't.
"After Katrina, FEMA got a lot of bad publicity," Preussner said. "There's been a big push within the agency to improve its relations with communities. It was exciting to see that they were making progress and helping Joplin move forward."
The community also brought to light the lack of communication that can happen within the agency. Pruessner said community members voiced concern that the agency focused on specific issues instead of looking at the big picture.
"Many said FEMA's involvement in the community itself was fuzzy," she said. "It was very involved in the plans for the city and how to proceed, but I kept hearing that FEMA representatives weren't very forthcoming with funding information and what could apply to Joplin. Too much time was spent researching specific grants instead of getting an overarching idea."
Overall, Pruessner found that FEMA interacted well with the community and made efforts to improve upon what it learned after Hurricane Katrina. FEMA's success was also due to Joplin's preparedness, as the city completed extensive emergency drills every year.
"Because they were prepared, more lives were saved," Pruessner said. "I hope that idea of preparedness spreads to other communities, and that FEMA will continue to improve its communication with the communities it serves."
Pruessner completed her master's report through the guidance of John Keller, professor of landscape architecture and regional and community planning.