CLINTON, Miss. -- The public face of FEMA is a federal agency that can respond after a disaster to help state and local governments and individuals recover from the damage that occurred.
But sometimes FEMA can play a role in state and local government preparations before a disaster strikes. That was the case this spring when the Mississippi counties, along their namesake river, were faced with impending flooding.
A full contingent of FEMA personnel already was in Mississippi responding to the tornado and storm disaster declared by President Obama on April 29.
Included in that staff were Geographic Information System experts who normally use their skills to create computer-generated maps that track how the agency is responding to needs after a disaster.
But in this case, FEMA made its GIS staff available to assist state and local emergency planners get ready for the river's flooding.
"All of us -- state, counties, cities, FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers -- were able to look at the same flood projections, road closures and other data," said Mike Womack, director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. "And we saw it the same way. The colors on the maps meant the same thing on everyone's computer screen and on everyone's paper print out. We also could be certain that we all were seeing the latest version of the data."
The coordination took place daily around a table at the state's Emergency Operations Center where GIS experts for the state, its contractors from Jackson State University, FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers shared data files and definitions to assure uniformity. The resulting computerized maps then could be viewed on screens at other locations or printed on printers elsewhere and still show the same information the same way.
"The willingness of the Army Corps of Engineers to share its data with us for viewing on our computers was a huge benefit to reaching this level of cooperation," said Terry L. Quarles, FEMA's federal coordinating officer for the Mississippi disaster response. "Sharing the information widely among all the involved agencies enhanced preparations for the floods and minimized mistakes," Quarles said.
The Mississippi has crested and is receding. The full extent of damage won't be known until the river is back in its banks and people can return to their homes. When they do, they can turn to FEMA in its traditional role of helping people recover from a disaster.
FEMA's mission is to support our citizens and first responders to ensure that as a nation we work together to build, sustain, and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from, and mitigate all hazards.