The Pact Changing How Governments Respond to Disaster

In moments of disaster, local and federal resources are rarely enough. But another answer is emerging.
by | March 2018
Other states sent firefighters to help battle the California wildfires last fall. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP)

Detective Carlos Mercado’s mission during his 16-day disaster relief tour in Puerto Rico last fall was to fill in for local police who needed a break. Many of the Puerto Rican officers had been working 12- to 15-hour days, seven days a week since Hurricane Maria pummeled the island with 155 mph winds, destroying the power grid and leaving many roads impassable. The workload for Puerto Rican police officers eventually grew so big -- while at the same time overtime checks were being delayed -- that there was widespread absenteeism among cops at the end of the year.

Mercado, a 21-year veteran of the police department in Lowell, Mass., spends most of his time investigating child abuse, domestic violence and other family cases. But in Puerto Rico, he went on traffic patrol, taking charge where signals weren’t working because the power was out. The heat was sweltering, even in November. Mercado was grateful that the Lowell Police Department had bought them summer uniforms with baseball caps, in place of the long-sleeved polyester uniforms with peaked hats that they typically wear. Officers from Oregon weren’t so lucky; they were stuck in Puerto Rico with their winter gear.

Mercado spent his first week sleeping on a bunk that “looked like shelves” on a ship docked in San Juan; the second week he stayed in a hotel that was still “in shambles” from the storm. But it didn’t matter. He and his fellow officers ate breakfast early and were out the door most days by 5:30 a.m. “Going into it, you say to yourself, ‘The island is decimated. This is going to be a mess,’” Mercado says. “I’ve got to tell you, it wasn’t the Taj Mahal, but it wasn’t a mess. It was like deploying in the military: You’re going there to help. Hey, that boat wasn’t comfortable, but it was a place to sleep and a place to eat.”

Everyone Mercado needed to talk to spoke English, even though he had been chosen partly because he speaks both English and Spanish fluently. Mercado’s parents are from Puerto Rico, and he knew the island from several trips there. Almost all of the officers on his team, in fact, spoke Spanish and had a Puerto Rico connection.

But how is it that Mercado, who lives and works 1,700 miles from Puerto Rico, ended up serving with dozens of other bilingual officers in a not-exactly-obvious role in disaster relief, just weeks after the island was hit by a hurricane? The answer lies with an increasingly important mutual aid pact among U.S. states and territories that is changing the way governments plan for major disasters. The Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) allows states to reach out to each other -- instead of to the federal government -- to get the resources they need. So when Puerto Rico needed police officers, it could see a list of all the states able to deliver them, how quickly they could get to the island and how much they would cost. Puerto Rico chose Massachusetts for the mission, and Massachusetts sent Mercado.


Not every mutual-aid effort is related to natural disasters. Out-of-state law enforcement officers came to help police in North Dakota during the Standing Rock pipeline protests in 2016. (Reuters)


All told, Massachusetts and other states sent more than 4,700 responders on 120 missions to Puerto Rico last year to help with disaster relief efforts. That came on top of nearly 5,300 who had been sent to Texas after Hurricane Harvey, and nearly 4,000 who were dispatched to Florida after Hurricane Irma. The EMAC volunteers also helped Nevada coroners after the Las Vegas mass shooting, battled forest fires and winter storms in California, and provided law enforcement to North Dakota during the Standing Rock pipeline protests. In total, for missions that began in 2017, states sent out 17,818 people, by far their busiest year for mutual aid since hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast in 2005.

“Every state can’t have every resource, especially with the pattern of severe weather events we’ve been having in the last couple of years,” says Mike Sprayberry, North Carolina’s emergency management director and the president of the National Emergency Management Association, which runs EMAC. “Every state can’t have urban search and rescue teams with structural collapse capabilities, swift water rescue teams, helicopter rescue teams and all of the different things you need. So you have EMAC, which allows us to very quickly get resources out the door from other states, so they can rally at the site of the disaster. You can’t overestimate the value of it.”

In fact, the value of the arrangement has grown, as states have started to offer -- and request -- a broader array of services through EMAC. The responders now go far beyond police and National Guard units. States have called on mental health experts, agricultural specialists, veterinarians, electric line workers. Meanwhile, the back-office services that support the mutual aid missions have improved as well. That means it’s now easier to show disaster-stricken states what resources are available, track responders and their equipment, and allow for easy reimbursements.

The growing capabilities of EMAC, along with the anxiety among members of Congress and federal officials about the rising costs of disaster relief, make it likely that state-based mutual aid will play an even bigger role in future disaster responses, says EMAC program director Angela Copple. “We expect the use of the EMAC system to go up and [for there to be] less reliance on federal response elements.”


States helping states seems like an obvious response to catastrophe. But it is a relatively recent phenomenon, and it has grown to match the scale of disasters increasingly facing the country.

State-to-state disaster aid got its start in the early 1990s, at a time when federal disaster relief programs were failing badly. Governors and local officials chastised the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for tardy and disorganized responses to hurricanes Hugo and Andrew, which hit the southeastern United States in 1989 and 1992, respectively. The federal agency at the time was notoriously bureaucratic. When the Puerto Rican governor mailed a request for disaster aid as Hugo approached the island, FEMA sent it back through the mail because he forgot to check one section. That delayed federal relief for days. The mayor of Charleston, S.C., said he once asked FEMA for advice on how to speed up disaster relief and was told, “You need to make sure you’re accounting for all of your expenses.”

South Carolina lobbied to bring in the U.S. Marines after Hugo -- and got them -- because FEMA moved so slowly. A few years later, Andrew, a Category 5 hurricane, devastated South Florida. Many of the local emergency responders lost their own homes. Food, water and security forces were scarce. Local officials repeatedly asked for federal help, but little came. Then Kate Hale, Dade County’s emergency management director at the time, focused the public’s attention on the crisis. “Where in the hell is the cavalry on this one?” she pleaded at a press conference. “They keep saying we’re going to get supplies. For God’s sake, where are they?” Federal mobile kitchens arrived two days later.

A month after Andrew hit, Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles proposed a mutual aid system among nearby states. A year later, 19 states in the region joined an emergency management compact and, by 1995, they decided to allow any state to join. Congress ratified the Emergency Management Assistance Compact the next year.


After Hurricane Andrew decimated South Florida in 1992, Gov. Lawton Chiles proposed a mutual aid system among states. A year later, 19 states had already joined what would eventually be known as the Emergency Management Assistance Compact. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)


Under the agreement, the governor of the affected state must declare an emergency or a disaster before requesting help. The state asking for help is responsible for reimbursing states that send aid. For severe disasters, FEMA will, in turn, reimburse the affected state.

By 2000, 36 states were part of the network. Among the holdouts were two of the most populous states in the nation: California and New York. They felt they already had the resources to handle disasters, and saw no reason to encumber themselves with the new arrangement. But within days of the 2001 terrorist attacks, New York joined the compact so it could get outside help, and California joined a month after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005.

It was the hurricanes in 2004 and 2005 that brought about a major change in the way the interstate agreement worked. “Prior to the 2004 hurricane season, it was primarily fire resources, emergency management resources and the National Guard,” says Copple of EMAC. “In 2004, that really shifted to any resource a state would have that they could share with another state.”

That shift in how states viewed the pact, and the increased reliance on local governments to provide relief workers, was crucial when hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast the next year, on a bigger scale than anyone had previously imagined. During the 2004 season, when Florida was hit by four hurricanes, the state brought in 715 emergency responders from 35 states. The next year, by comparison, Florida alone dispatched 7,000 people to help Louisiana and Mississippi. All told, the hurricane-stricken states brought in 67,048 responders from all over the country to cope with the aftermath of Katrina and Rita. Of all the out-of-state personnel responding to Hurricane Katrina on Sept. 10, 2005 (two weeks after the storm hit), 52 percent had been called up through EMAC. FEMA personnel made up just 11 percent.

But the massive influx of responders also brought new complications. At the time, many of the contracts between states were handwritten. They had to be signed, faxed, signed by the other state’s official and faxed back again. Sometimes the paperwork couldn’t keep up with the demand. Florida sent search and rescue teams, law enforcement personnel, and even water and ice to Mississippi without contracts in place. Mississippi welcomed the help. “Will police up paperwork later -- you have my guarantee,” Mississippi’s emergency management director emailed his Florida counterpart.

Those ad hoc arrangements made it difficult for Louisiana and Mississippi to reimburse states that had helped them. Many states didn’t even have written policies for reimbursements. Even in those that did, responders often didn’t understand or know about them. One Louisiana emergency management official says the reimbursement process after Katrina was a nightmare. “There was not a lot of time for states to implement those procedures,” adds Copple, who became the first full-time staffer administering EMAC shortly before the 2005 hurricanes. “We got those lessons learned and the next year -- BOOM! -- this massive event happened and they needed a ton of resources. States didn’t have their deployment procedures written, and yet, when the calls came for help, they absolutely sent those personnel down.”

In the years following Katrina, emergency managers tried to simplify things and speed up response times by using pre-planned mission packages. The response teams would figure out ahead of time what they would need to do their work in another state for two weeks, and how much that would cost. That way, when a disaster strikes, all the team has to do is figure out its travel expenses and give the affected state a cost estimate.


Two days after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo arrived along with food supplies and hundreds of workers. (Courtesy of the Office of the Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)


The National Emergency Management Association and the states also spent several years improving the back-end operations. The first version of the system’s software, which allowed managers to better track their people and equipment, came out during the response to Hurricane Katrina. It’s been improved quite a bit since then. Now, emergency managers can use the web-based system to alert other states that they need help, see what teams are available, track reimbursements and keep better tabs on responders.

To help smooth the process, states frequently send EMAC experts to disaster-stricken areas so local officials don’t have to navigate all the EMAC and FEMA rules in a crunch. If communications break down, another state can run the EMAC system remotely for the affected state (although the impacted state still has the final say on whom to bring in). After Maria, EMAC coordinators worked with FEMA to make sure that the equipment needed by EMAC teams got to Puerto Rico using a federal airlift, which was important because landing slots at airports were hard to come by.

All of those features make it possible for states to take disaster planning to a level they’ve never been able to reach before. When Harvey hit Texas, for example, response teams in other states knew in advance that they would be going to the Houston area, because Texas officials identified the resources they would need and where they would get them long before Harvey came ashore.

Louisiana has gone through similar planning, says Victoria Carpenter, the state’s EMAC coordinator. “Our health and hospital team knows how many federal ambulances they’re going to ask for and how many can be brought in. Let’s say they need 800 ambulances. They know they’re going to get 300 federal ambulances. They know they’re short, so they know they can EMAC these resources,” she says. Then the planners identify where the ambulances are coming from and whether those teams offer basic or advanced life support. They also know that the paramedics with those teams are properly trained and certified.

That level of sophisticated planning represents a big step forward for Louisiana, where the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina made disaster planning a top concern. In fact, Louisiana has been on both the sending and receiving side of the mutual aid arrangements recently. It brought in outside teams to respond to major flooding in the state in 2016, but last year Louisiana sent 40 of its own teams to help Florida, Puerto Rico, Texas and the Virgin Islands. “Louisiana,” Carpenter says, “loves EMAC.”

“States that have disasters like Louisiana, where we’re prone to hurricanes and flooding, have learned the hard way,” she says. “We know we need assistance from other states. We know we can’t handle the number of resources needed in a catastrophic event.”


One result of EMAC’s work is that the public now expects local first responders to pitch in to help with far-off disasters. And politicians have noticed. Two days after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo arrived there in a plane donated by JetBlue. On the trip, Cuomo and his team took 34,000 bottles of water; 9,600 ready-to-eat meals; 3,000 cans of food; 500 flashlights; 1,400 cots, pillows and blankets; and 10 generators; as well as engineers, translators, supervisors and drones from the New York Power Authority to help Puerto Rico’s electric utility restore power. Cuomo vowed that the initial trip would be only the first of many. “Anything this state can do for Puerto Rico, we will do,” he said. Indeed, New York followed up with Black Hawk helicopters, Humvees and road-building equipment. The Empire State also sent 450 utility workers to help repair Puerto Rico’s power grid.

In Massachusetts, where Gov. Charlie Baker met with Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, the state’s response became an issue in the opening rounds of the governor’s 2018 campaign. Setti Warren, a Democrat who hopes to unseat Baker, lambasted the Republican incumbent for not sending the Massachusetts National Guard to Puerto Rico. “Puerto Rico is American, and no part of our country should feel ignored in a time of crisis this severe,” he said. “With millions of Americans suffering, we need to ask ourselves if we are doing everything we can to help.” A few days later, the Baker administration announced it would be sending six Guard members to the island. “Is this a joke?” Warren asked.

But in fact, the Massachusetts governor couldn’t send troops to Puerto Rico without an invitation from the Puerto Rican government. “Our goal is to make sure we’re doing what the people on the ground there who are managing the disaster say they want us to do,” Baker said, “and nobody suggested from there that sending the National Guard from Massachusetts would be helpful.”


Hurricane Maria's 155 mph winds destroyed Puerto Rico's power grid. Many areas are still without power. (Shutterstock)


Warren’s campaign dismissed the governor’s explanation as “a bunch of bureaucratic gobbledygook.” But emergency managers warn that “self-deployment” outside of the EMAC process causes more harm than good. It’s a lesson that was reinforced in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when volunteers swarmed the disaster area without clear instructions. The first problem that creates is that unexpected guests need a place to stay and food to eat, which further strains the emergency relief effort. But there are other complications. There may not be a suitable mission for the volunteers and, if there is, it may not be at the place where they first arrive. Public officials have no way of validating that, say, a volunteer who claims to be a medical doctor actually is one. And, of course, the freelance volunteers don’t benefit from the legal protections they would have if they are deployed through EMAC.

Still, the biggest criticism of the EMAC process, particularly in Puerto Rico last year, is that it moved too slowly. Two weeks after Maria’s landfall, Puerto Rico had put out only about half as many requests for outside help as Texas did for Harvey and Florida did for Irma. While the other governors sent out requests before the hurricanes landed, Puerto Rico’s governor waited until the day after Maria struck. Puerto Rico’s dire financial situation may have played a part in that -- the government was $123 billion in debt when it filed for a form of bankruptcy last May. Six days after Maria struck, though, the federal government agreed to cover 100 percent of Puerto Rico’s recovery costs for six months. Soon afterward, Puerto Rico ramped up its calls for assistance.

In time, EMAC administrators will evaluate the system’s response in Puerto Rico, as they do for all of their deployments, looking for areas to improve. The reviews have been crucial to building EMAC from an ad hoc neighborly assistance agreement to a major component of disaster planning. Puerto Rico’s experience may reshape the program yet again, as emergency managers confronted situations most had never dealt with before: the near-total loss of power and communications; a disaster zone reachable only by sea or air; and a financially crippled host government.

But they will also try to improve the small things that affect day-to-day operations. Along those lines, Carlos Mercado, the Massachusetts police officer, has one small suggestion. “For an incident like this, I would say we need a planned uniform” that’s appropriate for the climate, he says. It would give the police officers from jurisdictions across the United States a consistent look so residents could identify them easily. “Instead of different color uniforms, set them up with the equipment they need.”