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The AI Interview: FEMA Director of DHS Partnerships Center, Marcus Coleman

Director shares FEMA’s impact on the nation and its people.

American Infrastructure: Tell me about FEMA. What are its purposes and why was it started?

Marcus Coleman: FEMA was started in the 1970s. And I think the impetus for it was right, we had an increasing number of disasters and hazards at the time that had expanded beyond state capacity to manage. 

Our mission is helping people before, during and after disasters. And the key word there that we focus on is people. So one aspect of our work is helping those people at the state, local, tribal, territorial and government level, that are seeking to meet some of the immediate needs of disaster survivors in response and recovery time. 

And also thinking about mitigation, and preparation, which is important as it relates to infrastructure. We also come alongside people like associations and other groups that are really thinking deeply about how to make sure that the work that they’re doing every day, helps to mitigate against some of the impacts of a disaster.

AI: What are some goals FEMA would like to achieve this year?

MC: FEMA just released our strategic plan. The first goal is instilling equity in emergency management. So there’s been a lot of conversation about diversity, equity and inclusion and emergency management. That’s no different. We actually have developed a guide for expanding mitigation, making the connection to equity. 

Our second goal is to help build out a whole community approach to advancing and strengthening climate resilience. That includes thinking about the consequences of climate change as it relates to our communities, not just in terms of what happens after but what we can do today. Through work, such as mitigation projects, making sure that we come alongside those experts that are maybe leading construction projects are again, looking to build out their cities, and increasing their climate literacy. 

AI: In what ways has the pandemic affected FEMA?

MC: My heart goes out to all of the employees of FEMA and all of the people that have lost loved ones. I think that the loss and the grief and the stress that has come with the pandemic, has absolutely exacerbated a lot of challenges as it relates to emergency management. But FEMA has been ready to support, ready to respond and ready to help out where we can. 

Some specific ways that FEMA is helping is actually providing assistance to individuals and families who’ve lost loved ones through the COVID-19 funeral Assistance Program. So that’s one effort to help support our state, local, tribal territorial partners and communities to grapple with some of the personal losses that have occurred as a result of the pandemic. 

AI: How has the infrastructure bill impacted FEMA? What are some projects being planned with the funding?

MC:  I’m incredibly proud of the work that is happening through the building infrastructure program, and the recent bill that just passed. As it relates to the theme I think many people may recall, the Flint water crisis, which was caused in large part due to an aging infrastructure into lead pipes. 

Providing water that people couldn’t drink or weren’t accessible, people were actually called in to help support the state, and mitigate some of the logistics and support that the state cannot manage on its own. As you may know, with this building infrastructure program, one of the aspects of their program is to help jurisdictions and communities help remove lead pipes so more people have access to clean water. 

AI: Is there anything else that you’d like to mention?

MC: I want to mention that when we talk about the work that the Federal Emergency Management Agency does, I think oftentimes people assume that it’s just after disasters, but we do most of our work actually, before disasters. And we do it through a very diverse workforce. 

In addition to communicators and people that help navigate the disaster recovery program, we have a number of engineers, civil engineers, data scientists, people that are from the fire service, all coming together. 

Again, it’s building equity and emergency management, leading whole community resilience or building a ready nation. It’s going to require a whole community effort and skill set. So I want to encourage those folks that are reading the magazine and that may find themselves thinking about what role they can take; that there is a role for them in helping to build a more resilient nation, alongside FEMA as a partner. 


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