After Hurricane Harvey’s biblical-proportion rains, thousands of Texas Gulf residents, facing flooding that swallowed entire residential communities, were rescued by local first responders, including police and fire departments.

First responders were overwhelmed by the scale of the flooding. Over 2,000 rescues were done by private boat-owners, who fished and hunted on rivers and bayous that transverse the Texas Gulf Coast.

If volunteer rescuers had not come, the Texan families would have faced dire consequences, including lack of access to medicine (diabetes, blood pressure, asthma), infections, dehydration, and mental issues, like stress and depression (plus unique issues for children, handicapped, senior citizens, pregnant women, non-English speakers, and pets).

Texas National Guard soldiers assist citizens in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

Texas National Guard

Federal Emergency Management Administration Administrator William B. Long, former head of Alabama’s Emergency Management Agency, was quick to laud the small boat rescue armada. At a news conference, Long said, “Helping Texas overcome this disaster is going to be far greater than FEMA coordinating the mission of the entire federal government.”

He concluded, “This is a whole community effort.” He repeated this phrase “whole community” several times, emphasizing that FEMA alone could not address the Texas humanitarian crisis.

FEMA is globally known for responding to disasters that overwhelm state and local governments. However, the 2006 Hurricane Katrina challenges forced FEMA to identify limitations in its role in disaster mitigation, and this was highlighted in a 2011 FEMA report entitled, “Whole Community Approach to Emergency Management: Principles, Themes, and Pathways for Action.”

The 25-page FEMA document opened alarmingly by noting natural disasters will be “more frequent, far-reaching, and widespread.”

Food and medicine in a giant container ships can dock at Honolulu Harbor, but it would be a logistical nightmare to supply the outer communities.

Traditionally, state governments relied on FEMA to come to their rescue with specialized staff, food, water and temporary housing. Yet FEMA saw assistance “gaps” based on a “changing reality” for small- and medium-sized disasters. For “large-scale disasters,” FEMA stated that its resources “can be overwhelmed.”

What did the FEMA report advise state and local government to do for the future?

FEMA proposed a long-term approach in “increasing individual preparedness and engaging with members of the U.S. community as vital partners” — the “whole community” framework.

This concept has ramifications for the 50th State, isolated in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

FEMA defined “whole community” as a philosophy — a way of thinking so that police and fire departments, business owners, emergency managers, community leaders and government officials can do an assessment or audit of their own community, identify gaps in preparedness, and list the ways to “organize and strengthen their assets, capacities, and interests.”

The outcome will be community members who share community risks and capabilities, and set priorities, in order to recover from a natural disaster. FEMA gives no national template: Each U.S. community will make “different decisions on how to prepare for and respond to threats and hazards.”

The decisions made for New York City are different from Anchorage, Alaska, and again different for the City and County of Honolulu (with 950,000 residents on one island). The FEMA report stated that a “community-centric approach for emergency management that focuses on strengthening and leveraging what works well in communities on a daily basis offers a more effective path to building societal security and resilience.”

Each city that “functions well” has its own individual approach, and a natural disaster response will
be different with each community’s “best practices.”

FEMA highlighted the “process” – a jumble of interests, viewpoints and ideas. Even in tiny Hawaii, with a total population of 1.2 million (Houston has more than 2 million and Harris County more than 4 million), there are many voices.

The report emphasized that personal relationships forged during the discussions about a community’s
“complexity” will yield “many dividends” in the post-disaster recovery. In other words, if you had a series of talks with a neighbor, you would reach out to that neighbor during a crisis and help without hesitation, just like the Texas boat rescuers.

The Hawaii key to the process is the neighborhood board. Some boards are more acutely aware for disaster planning than others. It comes down to simple geography: the outer Oahu communities like Makaha, Waimanalo and Hawaii Kai recognize that an event like a Hurricane Harvey disaster would cut off road access to the rest of Oahu.

The airport and harbor facilities may not be operational, so isolated communities may seem to be on the other side of the moon, although on the same island. For these outer communities, a common goal may be to identify passenger-supply catamarans and yachts to bring supplies at small boat docks or onto the beaches for quick on-off trips.

Food and medicine in a giant container ships can dock at Honolulu Harbor, but it would be a logistical nightmare to supply the outer communities.

There may be synergies in planning between different neighborhoods. Kalihi-Palama and Waikiki may appear worlds apart, but both need disaster communications in different languages. During a disaster, Waikiki has a unique challenge of evacuating tens of thousands of non-English-speaking tourists back to their home countries.

FEMA emphasized that state and local emergency managers must “understand and meet the actual needs of the whole community,” and the more they knew about their local communities, the better they can understand their “real-life safety and sustaining needs.”

Also, emergency officials must “empower” all parts of the community, including “social and community service groups and institutions, faith-based and disability groups, academia, professional associations, and the private and nonprofit sectors.”

In Hawaii, especially on Oahu, the other sector is the U.S. Department of Defense base facilities and thousands of military personnel – they are integral to disaster planning with adjacent communities, like Kalihi, Aiea and Wahiawa.

To re-create neighbor linkages, Hawaii must recover its nostalgic past of plantation camps where neighbors knew which houses had senior citizens, which houses had a handicapped child, which houses had two dogs and a cat. Children were looked after by numerous “aunties” and “uncles.”

In urban Honolulu, filled with condominium buildings where few residents know their neighbors, neighborhood boards must lead programs at the condo-building or block-level, especially to identify vulnerable, at-risk groups.

Hawaii must take FEMA’s “whole community” concept to heart, with the goal to mitigate future natural disasters, to save ourselves with the help of our neighbors.

Editor’s note: In Community Voices last year, Tsuchiyama explored the special storm-related risks for the elderly and poor and other special populations.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

About the Author