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A tragic week in the USA

April 18th, 2013

As always when I am in Washington, I go to see Craig Fugate at FEMA. We start our meeting on a sober note, with me expressing sympathies for the loss of life and the injuries in Boston, and European solidarity with the American people. And this puts our conversation in a context – in a more fragile world we must build practical ties across the Atlantic among our first responders, learn from each other and link our capabilities.

Craig is my go-to guy when I want advice on responding to natural and man-made disasters. A former fire-fighter, he is Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, part of the Department for Homeland Security. He is the man in charge when major disasters, like the Gulf of Mexico oil spill or Sandy, hit in the US. And his rescue teams were among those saving wounded runners and bystanders in Boston this Monday.

Craig was at his Washington desk inside the US National Response Coordination Centre when the bombs exploded at the Boston marathon earlier this week, killing three people. He knew there were FEMA teams there, on stand-by to help should there was anyone in need of medical assistance. And he also knew they would step in immediately to provide life-saving support.

Craig’s key point was that however tragic the events in Boston have been – for the victims’ families and friends especially – they could have been far worse had in not been for the investment that FEMA has made in building a robust response capacity at a local level. “If you had had to wait for people to come in from the outside to help we would have had more dead,” he said.

FEMA also learned lessons from Hurricane Sandy, which hit the Caribbean and the US last September which, with an estimated $75 billion in damages was the second costliest hurricane in US history. According to Craig, Sandy was two disasters in one: first the power outage is provoked and secondly the impact of the storm surge and floods it brought in its wake. The density of the affected population in and around New York was its own set of new challenges for disaster response.

FEMA is involved in the reconstruction of nine hospitals which lost years of research and expensive machinery because much of this material was stored in basements, lost to the corrosive force of seawater. Underground transport infrastructure was also badly hit, as were utilities such as water and sewage facilities.

I’m very impressed by FEMA’s work in building capacity, with its core of experts and army of volunteers. This is what works well in many European countries as well. And it is what we want to see happening even more – for the safety and security of our citizens.

Next time I see Craig he will be on a big screen in our new Emergency Response Coordination Centre in Brussels when it officially opens on May 15. It will be 7 am in Washington, but Craig doesn’t mind the early hour. He tells me he looks forward to it – to be up light-hearted, on a link to just test our capabilities to coordinate action for the time we may need it. I, too, look forward to it – one more knot in the tie of transatlantic solidarity.

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