Lake Oswego resident plans to advocate for Oregon on FEMA council
Amid a seemingly endless spree of floods, wildfires, storms and other emergencies throughout Oregon, Lake Oswego resident Andrew Phelps — who is also the state's director for the Department of Emergency Management — said disaster fatigue may be a common symptom.
"You wake up and (think), 'What's the emergency that's going to pop up today?'" he said.
But Phelps, in his current role with the state and his new position on the Federal Emergency Management Administration's National Advisory Council, strives to avoid that malaise while helping safeguard the state and country.
Phelps was selected by FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell to fill one of a few handpicked slots on what will be a 40-member advisory council in 2023.
"The National Advisory Council advises the FEMA administrator on all aspects of emergency management, including preparedness, protection, response, recovery and mitigation for disasters and national emergencies," according to a FEMA news release. "Council members represent a substantive cross-section of officials, emergency managers and emergency response providers from state, local, tribal and territorial governments, the private sector and nongovernmental organizations."
Phelps said he first met Criswell when the FEMA administrator came to visit Oregon a year after the historic 2020 wildfires. He hopes that by serving on the council, he can shine a light on the challenges Oregon is facing as well as some of the innovative initiatives it is shepherding.
For instance, he felt that the state's decision to make emergency management its own department and boost staff should be replicated across the country.
"I think that caught a lot of folks' attention and showed the recognition that it's not a subset of government function, but needs to be at the Cabinet level to coordinate with other agencies in the event of disaster," Phelps said.
In his role, he said he would advocate for FEMA to treat looming wildfires with the same proactive measures as it does for hurricanes on the East Coast. For instance, the state asked FEMA to provide a preemptive emergency declaration as a way to direct resources and reimbursements more quickly in advance of the Labor Day fires. FEMA did not grant that declaration.
"It sends an important message that wildfires are just as devastating as hurricanes and sometimes even more so. … It would give us the tools to help prepare communities when we know we have a wildfire threat," Phelps said, adding that it's more constructive for governments to invest in disaster prevention and mitigation than paying for cleanup after devastation.
He added that he would advocate for other efforts to reduce risk such as tsunami-resistant construction and making sure homes aren't built in floodplains. And he hoped that grants from FEMA would continue to help local communities build more resilient infrastructure.
"We've been going in that direction in Oregon," Phelps said. "We want to carry that over nationally."
He also said he wanted more states across the nation to adopt Oregon's new messaging that individuals should be prepared to be self-sufficient for one to two weeks in the event of a disaster. In many states, the recommendation is to prepare for just three days.
"In a bad day, it could be a week or two before resources or services you need are made available," Phelps said.
Locally, he described Lake Oswego as one of the most prepared communities in Oregon due to investments in seismic resiliency and public safety as well as the presence of a communications center and community response teams, among other reasons. But he said he wants to continue to empower residents to make proactive decisions to safeguard their families.
At a state, federal and local level, he felt that emergency preparedness continues to be underfunded — though he said that investments have increased.
"No one is investing enough money to fully prepare communities for emergencies and disasters that lie ahead. Here in Oregon, we have made more investments over the last few years than we ever have," he said.
He said he understood that there are other priorities, but noted that institutions like health care and the education system don't work if a community is in tatters after a disaster.
"Those investments aren't going to function if you don't have adequate investment in emergency management," he said.
Overall, Phelps said he was thrilled to join the council and highlight the state's needs and initiatives in Washington, D.C.
"Seeing what's happening here at the city and community level tells me the work we're doing is valuable and that the nation has something to learn about what is happening in Oregon and in our communities," he said.
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