Portman Highlights Importance of Natural Disaster Preparedness

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, highlighted the importance of properly preparing for natural disasters at a hearing titled “Addressing the Threat of Worsening Natural Disasters.” 

Portman discussed the importance of local responders, who are usually first on the scene when disaster strikes, and how the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) relies on local preparedness as a part of its emergency management strategy. Portman showcased how in 2019 after severe storms and tornadoes touched down in Southwest Ohio, lives were saved thanks to the preparedness of local responders like Sima Merick, Executive Director of the Ohio Emergency Management Agency, who led the response in 2019 when the tornadoes hit, and was a witness at today’s hearing. 

Portman discussed how he traveled to Dayton, Ohio and toured the damaged areas the morning after the storm and saw the devastation firsthand. Portman also mentioned how he met with Montgomery County Sheriff Rob Streck and other first responders in Dayton after the storm, where they were conducting operations and assessing some of the damage. Finally, Portman discussed his visit to an American Red Cross shelter that was quickly set up to ensure that those who were impacted by the tornadoes had access to food, water, and shelter.  

His opening statement can be found below and a video can be found here. 

“Thank, Mr. Chairman, and I thank the witnesses for being here today. We’re pleased to have a witness from Ohio with us who has done a great job in ensuring that we have preparedness in our own state but also has worked with the National Emergency Managers Association. So, Ms. Merick, thank you for being here. 

“This is an important hearing. We have the opportunity today to talk about preparedness to deal with these natural disasters and let’s face it, there are more and more of them. We have seen over the past couple of years the most damaging wildfires, droughts, and hurricanes in our recent history. And so we need to be better prepared and we need to make sure that FEMA is there to respond effectively. FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is the principal agency that coordinates the federal response to these natural disasters. But just to remind people, we have a very decentralized system in this country. FEMA doesn’t provide the boots on the ground. For the most part, it’s local responders who are first on the scene when disaster strikes. This is reflected, by the way, in FEMA’s emergency management strategy, and I’ll quote from it, it’s ‘federally supported, state-managed, and locally executed.’ 

“I’ve seen first hand the importance of this local preparedness and response in Ohio on a lot of occasions over the past couple of decades, representing Southern Ohio and now the whole state. We’ve had flooding. We’ve had tornadoes, and we’ve had other emergencies. In 2019, May of 2019, we had a series of tornadoes that touched down on Western Ohio, damaging or destroying hundreds of homes and businesses in the Miami Valley and displacing a lot of my fellow Ohioans. The most extreme damage occurred in the Dayton, Ohio area and the surrounding communities of Trotwood and Beaver Creek. Incredibly, and thanks in large part to the alert systems and the training of our local responders, while 166 people were injured, we did not have a single loss of life in the Dayton area that night. And if you had seen the destruction as I did, you would be amazed that people weren’t killed. It’s amazing how quickly people got out of their homes and were able to avoid even worse situations. We did sadly, have one casualty from the tornado that touched down further north in Celina, Ohio. 

“In the immediate aftermath, my wife, Jane, and I drove from our home to Dayton, Ohio, early in the morning right after the tornado had hit. And we went to thank people to show our support for the first responders, not to get in the way but to ensure that they knew that we were there to support them and to talk to constituents who had been displaced. We saw amazing devastation, down trees, property damage. But we also saw the impressive work being done by our local first responders, as well as an immediate response from our state partners and also federal partners who were already on the ground or on their way. Montgomery County Sheriff Rob Streck took the lead in the Dayton area for much of the damage, and he had a command center set up immediately. I was able to talk to him and his team and the Central Ohio Strike Team, which is an urban search and rescue unit out of Columbus, Ohio. I’m really eager to talk more about the use of our teams around the country. 

“We did pass legislation a few years ago to help or use our teams, but they do an awesome job and respond not just in Ohio but from Ohio all over the country, most recently with the hurricanes in the Southeast, but also with regard to 9/11. They were there on the spot, and that was Ohio Task Force One. We also went to see the Red Cross and what they were doing. We went to a shelter that had been set up, again, talked to constituents about the situations they were facing. But less than 12 hours after the tornadoes hit, the Red Cross was already providing food, water, shelter, and a place for people to stay who had lost their homes. This security and a place to stay was absolutely critical to the people I talked to as they prepared to rebuild their lives, some from scratch. 

“Within a few weeks of the event, FEMA had three active centers open across the Miami Valley with caseworkers, mental health workers, people who can help with businesses, people who could help with small business loans. They also established an area for children to decompress and an area dedicated to helping people with disabilities. This was all set up pretty quickly and again, I had a chance to tour these. 

“I can assure you it would have been much worse, but for the preparedness of our region and the preparedness our state had in place and the quick response from the first responders. I’m proud of Southwest Ohio for coming together so quickly in this case, but it’s an example that I’ve seen around the state of preparedness done right. Again to Sima Merick, thank you for being here today and for the crucial role that you play for the National Emergency Managers Association, in addition to your work in Ohio. You were leading the Ohio Emergency Management Agency in 2019 when the tornadoes hit, and so I saw the good work that your folks were doing. 

“I look forward to all of our witnesses today and look forward to discussing the importance of properly preparing for our natural disasters. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.”