NAPLES, Fla. — Forty hours after Hurricane Irma hit Naples, Fla., a Port Angeles woman and her five-person crew of disaster survivor assistance specialists arrived on scene.
In their first two weeks in Collier County, Chelsea Nied and her Federal Emergency Management Agency crew members registered about 500 people for disaster assistance to repair or replace their homes, stay in temporary housing and obtain medical equipment and other necessary services.
Nied returned home Monday after her 37th FEMA deployment was cut short due to bronchitis and the flu.
However, FEMA could deploy her again anytime, she said. As a disaster field training operations specialist, she may be asked to teach training classes for FEMA in Austin, Texas, next, she said.
No stranger to deployment, Nied has deployed 66 times in 22 states, occasionally for training but mostly in response to natural disasters such as floods, wildfires and hurricanes. Thirty-seven of those deployments were with FEMA.
This time, the internet’s role in the disaster response struck Nied.
About 50 percent of the people Nied encountered already had signed up for assistance online before FEMA responders arrived.
It’s a far cry from what she experienced in Hurricane Katrina in 2005, she said.
“The internet back then wasn’t anything like today,” she said. “In 2005, people were just getting used to email.”
At that time, few people registered for services online, and FEMA responders could access only a limited number of laptops to allow people without internet service to sign up for assistance, Nied said.
Now, the internet offers immediate gratification — as opposed to congested FEMA phone lines or crowds filing out the door in FEMA registration centers, Nied said.
FEMA disaster survivor assistance specialists also carry around iPads to register people from door to door, she said.
“Bing. Bing. Bing. Bing,” Nied said, imitating keyboard strokes. “Call volumes can stack up, but online registration is instant.”
As a social media emergency management specialist, Nied takes interest in this development.
In disasters, people go to social media first, Nied said, pointing to cases where people posted on Facebook before calling 9-1-1 or the authorities.
“It’s the new trend,” she said.
It’s why Nied, on her own time, posts to Facebook and Twitter pages devoted to disaster- and incident-related topics worldwide. She calls herself a “digital humanitarian,” based on a 2015 book by Patrick Meier.
She created The Responder News two years ago to aggregate news tips and articles about disaster response on one platform. Occasionally, she writes her own content, too.
“I created it because one doesn’t really exist,” she said.
Similarly, Nied hypothesized Clallam County residents would turn to the internet in the event of a magnitude 9.0 earthquake in the Cascadia Subduction Zone.
Rather, Nied recommends that county residents befriend the folks at the Clallam County Emergency Operations Center so they don’t have to rely on the internet in a disaster, Nied said.
“If something happens here, it’s going through the Clallam County EOC and the Sheriff’s Office,” she said. “It’s time to get to know the people who are going to save your lives now while it’s peaceful and nothing is going on.”
“We have a saying,” she continued. “All disasters begin and end at the local level. They don’t start with FEMA.”
Reporter Sarah Sharp can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56650, or at [email protected].