(Summer ’17) Lauren Kennedy, G

Week 10: FEMA Housing Project

Wrapping up the end of my fellowship has given me new perspectives on FEMA and their role after a disaster. While I know that huge changes can and should be made to ease the process of getting disaster survivors into temporary housing, the case study research I have done gives me a much clearer perspective as to how and why FEMA policies have been implemented. The evolution of different programs and policies can be traced back through different disasters, with the most major changes happening after Katrina. From how FEMA distributes grants and funds (almost immediately following a disaster), to why this doesn’t always work (funds aren’t helpful if there is no rental supply for people to use it), and what FEMA has tried in the past. All of these decisions and choices need to be analyzed closely so that the same mistakes aren’t made repeatedly. Knowing what failed isn’t as important as knowing why it failed.


Through the case studies I’ve developed, an evolution in FEMA procedures towards logistics in temporary housing can be observed. Using data and experiences from past events, temporary housing—particularly, the design and use of manufactured housing units (MHUs)—have been analyzed and evaluated for future changes within the agency’s procedures. In past events several logistical bottlenecks have caused delays in getting survivors into their temporary housing units. This has included many aspects of the MHU logistics supply chain and installation including: incorrect order modeling (2016, Baton Rouge), market competition from survivors themselves (2011, Minot) and installation stalls due to new procedures (2008, Ike).

After meeting with some of the folks from FEMA regarding their use of manufactured housing units and the future of FEMA’s involvement with temporary housing, it was really compelling to witness how passionate they are about their work. We have mostly been meeting with FEMA employees that have a mandate or directive to follow, backed up by policies and regulations– so not those who are deciding the policies, but those in charge of implementing the policies. The people we have met with are eager to explain how the system currently works, where they see bottlenecks, and how their roles could be improved so that they can get disaster survivors into temporary housing faster. They feel strongly about this topic because they want to help people, and they can see exactly where time and money are being underutilized. Their experiences and institutional knowledge is incredibly useful and will certainly inform how our team proceeds. The recommendations from the team I am working with will directly affect FEMA housing initiatives and I feel so fortunate to be able to play a (albeit small!) role in understanding and influencing the future of this agency.

Week 7: FEMA Housing Project

While my long term goal will be to look at international case studies, I am focusing more on domestic disasters right now so that I can better understand how and why FEMA currently operates. The specific disasters I am researching includes Hurricane Ike (2008), North Dakota Floods (2011), and Louisiana Floods (2016). Even with my preliminary research, I can see how FEMA has changed and updated different policies and regulations from disaster to disaster.

Even though I am starting with domestic case studies, I am interested about how FEMA operates in comparison to international agencies. I looked into how the International Federation of the Red Cross view shelter and temporary housing after a disaster to see how close (if it all) FEMA policies aligned with the IFRC. In terms of survivor preference, the IFRC lists the most popular choice of disaster survivors is to either reside with friends or family or to reside in a temporary shelter next to or near their damaged or destroyed home.

FEMA initiated a program titled, “Shelter at Home” after the flooding in Louisiana which was intended to make quick, temporary updates to damaged houses to allow survivors to stay at their home during the long repair process. Other financial options help survivors rent alternative housing, or funds to stay at hotels or motels for families who don’t have friends or family that can take them in. It seems to be in concentrated disaster impact areas, such as Minot, North Dakota, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, FEMA has deployed MHUs because of the lack of housing stock or hotel rooms available to rent or provide to survivors. When possible the MHUs are placed on an owner’s private property, allowing them to continue working on their previous residence and giving them the ability to stay in their community–which aligns with the IFRC recommendations. However, in some extreme cases, FEMA has had to create MHU parks for those that have been displaced. The IFRC strongly recommends against scattering survivors to distant locations, and survivors list this as their last choice, so while these temporary housing parks are only used as a last resort, perhaps they are the best current method of allowing residents to remain near their community? I’m hoping my research will help answer that question.

Week 4: FEMA Housing Project

I am officially on the team for the FEMA project investigating new alternatives to temporary housing. My role will be to construct a series of case studies reviewing how the US and international agencies have responded to the need of temporary housing after a disaster to see what has (and has not) worked in the past. Extreme weather events such as large, unpredictable storms and catastrophic natural disasters are increasing, and coastal cities with large urban populations are particularly vulnerable. Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy have marred the sense of security for US populations; FEMA, in particular, has been charged with gross unpreparedness, especially after Katrina. One of the most publicized criticisms was of the poorly conceived travel trailers that FEMA used as temporary housing for survivors of the disaster. In response, the US government restructured FEMA and the agency has been systematically updating their practices, particularly in the field of logistics.

In June of 2017, FEMA kicked off a two-year project to reimagine their disaster-related housing assistance program. The goal of the project is to optimize the design of their temporary housing units with the perspective of both survivor-centric housing (evaluating environment, scalability, survivor needs, and flexibility for size) as well as the cost-effectiveness of the housing materials within a defined supply chain. The ability to reduce the cost of a housing project is severely limited once the design is complete; the key to cost-effectiveness is in the early-stage co-design of the product and the procurement and delivery process.

After meeting with various stakeholders and partners, I have established my scope of work for the summer and beyond.

My thesis research will evaluate how international players in disaster response have (or have not) integrated their design process with the supply chain. I will be assessing and interviewing stakeholders from such agencies as the International Federation of the Red Cross, Oxfam UK, and the Global Shelter Cluster to outline supply networks leading to emergency shelters and temporary housing. I will identify when and how these agencies have effectively incorporated the sourcing, storage, and shipment of product design materials with their designs to develop a lowest-cost, commercially available design. My goal is to provide FEMA and other international response agencies a framework for how the supply chain can successfully influence the design of temporary shelter and housing after catastrophic disasters.

This research will be the start of my thesis project and I am so fortunate to have found several helpful advisors with numerous connections in the field of disaster response logistics. What has been truly eye-opening for me is the extent of need in this domain, both domestically and internationally. I am excited to be contributing to this field and I hope to provide a positive difference to our national response efforts.


Week 1: Establishing Scope of Work and Meeting with FEMA

During Spring semester I was enrolled in  MIT’s Innovation in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response class which provided me with the opportunity to connect to many influential leaders in this field. My semester-long project involved evaluating new pallet standards for the FEMA logistics team in conjunction with several new warehouses they are designing and building in the next few years. Some of the data visualizations that I’ve done for this project can be seen here: http://palletoptimization.weebly.com. Additional information for this project will be published after I receive permission from FEMA.

This summer, I intend to collaborate with the FEMA logistics team, the MIT Humanitarian Response Lab, as well as the Civilian-Military Humanitarian Response Program at the US War College to both continue research in disaster response logistics and bridging the gap between civilian and military response efforts. There are two potential projects that I am doing some initial readings on: ‘Alternatives for FEMA Disaster-Related Housing Assistance‘ and ‘The Role of Groceries in Response to Catastrophes‘. Both could have significant impacts on how FEMA conducts their response efforts in the future, and how the military could facilitate this effort. 

‘The Role of Groceries’ project would be a follow-on study based on the initial work of Philip Palin in a paper with that title. In Palin’s study, he evaluates food distribution centers near large urban areas to see if private food sources could be utilized in no-notice disaster situations. The answer was a resounding ‘yes’, there is plenty of shelf stable food nearby all large cities in the continental US, enough to provide sustenance to most city populations for 4 weeks, or 28 days. However, as noted repeatedly in the study, the challenge will be moving and distributing that food from the distribution centers to the victims and those in need. One proposed study for this summer is to evaluate the supply chain needs of a large urban area during a disaster and the role FEMA and the US Military would play during such an event.

The second research project was proposed by FEMA and the MIT Humanitarian Response Lab and it would involve joining a study headed by MIT Lincoln Laboratory titled, ‘Alternatives for FEMA Disaster-Related Housing Assistance.’ This study will be evaluating new designs for FEMA housing assistance. After a natural disaster, FEMA provides direct housing assistance for up to 18 months for those in need. FEMA is looking to redesign the structure of the housing units, with respect to the sourcing, storage, and distribution of the materials used. The US Military may also play a role in this distribution network, and professors at the US War College could connect me to the military logistics officers to get their perspective on the project. The task that I would be assisting with would be reviewing and learning how to use MIT’s optimization modeling tools to minimize the total costs of deployment, transportation, storage, staging, and installation of the housing units.

I think either direction would beneficial learning experiences to participate in, and both would provide substantial information to FEMA, the MIT Humanitarian Response Lab, and the US War College. I am going to spend some time in the next week doing some literature reviews about each of these topics and learning more about each project to see where I will provide the most meaningful work.

Lauren Kennedy (G, Urban Studies and Planning)

Lauren will be interning with the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, under the Civilian-Military Humanitarian Response Program. Her summer research project will focus on communications between civilian disaster relief agencies (such as FEMA or USAID) and the US Military and creating new documentation to help bridge these two different domains.

Check back for her updates!

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