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Commerce Department Plays Central Role in Preparing and Responding to Disasters and Emergencies

The Biden-Harris Administration is dedicated to building a stronger and more resilient nation and equipping Americans with the resources they need to remain safe and secure. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act have provided more than $50 billion in climate resilience so that communities can better withstand the impacts of climate change and extreme weather. 

Our nation is best prepared to face disaster when our national security, climate security, and economic security are strong. Recently, communities across the nation have faced hurricanes, historic flooding, wildfires, and extreme heat that require emergency response.   

Agencies within the U.S. Commerce Department play a central role in raising awareness and preparing for and responding to disasters and emergencies. In recognition of National Preparedness Month, the following Commerce bureaus equip Americans every day with the resources they need to remain safe and secure.

Real-Time Data for Areas Impacted by Disasters

U.S. Census Bureau data and tools are supporting equity and leading the way in identifying underserved communities impacted by disasters. Supported by American Community Survey data, Community Resilience Estimates (CRE) allow the identification of neighborhoods with a high percentage of the residents with three or more risk factors, that place them at high risk for poor outcomes to a stressor such as a disaster. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) uses the CRE in different areas of their disaster management.

The Census Bureau’s Economic Directorate is assisting the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration in measuring the impact of the Hawaii Wildfires on businesses. The Census Bureau has a rich dataset measuring all aspects of business health from the Economic Census, County Business Patterns, and the Business Trends and Outlook Survey.

At the beginning of August 2023, the Census Bureau launched a revamped Emergency Management Hub available at <https://disasters.census.gov&gt;. In the hub, users have quick access to a suite of data tools that provide invaluable data on people, businesses and the economy. These tools include:

OntheMap for Emergency Management: An easy-to-use, public data tool that provides an intuitive, web-based interface for accessing national population and workforce statistics in real time for areas impacted by disasters. The tool provides detailed workforce, population and housing characteristics for hurricanes, floods, wildfires, winter storms and other emergency events in federal disaster declaration areas.  

My Community Explorer (an equity tool to help identify underserved communities): Allows users to see a live feed of climate related disasters such as wildfires, hurricanes, extreme heat and poor air quality layered on a base map of CRE showing high risk neighborhoods that contain underserved populations.

Census Business Builder: Allows users to look at a rich dataset of over 150 demographic and economic/business variables in a map-based interface. Users can look at North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) sectors 2-6, build regions, filter on data variables, and create reports.

Economic Assistance for Disaster Recovery

The U.S. Economic and Development Administration (EDA) has a long history of successfully supporting disaster recovery and resiliency efforts. EDA's role in disaster recovery is to facilitate the timely and effective delivery of Federal economic development assistance to support long-term community economic recovery planning and project implementation, redevelopment, and resilience. EDA is uniquely positioned to coordinate federal support for regional disaster recovery efforts in partnership with its extensive network of Economic Development Districts (EDDs), University Centers, and other stakeholders in designated impact areas. For more information on EDA’s work, please view their Disaster Recovery brochure.

National Broadband Network Dedicated to Public Safety

The First Responder Network Authority, or FirstNet Authority, oversees the building, deployment, and evolution of FirstNet, the nationwide broadband network dedicated to public safety. FirstNet is an essential tool for first responders, helping them prepare and respond to everyday incidents and major emergencies.

Since its launch in 2018, FirstNet has played a significant role in disaster response—from tornadoes to wildfires to hurricanes. Most recently, FirstNet provided connectivity and voice communications for first responders during the Maui wildfires in Hawaii. The Maui Police Department, Hawaii State agencies, and Federal and State Urban Search and Rescue teams used the network to support communications and information sharing during response and recovery operations. FirstNet’s resilient network deployable assets, such as Satellite Cell on Light Trucks (SatCOLTs) and other mobile cell sites, provided cellular coverage for 10 locations on Maui.

There are over 150 FirstNet deployables stationed around the country and across U.S. territories that can be sent to emergencies within hours. Deployables offer on-demand coverage during emergencies and planned events and are provided at no cost to FirstNet subscriber agencies.

The FirstNet Authority also helps public safety prepare for planned events and emergencies through the Network Experience Engagement Program, which offers pre-planning support, post-incident/event reviews, and exercise planning support. Through this program, the FirstNet Authority is helping communities across the Nation learn how integrating broadband technologies into response operations can enhance the safety and security of responders and the public.

The FirstNet Authority regularly shares resources and information to help the public safety community prepare for emergencies or incidents. Public safety leaders may visit FirstNet.gov to learn more, or check out the FirstNet Authority’s Emergency Management Resource Guide for details on how FirstNet is helping communities across the Nation plan and prepare.

Building, Tornado, and Fire Safety

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has a number of projects and programs that focus on building up community resilience before a disaster strikes.

  • Building Safety: NIST investigates when buildings and other structures fall down due to disasters or other causes. Studies conducted by NIST have led to significant changes in building practices, standards, and codes to enhance the health and safety of the American public. Currently, NIST is looking at how critical buildings performed and how emergency communications systems worked in Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria and investigating what caused the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South building in Florida. Both studies are being conducted through authorities given to NIST in the National Construction Safety Team Act.
  • Tornado Safety: NIST’s investigations following a 2011 tornado in Joplin, Missouri, led to 16 recommendations entailing major improvements to various guidelines, building codes and standards. A number of these recommendations have been incorporated into standards issued by organizations like the National Fire Protection Association, International Code Council, American Society of Civil Engineers, and others. NIST is also the lead agency for the cross-agency National Windstorm Impact Reduction Office, which focuses on research to help reduce the loss of life and property from windstorms, including tornadoes.
  • Fire Safety: NIST has a robust program looking at how to reduce the risk of fire spread and improve evacuation in communities next to wildlands. The program recently released a report around strategies for protecting lives when there is not enough time to safely evacuate all residents as well as guidance for hardening your home against fires and embers.
  • Reducing Earthquake-Related Losses: NIST is the lead agency for the National Earthquake Reduction Hazards Reduction Program, a cross-agency program focuses on reducing earthquake-related losses through improved design and construction methods and practices, land use controls and redevelopment, prediction techniques and early-warning systems, coordinated emergency preparedness plans, and public education and involvement programs.

Weather Forecasts and Warnings

From hazardous weather to heat to climate impacts, researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) work every day to improve prediction tools, gather critical data, and provide the public with useful information to take action.

Every day is a weather awareness and preparedness day for NOAA’s National Weather Service (NWS). In addition to providing advance weather forecast, warning, and data services to every community in the United States, NWS provides direct support to core partners who are charged with public safety decisions. NWS embeds meteorologists at emergency operations centers ahead of and during significant weather. This approach ensures that public safety decisions for significant weather are made with the latest and most accurate weather information and forecasts in-hand and nuances are communicated in real time to support important decision making at local, regional, and national levels.

  • Hurricanes and Tropical Weather Threats: NOAA’s National Hurricane Center provides predictions for hurricanes, storm surge, heavy rainfall and inland flooding, high winds, rip currents and tornadoes. Recently as Hurricanes Franklin and Idalia strengthened, NOAA scientists collected critical data from the air, sea surface, and underwater to enhance forecasts and increase scientific knowledge. The NHC mission is to save lives, mitigate property loss, and improve economic efficiency by issuing the best watches, warnings, forecasts, and analyses of hazardous tropical weather, and by increasing understanding of these hazards. The NHC vision also is to be America’s call, clear, and trusted voice in the eye of the storm and, with its partners, enable communities to be safe from tropical weather threats.
  • Tornados: NOAA researchers and software developers are designing tools to help forecasters issue earlier and more equitable warnings, giving people more time to seek shelter. Collaborative testbed projects shorten the transition time from meteorological research to useful operational forecasting tools. 
  • Excessive Heat: Heat.gov serves as the premier source of heat and health information for the nation to reduce the health, economic, and infrastructural impacts of extreme heat. Their vision is to build a heat resilient nation empowered to effectively address extreme heat and its impacts. 
  • Building Resilience to Climate-Related Impacts: NOAA’s climate resilience toolkit provides specific steps to enhance resilience to climate-related impacts. And to ensure innovations in weather research are holistically integrated into the weather communication system, NOAA’s social science research directly involves emergency managers, broadcast meteorologists, and operational forecasters, in addition to the United States public.

The Department has one overarching goal: Improve America’s Economic Competitiveness. Each of the Department's five strategic goals—including addressing the climate crisis through mitigation, adaptation, and resilience efforts—advances the Department’s mission and supports this goal. Read more in the U.S. Department of Commerce’s 2022–2026 Strategic Plan.