Alumni Profile • Edward Buikema '74
Dealing with devastation

Edward BuikemaThe United States experiences more natural disasters than any other country, according to Edward Buikema '74. "People gravitate towards rivers and coasts, which present hazards and risks," he said. "That, combined with the fact that we have such climate diversity in this country, from extreme cold to very warm, present constant challenges."

As a regional director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Buikema has faced his share of those challenges. He coordinates disaster and recovery activities in six states: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.

His job is to help protect and coordinate aid to the 51 million people who live in these states. Potential hazards within the region include 16 nuclear power plants, tornadoes, flooding, an earthquake fault line, border control and possible terrorist events in any of the region's larger cities.

Since taking over this position in 2001, there have been 35 major disasters in the six-state region. "When a situation occurs, we need to find out how big it is, what is needed, how many homes have been damaged and whether or not roads have been damaged," he said. "Our goal is to coordinate all of the agencies to provide the best possible relief efforts."

Never were their efforts put to such a test as they were last fall following the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. Because of the massive fallout from this storm, all 10 regional offices were called on to tap into the resources of such agencies as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Coast Guard and the U.S. Department of Defense.

"Prior to Katrina, the most devastating hurricane to hit this country was Hurricane Andrew, which encompassed 300 square miles," Buikema said. "With Katrina, 90,000 square miles was affected; that's an area as large as the size of Great Britain. Katrina damaged 350,000 homes and destroyed 310,000. The total of all national flood insurance claims submitted from 1968 to 2005 was exceeded by claims due to Katrina."

While FEMA received some bad publicity in the storm's aftermath, Buikema emphasized that the agency was responsible for delivering 29 million pounds of ice and 20 million pounds of commodities in the first six days after landfall. In the first 11 days, more than 5 million meals and more than 1 million gallons of water were delivered.

"Hurricane Katrina was a tremendous challenge," Buikema said. "I'm proud to be affiliated with FEMA. There are so many people there who worked very hard to provide the assistance that they could."

And many lessons were learned from such a catastrophic event, he said: "We realized that we have a ways to go in dealing with such a large-scale disaster."

Large or small, each situation is a difficult one for Buikema. "It's tough to see any kind of devastation," he said. "But knowing that we're able to assist in supplying what these people are so badly in need of is the other side of that."