Disaster Preparedness - Can We?

Shutting the Dike After the Flood

The head of the Katrina disaster and FEMA was sent packing back to the capital yesterday when the administration acknowledged that perhaps he wasn't doing such a "heckuva job" after all. The realization seemed to come with the same alacrity as the Undersecretary for Emergency Preparedness and Response Michael Brown came to grips with the strife of the stranded survivors. Despite the righteous indignation about the resumes and unpreparedness of the top FEMA officials, the level of indignation is somewhat curious.

These are the same FEMA people who have responded to disasters since 2003. Brown reported in a speech this year that in 2004, "FEMA responded to 65 major disasters and seven emergencies in 46 states and/or U.S. territories". He also led FEMA through multiple disasters in 2003. The loudest complaints before Katrina were about how FEMA gave out too much money in Florida to undeserving homeowners who weren't effected at all by a hurricane.

In some cases the criticism was a complete afterthought. The Denver Post wrote an editorial on December 4, 2003 titled "Good Pick For FEMA Successor", noting how Brown had the experience to lead the agency:

"He will coordinate response to any new terrorist attack...As FEMA's deputy director, Brown helped guide that agency's response to the Sept. 11 attacks, so he would bring firsthand experience to the heart-wrenching task...But he must also attend to FEMA's historic mission: helping communities respond to, and recover from, natural disasters...Brown has experience here, too, since he supervised FEMA's response to the massive Western wildfires last summer. He also held various local and state offices in tornado-plagued Oklahoma, so he understands how nature's rampages can devastate communities."

The paper only revealed the more dicey side of Brown's resume following hurricane Katrina. Is such hindsight useful?

FEMA and HDS deserve the wrath of the public. But one agency's failure does not absolve anyone else, culpability is not a 'zero sum game' and therefore it does not detract from the stunningly feeble federal response to point out that there were some flaws with the city and state responses too. Governor Blanco's administration no doubt deserves some heat for Louisiana's response, as does the city.

What Can Brown Do For You???? Good Question.

The Wall Street Journal published an article yesterday about the New Orlean's communication infrastructure collapse during the storm; "At Center of Crisis, City Officials Faced Struggle to Keep in Touch". The New Orleans' "command center" fell apart when the back-up generator ran out of diesel and land lines didn't work, and for the first two days the city disaster team was totally "in the dark". Cell phones were spotty at best, best being when staff leaned precipitously out of one particular balcony on one particular top floor of the Hyatt hotel where the team was holed up.

It only got worse when the levees broke. The mayor's group fought off potential looters and found themselves reduced to looting themselves as they ran out of supplies and ended up in the sorry strife as those they were charged with protecting:

"forced to rely on ingenuity [internet phone] and extreme methods, including breaking in to an Office Depot [to acquire electronics, servers, etc] --as the chief of police stood watch."

Today the fallout from the storm is personally devastating and civilly disruptive. The legal systems in New Orleans are scattered. The storm washed out lawyers, judges, plaintiffs, defendants and records. We believe that sophisticated banking networks and ever clever software technology precisely maximizes the banks profits while minimizing its risks in day to day transactions. However the local banks are now reduced to verifying customers via their employees' memories. Employees dole out cash to recognizable customers.

What Can You do about Future Brown's? Better Question.

A good part of our traumatized response is our fearful knowledge that many of us will face a similar disaster ourselves, in a San Francisco earthquake, a Missouri earthquake, a hurricane, a volcano, tornado or other tumultuous calamity. The faces on TV are close-up this time. Close, and not in a far away place where we are unlikely to vacation- the Andaman islands or Sri Lanka. Nearby, in one of very our own favorite cities, even if we've only been there for a convention. The Wall Street Journal article about the mayor's team's struggles tells us that "of 70 major cities in the U.S., the new Orleans municipal Web site was ranked dead last [in 2002] in a quality survey". This is silly of course. All the other cities might have superior websites but that does not reassure us of our fate - website quality does not predict disaster preparedness. But other things do.

While the federal reaction to Katrina was inept, Brown's removal serves merely as a totem of our collective despair about the untimely critical incapacitation of our technology, communications, and management systems alike. The outraged response to the government bungling of Hurricane Katrina aid is similar to the public furor and special election two years ago on the west coast where Californians, exasperated with state administrative quagmires, jettisoned Governor Gray and replaced him with Governor Schwarzenegger. That costly public response did not resolve California's problems, nor will Brown's banishment resolve our inability to manage stupendous disaster. It is psychologically reasonable that in the face of such a disaster we respond vehemently by blaming one person or agency -- but we should also consider broader actions.

The blatheringly inept response of government, combined with the state's and city's misjudgments should not blind us to our own participation. We vote, chose our leaders, our employees, and our politicians - the "public servants". Each public employee is an important one. We write editorials, we approve the agendas. We should remind ourselves now that those who we chose for their "loyalty", whose habit is to tell us what we want to hear, will not necessarily be most capable of thinking on their own when crises sweep away their cues.

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