Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Disaster response to Katrina, What If This Was An Asteroid Strike?


Had quite a few conversations with friends this weekend about Katrina and the response from the local, state and federal levels. I'm not posting this just to point fingers. I'm writing my opinion here in the larger context of our nations ability to handle a large natural disaster. This is because the five of you who read this blog know that I freak out about the planet getting hit by an asteroid. After watching the inadequate response from the different levels of government response teams, I have less than a confident feeling in our ability to prepare for an asteroid strike.

Local- Mayor Ray Nagin failed to pro-actively plan for a massive evacuation. He had over 300 busses at his disposal (some less than a mile from the Superdome) before the flooding started with which to evacuate the 20,000 plus at the Superdome. This is now known as the Ray Nagin Memorial Motor Pool. I think Nagin is to be commended for his steadfast demeanor during the crisis, as he seemed to be the only voice last week that seemed to really know what was going on. But the problem is that New Orleans has known for decades that this Hurricane was coming sooner or later. And they knew that the Superdome and the Convention center were at best only good for a day or two as shelter. Neither place had adequate generator nor sewage capacity to deal with more than a day's worth of refugees. As a result, more people were forced to deal with third world chaos. Indeed, 18 year old Jabbar Gibson had more sense than city and state officials by Thursday.

State- Governor Blanco is ultimately responsible for the incredibly short sighted response to the effects of Katrina. Bush pleaded with her on Friday before the storm hit to declare a mandatory evacuation and a state of emergency. In fact Blanco admitted that it was the President himself who convinced her to order a mandatory evacuation. The city had an evacuation plan for how to handle situations precisely like this, which by the way included positioning local busses in place to evacuate people from shelters, that apparently went unused. The levee systems that failed were known to be weaknesses before, yet nothing was done pro-actively to prepare for the storm surge.

Federal-FEMA. $6 billion budget, yet they were unable to pick up the slack when the state level failed (there is an extensive list of FEMA failures here). Michael Brown, the FEMA director, issued statements that demonstrated a frightening lack of comprehension about the potential danger from Katrina- "Saturday and Sunday, we thought it was a typical hurricane situation -- not to say it wasn't going to be bad, but that the water would drain away fairly quickly," Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Mike Brown said today. "Then the levees broke and (we had) this lawlessness. That almost stopped our efforts." ..."Katrina was much larger than we expected," he said." As Brendan Loy notes from the previous link- "No one -- NO ONE -- who knows anything about New Orleans geography and topography and levee system would ever have thought for a single moment on Saturday and Sunday that Katrina, if it followed the predicted path, was going to be a "typical hurricane situation." " That Brown was surprised by Katrina is an indication to me that he is not prepared to deal with large natural disasters. Lord help us is he's in charge if we ever find an asteroid flying towards the Atlantic.

The problem from my perspective on a federal level is that FEMA was rolled in to the Department of Homeland Defense, thus creating an even larger bureaucracy which has impeded its effectiveness. If you look at the response from the Department of Defense, you saw immediate action and response. Troops with water and supplies rolled in and made a difference. FEMA, with all of the $6 billion took three days AFTER the city was flooded to get busses together to evacuate those stranded at the Dome and the convention center. According to FEMA, they were "on the scene" and "ready to react" a day before the hurricane struck. According to the Hattiesburg American, it took six days for FEMA to arrive, and when they got there they weren't of much assistance.
Why did it take six days for representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to arrive in Hattiesburg?

Then - if you can believe this - when they finally got here Saturday, their first question to local officials gathered at the Forrest County Emergency Operations Center was:
Do you need help?

Do you need help?

Oh, we almost forgot: FEMA representatives did say the agency plans to post fliers informing storm victims to call 1-800-621-FEMA or to go online at www.fema.gov to obtain disaster relief information.

A telephone number?

A Web address?

Who are these people kidding?

What good is this information in an area where a large percentage of the population continues to operate without telephone service and Internet access?

Sky writing a message behind a crop duster would be more effective.

FEMA needs to get its act together - quickly.

I want to make clear that there are thousands of people from FEMA and the National Guard down to the local PD's and City Officials that have worked tirelessly to rescue and provide relief for those who were affected by Katrina. In no way am I attempting to diminish their efforts. I am only trying to expose some faults at the executive level that seem to show glaring deficiencies.

The reason for this is that as bad as Katrina turned out to be, it's still but a drop in the bucket compared to an asteroid strike. Whatever deficiencies were exposed by Katrina would be completely ripped apart in the case of an asteroid strike. We need to get these wrinkles ironed out while we still can so they don't become liabilities in the case of a greater disaster. As always, do what you can to be prepared on your own.

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