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September 02, 2005

Orders of magnitude

Watching the news of the scale of the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina, I am struck by the way the media and others are presenting this as a case of the US Federal government, and the President in particular, doing too little or nothing at all. On every bulletin I have so far watched, I have had to listen to and watch the same hysterical woman rant about how nothing is being done and how no one cares. Good television, good human interest, but is it the real picture?

The sheer scale of the devastation is equal to that caused by the boxing day tsunami, probably the only reason the deathtoll isn't as high is that at least some of the population had been evacuated. An area of 90,000 square miles is more than the entire land surface of the UK - in fact it is more than the whole of the Netherlands and Belgium and probably a bit of Germany and Denmark! The entire infrastructure is destroyed or damaged, the roads (you want to get trucks and busses in you need usable roads!) the airports, and the electricity (modern cities need that just to keep clean water flowing and sewerage going out!) is out as well. And you still have upwards of a million people who need to be fed, watered and evacuated!

All very well for the armchair critics in the US, the UK and the usual suspects in the media to start blaming "the government" or "the President", but you can be damned sure they would have been no better at solving this one in a couple of hours.

Probably uniquely in the world today the US does have the structures and resources to deal with this. The problem is it takes time to get the people and the equipment to where you need it and then it takes time to actually penetrate the zone and find everyone in need. When the law and order also breaks down as it has in parts of New Orleans, you then have an added problem of the rescue personnel coming under attack. And then you have the media contribution. One of the most infuriating "news" broadcasts I have seen so far is of a placard waving mob "demonstrating" and demanding help. It is so obviously "staged for television" that it is nauseating! Yes it is a tragedy! Yes it is a disaster of unbelievable proportions, but where the hell are the priorities of the news media when they can take up airspace and valuable cargo space on helicopters, about the only viable means of getting to those in need quickly, with "celebrities" whose main contribution seems to be to weep and accuse their President of "failing" to help. They will happily interview hysterical people who need clean water and food, having flown in with a full payload of reporter, camera crew and sound man when what was really needed was a helicopter loaded with food, water and equipment for sanitation! Not more handwringing and pontificating media reporters. Certainly the world needs to know what is happening, and those who are so quick to criticise the President in this should know that no emergency management or planning system can be activiated until the full extent of what is needed is known. That means getting good intelligence from the scene, real intelligence, not media circus spin, not party political spin.

Having been involved in Emergency Planning and Management for a large part of my career I can say with some authority that the emergency relief Command will have been assembled as the storm approached. They will have been trying to ensure that, initially, the right things were in place to "protect in situ", that is to maintain the dykes (levees to the US) and to pump out the areas that did flood. Evacuation and emergency shelter will also have been a high priority, but evacuation would have been suspended as the storm struck and is impossible until after it has passed. Once the storm begins to ease, the next phase kicks into gear, usually at local level - not national - and requires a local team to assess and report back on the actions required and the equipment needed. They will also prioritise the needs, still considering in order;

maintenance of law

In New Orleans, the initial assessment was that the flood water could be contained, then the levee failed and containment was not an option. With the roads destroyed, evacuation becomes difficult as does reaching those who need food, water and assistance. When the law and order fails and the gangs start to seize control of areas, this compounds the problems because now the aid and rescue workers are denied access. So the National Guard has been mobilised and sent in - a few thousand against a few hundred thousand - and combing an area bigger than several countries in Europe. How much impact could they have immediately? The simple answer is not much, but they will. It won't happen instantly and in a nice convenient Hollywood style with the "good guys" cavalry riding over the hill and putting it all right immediately, it will take time and time is a very subjective thing. For those waiting for relief it is a lifetime, to those bringing the relief it seems to fly past as they struggle through the debris at an agonising pace. I know, I have been there, I have done this and struggled afterwards with the few who have only seen their waiting and not the effort that went into reaching them.

It is even worse when you are the co-ordinator in what is now frequently referred to as "Gold Command". You are not "on the scene" able to actually "do" the job. You are reliant on reports of progress from the teams on the ground, aerial reconnaissance (if available) and any other reliable and verifiable source to make your assessments and priorities from. Then comes the even more difficult bit of where to make your dispositions to. Who do I leave in place, who do I move, who is the most urgent and who the least. Where do I send the equipment and where do I send in the food, water, medical supplies? How do they get there? What obstacles need to be overcome to achieve this and how will they be overcome - also, how long will it take to go this route as opposed to that one. Even more tricky is the fact that Gold Command must work as a team - it is also an "Interagency" assembly and each agency has a different capability and agenda. Ultimately they must all be pointed in the same direction and all the synergies utilised in the best possible way to achieve the maximum effect. There is no easy way to do this and sometimes the "Commander" is obliged to bang heads on the table and issue unpopular orders. Being the Number One in Gold Command is a bit like being God, most of the time you are working on amicable and co-operative levels, occassionally it's time to issue thunderbolts. Those who have never been in Command, can never know the loneliness of having to make a choice between taking one action which will save this small group and another which will save a larger group in more imminent danger further away, in the hope that you will be able to save the others on the return swing.

It doesn't always work and sometimes you have to live with that. I well recall an incident my father talked of when, as a young seaman serving on one of the RN's large battleships, there was a torpedo hit which started a fire in the 15 inch gun magazine. Fire in cordite is not a good idea, but there are also upwards of ninety men and officers in the magazine when at action stations. The officer in charge opened the seacocks and flooded it, drowning himself and the other eighty nine in the magazine. It saved more than 1100 members of the crew and the ship - brave, terminal for him and all with him, but the only option. Only those who have had to make similar choices can ever appreciate that.

So, the media circus now gathering like flies around the Mississippi Delta would do well to remember that they are hindering not helping, the critics would do better to shut up, cut their fuel usage which is drawing off fuel vital for the aid delivery and get down to the local charity centre and see what they can do to help instead of throwing criticisms.

No emergency plan or management system is ever perfect. It can always be improved and so it should be, we learn, after all, from the mistakes of the past. Now we all know that the levee's around New Orleans should have been strengthened and raised several years ago - carping about it now isn't going to improve it! Besides, surely it was the state and city legislature and not the Presidency which should have dealt with that? Looking at a map shows that most of New Orleans and St Louis is below sea level, so maybe that should be addressed when rebuilding the city after this disaster.

In the meantime, I raise my cap to those actually getting in there and getting aid in. I salute those who are getting to grips with this and starting to try to bring normailty back to a scene of such devastation and on such a scale that I very much doubt any nation, the US included, could have done any better. Now is not the time for recriminations, now is the time for every man, woman and child to get in there and do whatever is need to help - and that includes the rest of the world.

Let us hope that the EU and UK governments get the message! In particular, let's see less of the media circus and a lot more of their acting in assisting the emergency crews in any way they can.

Posted by The Gray Monk at September 2, 2005 11:36 AM

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I disagree with you on this, the president should be held accountable for the lack of response by the Fed's after all he is the one who folded the FEMA in the Dept of Homeland Security and changed it's charter to focus on terrorism.


2003: Under its new organization chart within DHS, FEMA's preparation and planning functions are reassigned to a new Office of Preparedness and Response. FEMA will henceforth focus only on response and recovery.

so if their job is response and recovery where is it??? I have done food drops over Bosina so I know a C-130 could cover 10 sqaure mile with no problem.

Summer 2004: FEMA denies Louisiana's pre-disaster mitigation funding requests. Says Jefferson Parish flood zone manager Tom Rodrigue: "You would think we would get maximum consideration....This is what the grant program called for. We were more than qualified for it."

June 2004: The Army Corps of Engineers budget for levee construction in New Orleans is slashed. Jefferson Parish emergency management chiefs Walter Maestri comments: "It appears that the money has been moved in the president's budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that's the price we pay."

June 2005: Funding for the New Orleans district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is cut by a record $71.2 million. One of the hardest-hit areas is the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, which was created after the May 1995 flood to improve drainage in Jefferson, Orleans and St. Tammany parishes. I know the dykes still may have failed even with this money, but 71 million goes along way to fixing the weak areas.

one thing I do agree with you on is that the reporter helicopters should be taken over by the government and used for rescue operations.

one more thing where is the rest of the world's help??? The US gets condemed for being a week late with 3 billion in aid for the tsunami, but I haven't heard of one dime from the french or germans in aid for Hurricane Katrina victims. America once again is left to solve out her own problems, and Europeans wonder why we are so arrogant and don't feel the need to consult them.

Posted by: skipjack at September 3, 2005 02:50 AM

Some very valid points there Skipjack, my point is that even the C-130's need to be loaded and then pointed up at the right targets. I think you will agree on the fact that the need and the target first needs to be identified before you can launch the aircraft. My reading of this is that for at least two days the folk on the ground in Louisiana didn't really have a handle on how big the problem was and so delayed triggering the big alert.

And I agree totally that the deafening silence from the EU and the UK on assisting in this is nothing short of disgraceful!

Posted by: The Gray Monk at September 3, 2005 05:27 PM

Point One! Unlike the other Gulf States &/or cities in that region, New Orleans, and Louisiana did almost nothing BEFORE other places. Mississippi and Alabama were on the move two days before landfall. On the other hand, Louisiana and New Orleans sat around doing nothing! Then they went to work squealing and whining, still doing stupid things for over 10 years!

It's the same story about the cuts in federal Aid....." you folk pay for everything, and do all the hard work.....we're too busy hustling the visitors and have put all our state funds, etc. raking in the funds from that source and providing assistance to the casinos and French Quarter! No wonder Congress decided they weren't worth the trouble.

Of course the MSM [Main Stream Media ] will only put on the sob stories, and not the whole picture!

Posted by: MommaBear at September 3, 2005 09:15 PM

It looks like Venezuela, Singapore, Sri Lanka, and Israel have or are going to send help. Still waiting on the EU.

It can take up to 12 hours to find and load a C-130, I know cause I have had to do this. My point is do they have to be asked for help to start the process? or could FEMA just start it when hurricane hit land fall and just stand down if it wasn't needed. I guess I would rather be acused of wasting effort in being too prepared, then be acused of not doing enough.

Posted by: skipjack at September 4, 2005 01:32 AM

FEMA is a coordinating agency which releases funds & resources to State and local level agencies. Emergency management is always the responsibility of the Governor and the Mayor.

Pres. Bush declared a state of emergency for the expected areas 2 days before landfall, which released FEMA to provide their resources.

LEMA, the Louisiana Emergency Management Agency, under the auspices of the Governor, held primary responsibilty for enacting any plans on record, placing supplies in depots, and arranging for evacuations.

Currently, there are about 650 school buses submerged in New Orleans, useless for any transport, which are located within sight of both the Superdome and a freeway leading out of town. With FEMA funds loosed, any gas was already paid for. With 2 days to do it, approximately 39000 persons could have been evacuated in one trip, turned around and repeated. At 7 hours ride to Houston, they could have easily staged and evacuated more than 100,000 persons.

But the Mayor didn't order evacuation until the last moment and the governor didn't take the threat seriously. The other Gulf states, while hit very hard, did.

While these are very pointed questions which will hold some people in high places accountable and will be answered in full, now is the not the time to point fingers.

Posted by: urthshu at September 4, 2005 04:40 AM

BBC reporter when there were still no supplies or aid inN.O. -" we drove along pretty good roads to get here to the Superdome. If we can, how come the army can't?"
FEMA turns out to be run by a pal of Dubya's, with no track record or expertise. His last job was running a Horse association - and it turns out he was useless at that.

Posted by: Rob at September 4, 2005 05:24 PM

Rob, I am not sure of the protocols in the US, but I do seem to recall reading that the US Military cannot be deployed inside the US without the express request of the State(s) in which they are to be deployed for any reason whatever. Only when a request is received from the relevant State Governor, can the military move - and then it takes several hours to mobilise the people and get things moving.

As Skipjack, Urthshu and MommaBear have pointed out there are a number of reasons the response may have been a little slow. My point all along is that it is always easy to criticise and perhaps criticism is due, but surely the critics should wait until after the crisis has been dealt with. And we must remember that the media have no interest in telling the whole story - only the damaging bits that sell papers.

For me the most reprehensible thing is the absence of any international effort. The US and its citizens are always at the forefront of aid to everyone else - why are our governments so tardy in offering aid now that the US needs it? Perhaps the BBC reporter would like to ask his chum Blair that question?

Posted by: The Gray Monk at September 4, 2005 09:31 PM

If now is not the time to point fingers, it is definatly the time to make a list and check it twice. Time has a way of glossing over mistakes

Posted by: skipjack at September 5, 2005 01:22 AM

There is so much to take in--so many reports, some true, some not so and some with a grain of truth and not much else. However, I honestly believe that much of this could have been prevented had FEMA had someone in charge who actually had a clue, if the leader of our country was a little more on the ball, a little more tuned into what is going on and if everyone had pulled together and worked on solutions as a team. Unfortunately, that didn't happen and now we have these poor people being transported all over the country for lord knows how long until decisions that should have been made long ago are made. There is a huge group coming to Boston and will be housed at an Air Force base here. Can you imagine the culture shock for them? Not only are they hundreds of miles from that they all hold dear and that which is familiar and comfortable, they are in a state that gets COLD, is cold at night already, I feel so bad.

You might like to read some of what is being posted on www.washingtonmonthly.com. While it might be a tad biased, it seems to be getting to the meat of this entire situation. And then, if you still want to read something, look for Molly Ivins' column entitled, "Yes, policies certainly have consequences." Well done as are most of hers.....

Posted by: cyn at September 5, 2005 03:00 AM