Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Was the Federal response too slow?

I wrote, the other day, about how I saw much of the criticism of the federal response in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to be, at the least, way pre-mature. I've got a couple more things along those lines that I wanted to get out today.

  • The meme appears to have crystalized, even on the right, that FEMA has done a bad job, responding too slowly. I'm certainly open to the possibility that FEMA has been incompetent, but I've yet to see anything that I consider compelling evidence that that's the case. We're talking about devestation over hundreds (thousands?) of square miles of US territory. We're talking about devestation where the infrastructure for both communication and transportation are essentially non-existent. What is a reasonable response time? How fast and how far can we reasonably expect supplies and services to get under the situation as it exists? I've yet to see any concrete reasons to think that there's been some dramatic underperformance by the Federal government.

    There's an excellent piece today by a retired US Marine, Craig Martelle (FEMA is not a first responder) in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It addresses some of the things that I've been wondering about as I've seen and read and listened to in the media for the past week.
    As one who has received training by FEMA in emergency management and also training by the Department of Defense in consequence management, I believe that the federal response in New Orleans needs clarification.

    The key to emergency management starts at the local level and expands to the state level. Emergency planning generally does not include any federal guarantees, as there can only be limited ones from the federal level for any local plan. FEMA provides free training, education, assistance and respond in case of an emergency, but the local and state officials run their own emergency management program.

    Prior development of an emergency plan, addressing all foreseeable contingencies, is the absolute requirement of the local government --and then they share that plan with the state emergency managers to ensure that the state authorities can provide necessary assets not available at the local level.

    It's a good piece, with perspective that's been sorely lacking.

  • Who's the mayor of Gulfport? Who's the mayor of Biloxi? Who's the mayor of Mobile? Why are they not on television 24 hours a day? The general tenor of the media coverage has been "New Orleans was demolished by a major hurricane, and the Federal government handled it badly." The fact is, a week ago, the papers were still carrying stories of how New Orleans had "dodged a bullet." But it was already clear that the Gulf Coast communities in Mississippi and Alabama were destroyed. It was clear that the there was a major catastrophe in places other than New Orleans. But somehow, the footage in New Orleans has become the definition of what Hurricane Katrina did.

  • There's nothing in the public record as damning for the Federal government as this AP photo is for the Mayor of New Orleans.

    How many school busses are sitting there, empty and essentially destroyed by the flood? How many of New Orleans' residents could have been evacuated had they been used for that purpose in the 48 hours before the storm hit? And how can the President of the United States be blamed for them not being used, particularly when the evacuation that did take place, apparently took place at the urging of that President? ("Gov. Kathleen Blanco, standing beside the mayor at a news conference, said President Bush called and personally appealed for a mandatory evacuation for the low-lying city, which is prone to flooding.")

    There will be time, and necessity, to do a post-mortem on the response of the government at all levels. But, to the extent that someone's clearly dropped the ball, I don't see that it's the President or the Feds.

For anyone who wants to claim that FEMA screwed up, I've got a few questions.

1) What specific decision was made that was made too late or too slowly?

2) What specific action that was taken was taken too late or too slowly?

3) What actions have been taken that should not have been? Whose responsibility were they?

4) What actions have not been taken that should have been? Whose responsibility were they?

5) What responsibilities should the Federal government have taken in New Orleans earlier than they did? What authority did the Federal government have to take action on those responsibilities?

Again, as I said the other day, I'm not going to claim that anyone has done everything perfectly. But I am going to continue to maintain that the criticism of the Federal government's response is vastly overblown, and an actual evaluation justifying criticism won't be available for months.



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