Sunday, January 24, 2010

Some thoughts on disaster relief logistics

The Associated Press addresses an important issue in the continuing response to the earthquake in Haiti.
More than a week after an earthquake leveled swaths of the Haitian capital, the recriminations are circulating faster than clean water. From CNN's Anderson Cooper to blogs and social networks, questions echo: Why is help taking so long? Why can't the relief process be streamlined? Can't this thing go any faster?

"What on Earth has gone wrong?" the Arab News, an English-language newspaper in the Middle East, wondered in a sharp editorial this week.

But take a step back. While the difficulties of negotiating the decimated Haitian infrastructure are clear and the logistical and administrative problems formidable, could a perception gap be at play, too? Are the expectations of the virtual world colliding with the realities of the physical one?

In the space of a single generation, ours has become a world of live video chats, one-click online ordering, overnight delivery, on-demand movies and instantaneous electronic fund transfers — including sending aid to Haiti via your cell phone. It becomes only natural, in such a society, to bristle at any delays.

Trouble is, the physical world can't move as fast as the virtual one and, barring the invention of a "Star Trek"-style transporter, probably never will. Unlike medicine and food and water, information no longer has to travel via plane and boat and road and foot. News can arrive immediately. But doing something about it? That's another thing entirely.
I don't disagree with any of that. I think it is correct and perceptive.

I thought so in September of 2005, too, though I seemed to be pretty much the only one:
. But there is a huge amount of bad faith mixed in with legitimate questions about FEMA's performance. People are assuming that things are possible without taking into account what has happened, the full scale and scope of the efforts that a) are needed and b) are underway. The logistics involved with the number of people, the amount of water, the size of the area, are all staggering. There are huge areas, hundreds of square miles, that cannot be reached by car, truck or boat. How long and how many helicopters would it take to evacuate 100,000 people from a 300 square mile area, people that are bunched in 10s and 20s? As I write this, it has been approximately 96 hours since Katrina hit the Gulf coast. What, realistically has not been done which should have been done?

And contrary to the "Bush doesn't care" nonsense, he actually declared disaster areas before the storm even arrived to expedite the federal response. FEMA's been there since before the storm arrived. The Navy is moving the hospital ship USNS Comfort to New Orleans. But it takes time to travel from Baltimore to New Orleans by sea. Likewise with all of the different units that the President outlined on Wednesday, 48 hours after the catastrophe. I know that the New York Times wants him to bite his lip and "feel your pain" but what he was doing instead was making sure that actual rescue efforts were taking place.

I understand that this is an instant gratification nation. We want what we want, and we want it now. But sometimes the real world gets in the way. The laws of physics prevent everything from happening at the same time, and prevent multiple vehicles from operating in the same space simultaneously. Everyone stranded in the middle of the flood knows that a helicopter could rescue them in the next hour, but again, how many helicopters are there? Pilots? How much area is there to search? It takes time. Time while crews open roads, while work crews remove downed power lines and trees, while flood waters recede. Has FEMA reacted appropriately and fast enough? Are there enough National Guard troops to do what needs to be done?

I have no idea. Neither do the people criticizing the relief efforts.
Among that group criticizing the relief efforts in the aftermath of Katrina was...the Associated Press.

One would love to think that a media organization made up of fine impartial journalists wouldn't cover similar stories differently just because of the party identification of the President of the United States at the time the story was taking place. But, of course, there's no reason whatsoever to think that the Associated Press actually is made up of fine impartial journalists...

(H/T: Mark D. Roberts)

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