"It was chaos. There was nobody there, nobody in charge. And there was nobody giving even water. The children . . . they're all just in tears. There are sick people. We saw . . . people who are dying in front of you."
- CNN producer Kim Segal, describing the New Orleans Convention Center the day after Hurricane Katrina
[Note: the Convention Center was NOT an official shelter like the Superdome. Thousands of people just showed up and expected to be taken care of in a city that was official abandoned. The media handled this very poorly- looking for blame instead of helping evacuate the people to real shelters or notifying officials. TV anchor, Ted Koppel, would accuse FEMA of negligence for NOT learning about the crisis at the convention center from TV news reports.]
A reader of the SurvivalBlog.com objects to Firefighter Charles disaster scenario that I quoted in yesterday's post.
"Firefighter Charles's statement about FEMA's response times shows a lack of understanding of how the process works. In the event of another Hurricane Katrina type natural disaster, the following things have to happen, in the following order:
1. Disaster strikes
2. Local officials setup an incident command
3. Local Emergency Operation Centers (EOCs) are activated. The local emergency operations plan (EOP) is put into action.
4. Mutual aid agreements are activated. If the disaster goes beyond this, then...
5. State EOCs are activated. State EOPs are put into action.
6. The state activates it's mutual aid agreements.
7. If the situation is not contained, the Governor declares a State Emergency. He can then.....
8. Appeal to the President to declare the event a federal disaster - whether it is a Stafford Act event or not.
9. FEMA is then activated and ordered to head the rescue/relief efforts. The FBI is the lead investigative agency for any criminal acts, while the BATFE is the lead law enforcement agency for anything law enforcement related such as security, etc."
Now there are some good points here but I think the responder protests too much. The process above makes Firefighter Charles's point even stronger. Before super-slow FEMA can respond, one has to wait for local bureaucracy and then state bureaucracy to run its course. This rarely happens quickly and you can still expect 72-hrs or more to pass before resources like food and mass shelter are available.
In the case of Katrina the emergency response process was stalled by politics. The mayor of New Orleans ordered everyone to abandon his city with just 19 hours notice. The New Orleans official evacuation plan was not activated; school buses sat unused that could have helped evacuate residents. Those who could not leave were ordered to go to shelter of "last resort" without any provisions for food, water, security, or sanitary conditions. The Louisiana Superdome was designed to handle 800 as a shelter but 30,000 arrived.
Immediately after the hurricane had passed on Aug 30, 2005, Michael Chertoff, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA's boss, tried to take over the federal, state, and local operations, citing the National Response Plan. This was refused by Governor Blanco of Louisiana who indicated that her National Guard could manage. President Bush, a former governor of Texas, would not overrule a governor acting within her constitutional rights of state leadership.
Still it is wrong to say the Federal Government did nothing. Naval ships were moved to the Gulf before the hurricane hit and Coast Guard helicopters rescued 35,000 individuals from flood waters. Approximately 58,000 National Guard personnel were activated to deal with the storm's aftermath, with troops coming from all 50 states. The Department of Defense also activated volunteer members of the Civil Air Patrol.
700,000 people applied to FEMA for temporary housing. Tens of thousands of trailers were used but in some parishes the local council refused the trailers (not wanting to create a permanent squatters camp perhaps?). Also FEMA would only deploy trailers to regions with working utilities. (Think of the sewage problems that would result otherwise). For those without trailers, FEMA paid for hotel rooms. Five years after the disaster, there are still 260 families in hotels being paid by FEMA.
A Congressional investigation after Katrina found that FEMA and the Red Cross "did not have a logistics capacity sophisticated enough to fully support the massive number of Gulf coast victims." It placed responsibility for the disaster on all three levels of government.
The National Incident Management System (NIMS) always puts the onus for response on local governments. However local responders NEVER have the resources for a major emergency. In Westchester county with a population of almost 1 million, the local Red Cross and CERT teams have cots for only 30,000 people. If there were mass evacuation from an accident at Indian Point Nuclear power plant, we'd have to rely on neighboring counties and neighboring states for shelter. That requires lots of high-level politics and lots of time.
The worst part of this is that many townships in Westchester, NY refuse to stockpile supplies and designate shelters. Once a town has a shelter plan, they are responsible to maintain it. For towns without a shelter plan, the responsibility goes upon Westchester county.
Labels: CERT, Emergency Management, FEMA, Government, Hurricane, Katrina, New York, Planning, Red Cross