Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Hurricane Katrina, the aftermath - Part 2

Rightly or wrongly, the federal government was blamed for what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. FEMA was blamed for failures that were the responsibilities of state and local governments. In response to this I see FEMA, reacting to instructions from Congress and the Department of Homeland Security, preparing to assume tasks that have traditionally been within the purview of state and local governments.

There is an unfortunate moral hazard for emergency managers who prepare to respond to a disaster. This hazard is especially grave in a place like Florida, which has been subject to an inordinate number of disasters in the last decade. The better we are at rapidly responding to a disaster, the less the citizens feel like they need to prepare themselves and their families to respond.

Many who solicit aid from the government or the Red Cross or Salvation Army after a disaster aren't really in need and don't need the assistance. If they don't need it, why do these people stand in line for a free Red Cross meal? Why do they wait in their expensive cars for hours for a case of water and a bag of ice? Because it's free.

A veteran of many disasters calls it "freestuff." When the freestuff is made available human nature seems to drive everyone to the table to make sure that they get their "fair share." Whether they need it or not, many believe that it is their "right" to get freestuff when it is made available.

Some people in a disaster actually need the freestuff. They are poor. They are disabled. They are elderly. They are the weak, the ones ones with the least capacity to weather the strain of the disaster and the ones who do the most suffering. And many times the strong are able to stand in the long, hot lines to get their feestuff while the weak cannot.

For a variety of reasons communities respond to disasters in different ways. Some do a better job at it than others. In some places, like Florida, we get a lot more practice. Yet, in catastrophic events, no matter how good you are, communities and even states can get overwhelmed. In these situations, the federal government has to step in and help.

In the thorough, big budget way that the federal government goes about doing things, FEMA and other federal agencies are planning on how to take over from communities and states when they are overwhelmed. They are even planning how to take over some of the tasks performed by agencies such as the Red Cross and Salvation Army.

The Red Cross, Salvation Army and other such agencies do wonderful work in a disaster. I can personally testify to the great deeds that these agencies perform EVERY DAY. Because if your neighbor's house burns down it's a disaster; if your house burns down it's a catastrophe. The Red Cross and Salvation Army are always there during disaster or catastrophe, no matter the size.

The work force of these agencies is made up almost entirely of volunteers. And, as opposed to the the flood of well-meaning people who arrive at a disaster to help, these agencies provide trained, organized and managed volunteers operating with a central purpose toward set objectives. Most of these people are local, trained volunteers helping their own communities.

If FEMA, at the behest of Congress and state's that want to forfeit their responsibilities decide to assume these tasks that have traditionally been done by the communities, then we all lose. No one will volunteer to do a job that FEMA will pay top dollar to perform. And outsiders, with no knowledge of our communities will be brought in to respond to our disasters. And as we stand in line to get our freestuff, we will bitch and complain about the inefficient and unorganized response to our disaster.

And we will be right.


Sunday, July 29, 2007

The new FEMA

I traveled to Baltimore this week to attend a National FEMA conference. I was there representing the best state emergency response team in the nation. FEMA invited two representatives from each state to attend at their expense and I was one of the two Florida representatives.

A lot of the many voluntary agencies active in disaster were at the conference.There was an extremely large contingent of American Red Cross employees from around the nation. We even had state representatives from as far away as Alaska and Hawaii. Finally, there was considerable FEMA representation from the various FEMA Regions and National Headquarters.

The new FEMA was very much on display at the conference and I was impressed with the quality of the FEMA employees that I met. Of course, I don't think the old FEMA was as bad as they were painted in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In fact, I strongly believe that FEMA was unfairly maligned by individuals and organizations who were ignorant of emergency management and the expected role that FEMA would play in a disaster.

FEMA is a small organization designed to support and not supplant state and local governments in a disaster. In my emergency management career I have worked on eighteen hurricanes. In the memorable 2004-2005 hurricane seasons, when eight hurricane struck the state of Florida, I requested and received considerable resources from FEMA. The support that I received from FEMA during this period was excellent. I was pleased with the support that I received from FEMA because I was very specific in the type and quantity of my requests and I had reasonable expectations of when these requested items would arrive.

We need to stop beating up on FEMA. The snide comments and drumbeat of negative media stories is not only demoralizing to the FEMA workforce but it has driven many veteran professionals to retire or leave the agency. We need FEMA. We will need FEMA not just in the everyday disasters but especially when the next catastrophic event strikes our country. Whether it is a major hurricane, a large earthquake or a devastating terrorist strike, the state and local governments will be overwhelmed and will need effective assistance from the federal government.