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Archive for February, 2011

Disasters and Government, A Learning Curve

21 Feb

We can be thankful that governments are not all-knowing or all-powerful but there are times everywhere when we wish they were. These times usually follow a disaster. We wish the government had better known it was coming and been better able to cope with it when it did. If people have learned anything from the disaster of Hurricane Katrina it is that hindsight is 20/20. Until a government faces a disaster they can not be sure what will work and what will not and they will not realize what they didn’t think of.

Sometimes it might be beneficial to look at disasters in a microcosm and on a less grand scale. When something is the size of Hurricane Katrina the details get lost in the noise. Instead of Hurricane Katrina, think of Atlanta’s Snowstorm 2011. That is a little more manageable to put your head around and lets look at details.

In January 2011, Atlanta got 8 inches of snow followed by ice. To Detroit or Chicago that is nothing. That is spring there but Atlanta gets 2 inches PER YEAR. Needless to say, Atlanta was shut down for a whole week. What did they do wrong and what did they do right.

The roads where Atlanta’s biggest problems. A more proactive approach might have helped but the real truth is that they lack the equipment to handle a snow that happens once every 50 years. It is certainly not feasible to buy trucks for that.

Here they should have taken a que from some of the poorer, norther counties in the state that deal with this more often. Do they have more truck? No. They just simply have contracts with the construction companies to use them if needed. This gets the road clear at a reasonable cost to the tax payers.

Where Atlanta has learned is in the case of power. Not only were all their trucks running but also extra trucks from states that were not pummeled by the storm. It was a great example of the allocation of important resources.

Governments will never handle ever major disaster perfectly. The best we can hope for is that they have learned from the ones in the past and ready and flexible enough to learn from the one they are facing.


Is FEMA Funded?

17 Feb

Is FEMA funded? Well, it is a government agency so of course it is. The big question is whether it is funded enough. Times have changed over the last 20 years. The agency’s responsibilities have changed. The economy has changed and even the politics have changed. In the case of FEMA, however, the politics have not changed for the best and now the agency even has to fight to continue to exist.

To start with it is best to look at the agency’s role before the thoughts of funding or terminating the agency can even be entertained. 20 years ago, in the time following the Cold War, the majority of FEMA’s focus was on natural disasters, whether it was hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, snow storms or even the outbreak of an epidemic.

In the wake of 9/11 things have changed a great deal. At that time it was folded into the Department of Homeland Security as the nature of the threats to the US seem to change. They were really the same as they had been but now we had an example of worse case scenario. FEMA did, if fact, have a very big role in the recovery efforts. Of the 28 search and rescue teams, 25 were deployed with 20 of them ending up in New York. While that was important it was not its most important role. Not only did FEMA pay for their own search effort but was around long afterward making sure Federal money was properly dispersed.

In the time since 9/11 FEMA has had to focus their planning effort more on being ready for another terrorist attack. This meant more training and equipment for the possibility of a gas or biological attack. Such an attack would likely strike more than one city at once so that had to be prepared for. They had to do all this on the same budget while still doing the old job. When NASA noticed how many near misses with asteroids we had they had to prepare for that as well.

Take a moment and think of when FEMA started getting so much heated criticism. There were the Southern Florida Hurricane in 2004. There was Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Then the Buffalo snowstorm in 2006, the Dumas Arkansas tornadoes and California wildfires in 2007 and the American Samoa Tsunami of 2009. It seems FEMA has been stretched as thin as it can go.


It All Falls Apart, A Look Back at Katrina

10 Feb

When reading back over the news reports of Hurricane Katrina from almost 6 years ago it seems a lot like a Hollywood epic. Something that was all but expected falls apart. One small failure brings on a larger one and that, in turn, brings on a bigger one yet. In this sense it is very similar to the Titanic and we all know how that ended up. In a little touch of irony, the loss of life in both was nearly the same. In its aftermath the question occurs as to whether or not this had to happen and did it have to be this bad? If not, who is to blame? For this, let us look at New Orleans.

Did this storm have to happen? Of course it did. It is a city on the coast and given enough time every bit of the US east coast will get hit to some degree. The big problem is that New Orleans has is that much of the city sits below sea-level That means that the city is dependent on the levees holding. They did not In fairness this is because the hurricane made landfall due east meaning there was a deluge of run-off.

The next question might be about the casualties. In hindsight the order might not have been given early enough. This would be partly because of the storm’s expected land fall was. The National Hurricane Center originally thought it would make landfall on the Florida panhandle. That would still flood Mobile but that is a much smaller town and above sea-level. The change in direction was a shock.

By the time a more accurate landfall was found New Orleans had to struggle to be ready. The first causalities were nursing home patients being evacuated. Ironically, moving to get out of the way of the water they died of dehydration. Most of the other causalities came from people who underestimated the storm and thought they would just “ride it out.”

In the end there is nowhere to place a clear blame. Unexpected events over-powered the system set up to manage them. In the end the story of Hurricane Katrina is a cautionary tale. No matter how much you plan and how carefully you execute there are always going to be wild cards.


Understanding FEMA

03 Feb

By now everyone has heard of FEMA but are a little in the dark about that they do and when they do. Sometimes this lack of understanding has lead to unfair criticism and failure to fully utilize the. There can be little doubt that FEMA finds its self in the middle of controversy, however. They respond when bad thing have happen and every body wish thing had gone perfectly. The reality is that is never going to happen.

Most people don’t realize that FEMA has existed in one form or another since almost the beginning of the country. Most of this time, however, a piecemeal approach was taken. A disaster would occur, Congress would pass an act, and THEN relief would happen. This had been going on since 1803 when wildfires ravaged New England. It was not until 1979did president Carter create it as an Agency to deal with disasters. There were two condition that had to be met before the could become involved however. There must be a state of emergency declared and the Governor of the state must request help.

Fans of the TV show X-file will recall the plot lines referring to FEMA as the shadow government. While not true, there is a kernel of truth in that. During the cold war there always loomed the threat of nuclear war. Can anyone think of a larger disaster than that. It would evolve almost every state and FEMA would be managing the resources so in a way, for that time with that event, it would be true.

After the Cold War and During the 1990′s the FEMA director was elevated to a Cabinet post. Bush Did remove him from the Cabinet but then came 9/11. With that came the formation of the Department of Homeland Security, a Cabinet level position, and FEMA was placed under that umbrella.

Now under the Department of Homeland Security FEMA has had to change a lot of its focus and its use of resources. It was not just like it was during the Cold War. Terrorist attacks are much more likely. They have to plan for hurricanes in the Gulf, wildfires in the west and now the threat of a serin gas attack on a major city or worse a biological attack.