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September 6, 2005

All Disaster, All the Time
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 05:44 PM * 4 comments

From the New York Times, an Op-Ed by Paul Krugman:

Several recent news analyses on FEMA’s sorry state have attributed the agency’s decline to its inclusion in the Department of Homeland Security, whose prime concern is terrorism, not natural disasters. But that supposed change in focus misses a crucial part of the story.

For one thing, the undermining of FEMA began as soon as President Bush took office. Instead of choosing a professional with expertise in responses to disaster to head the agency, Mr. Bush appointed Joseph Allbaugh, a close political confidant. Mr. Allbaugh quickly began trying to scale back some of FEMA’s preparedness programs.

You might have expected the administration to reconsider its hostility to emergency preparedness after 9/11 - after all, emergency management is as important in the aftermath of a terrorist attack as it is following a natural disaster. As many people have noticed, the failed response to Katrina shows that we are less ready to cope with a terrorist attack today than we were four years ago.

But the downgrading of FEMA continued, with the appointment of Michael Brown as Mr. Allbaugh’s successor.

Mr. Brown had no obvious qualifications, other than having been Mr. Allbaugh’s college roommate. But Mr. Brown was made deputy director of FEMA; The Boston Herald reports that he was forced out of his previous job, overseeing horse shows. And when Mr. Allbaugh left, Mr. Brown became the agency’s director. The raw cronyism of that appointment showed the contempt the administration felt for the agency; one can only imagine the effects on staff morale.

That contempt, as I’ve said, reflects a general hostility to the role of government as a force for good. And Americans living along the Gulf Coast have now reaped the consequences of that hostility.

The administration has always tried to treat 9/11 purely as a lesson about good versus evil. But disasters must be coped with, even if they aren’t caused by evildoers. Now we have another deadly lesson in why we need an effective government, and why dedicated public servants deserve our respect. Will we listen?

And from The Accordion Guy, a pop quiz:

For the purposes of this question, please ignore certain geographical impossibilities, such as your living in the midwest and being a thousand miles away from any large body of water.

Here’s the scenario: imagine that you’re doing exactly what you’re doing right now. There’ve been rumblings in the news of an extremely severe storm that might come your way. Suddenly, you are given notice — perhaps from your supervisor at work, a phone call, email or instant message from a family member or friend, a civil defense announcement on TV or radio — that the order to evacuate is given. The storm is headed right for your town, and it is expected to be a category 5 storm on the Saffir-Simpson scale: winds at 150 miles per hour (250 kilometres per hour), trees blown down, damage and even complete destruction to houses and buildings. The evacuation order says that the safe distance is at least 150 miles (250 kilometres), which you can assume to be a two and one-half hour trip under normal conditions. You have 24 hours before the storm is expected to hit.

Assume that you have only the resources available to you, in their current state. Do you have a car, is it working and is the tank full of gas? If not, can you arrange for a ride? Are you at work, and how long would it take you to get home to collect your things under normal circumstances? How about during a general evacuation? Where would you go? Is there somewhere you can stay where you’re going? Whom would you take with you? What would you take with you?

Additional Scenario Twists

For an additional challenge, add these twists to the secnario:
  • The Joey twist: Your father, who lives in the same town as you, is handicapped and walks slowly with a walker. He also takes insulin before each meal, which means you need to stock up.
  • The Joey’s sister twist, part 1: You have three kids, aged 4, 2 and 4 months.
  • The Joey’s sister twist, part 2: You are the assistant health director for the region; they’re going to call on you for emergency duty. And yes, you still have the kids.
  • The new kid in town twist: You just moved into town, don’t have a car and know almost no one.
  • The “the Weather Channel screwed up again!” twist: They were right about the storm, but wrong about the time — you have 12 hours before it hits.
You’ve got to ask yourself a question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?
Comments on All Disaster, All the Time:
#1 ::: Dave Cake ::: (view all by) ::: September 09, 2005, 12:43 PM:

The undermining of FEMA was not incompetence, but malice. Or at least deliberate policy. Allbaugh and Brown where appointed without qualifications because they were appointed not to run FEMA, but to shrink it. Which no one with experience in disaster management would think was a good idea, but politically appointed cronys without experience might do.

Joe M. Allbaugh, a Bush campaign hack without any crisis management experience who was named director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, disparaged federal disaster assistance as "an oversized entitlement program" before Congress in 2001. The public's expectations of government in a disaster situation, he said, "may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level." He advised stricken communities to rely for help on "faith-based organizations like the Salvation Army and the Mennonite Disaster Service."

(link goes to LA Times article about the ill advisedness of shrinking FEMA)

#2 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2005, 07:59 PM:

A disturbing view from inside FEMA

As Hurricane Katrina bore down on the Gulf Coast three weeks ago, veteran workers at the Federal Emergency Management Agency braced for an epic disaster.

But their bosses, political appointees with almost no emergency management experience, didn't seem to share the sense of urgency, a FEMA veteran said.

"We told these fellows that there was a killer hurricane heading right toward New Orleans," Leo Bosner, a 26-year FEMA employee and union leader told CNN. "We had done our job, but they didn't do theirs."

No kidding.

If getting a blowjob from an intern counts as "high crimes and misdemeanors," what's "appointing dozens of unqualified cronies to important posts, resulting in thousands of deaths of American citizens"?

Oh, I know! A moral rebirth in America!

#3 ::: Lydy Nickerson ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2005, 05:33 AM:

The one thing I'm sure of is that if I got out of the storm's radius, no matter where I was, I could find a floor to sleep on. Fandom is like that, which is one of the benefits of belonging to a community which is not geographically bounded.

As for the rest of it...we do have a car. Possibly two cars. Four people, five cats. Odds are good that we have a half tank in each car, but a full tank? Unlikely. The Twin Cities has a huge traffic congestion problem, which makes it unlikely that a even a full tank of gas would be sufficient. Walk out? 150 miles? With cats? Not possible. Leave the cats behind? Extremely unlikely.

I have no idea what my household would do with 24 hour notice. We couldn't even pray, what with being atheists or agnostics. Of course, round here it's more likely to be the New Madrid fault giving way really spectacularly, and that's not likely to come with any warning at all.

#4 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2005, 12:14 PM:

When are people going to understand that the reason the current Administration has run up the deficit is so that when the economy hits the wall agencies and programs they deem unnecessary will be cut completely?

They are gutting things from the inside -- you really don't think they meant us to take Homeland Security seriously, do you? (They sure don't.)

To paraphrase Dorothy Dunnett, don't listen to what they say, watch their hands...

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