I received an email from Skookumchuk and have received his permission to post it. He was heavily involved in the Katrina response and provides a deeper level of insight than those looking on from the outside could ever have.
Yes, Rick, it was a success. We were talking about 65,000 dead prior to landfall. A week into it, we bought 22,000 body bags and leased many refrigerated vans to serve as portable morgues. So what we have seen thus far has been a great relief. It was made possible by a lot of very, very hard work and a bit of luck.
Congressional committees, ugh.
Now, somewhat OT, here are a few things that have not received much attention.
Here are some lessons to be learned, not that you will hear these discussed in any depth in the MSM.
The largest single failing on a Federal level is the divided chain of command in Federal disaster response. That is a function of FEMA’s size – only about 2,400 full time employees and about 10,000 or so reservists, some of whom are well-equipped while others are not. FEMA needs other and much larger agencies to do its bidding, like the Corps of Engineers, the Department of Transportation, GSA, and the Forest Service. In practice this means that an order for transportation services or supplies or a purchase may take many hours and many scattered people to accomplish. The system normally does work, but these organizational impediments are overcome only through an enormous and unseen expenditure of energy during a major disaster. Other entities, like the Army, may not be quite so encumbered. In principle, FEMA could avoid some of this by doing more itself, growing perhaps to a Coast Guard sized agency of about 30,000 well-trained people, plus a true reserve based on the military reserves. Alternatively, FEMA could have employees of these other agencies seconded to it on a permanent basis, making them a true team. But both options carry costs that we have thus far been unwilling to pay.
Another frequently unmentioned problem for FEMA – a major problem, at least as great as that mentioned above - is the tension between Washington and the various regional commands of the organization. At base, FEMA is a mechanism for transferring monies and services from the Federal government to the States. FEMA also subsidizes training and other programs for first responders at a local level. Close coordination between the States and the regional bureaucracies of FEMA is obviously vital to any disaster response. This means that the FEMA regional commands are where the action is – where the money and the good people are - and these regions have considerable autonomy from DC. In fact, as a disaster progresses, control shifts from FEMA HQ to local FEMA authorities. When you add this command and control shift to the fact that FEMA itself has to work with so many other agencies, you get an overly complicated situation. I don’t see this being addressed either.
However, the role of the Feds should not be over-emphasized. As has been mentioned elsewhere, all disaster response is really local. The Feds are largely conduits for money and resources. A State that plans well, Mississippi or Florida, say, that lets the Feds know what they want and where and when they want it – will come out ahead. And a State that for whatever reason can’t plan will lose. No matter how good the Feds may be.
So. If your local firemen and cops and city management seem competent, you might pull through OK. If they ain’t, you might want to move. Or start working on making them better.
A few more thoughts. Are we more or less prepared than our grandparents? Put another way, is the young woman in her Manhattan apartment with a refrigerator containing two Stouffer’s Lean Cuisines and a carton of cherry tomatoes better or worse off than her great grandmother, with a pantry full of home-canned vegetables? Specifically, a “just in time” manufacturing and distribution system tends to remove the buffer that existed in previous times – but it also makes it much easier to move product around to areas that need it. Are we better off or worse off as a result? Well, we are both, actually, though we know little about this. Not too much attention has been given to this one, except by a few folks including your humble servant.
A semi-private response system, say a larger FEMA with more skilled and highly trained people working as a true team and contracting the Wal-Marts and Home Depots and UPSes, might be a good start. Don’t hold your breath, but that is what we really need. But such recommendations probably won’t come from a Congressional committee.