Katrina - Three Weeks On - Update

Tuesday, September 20, 2005
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.

Skookumchuk

6 comments:

Knucklehead said...

Rick,

First off, thank Skook on our behalf (at least mine). Excellent brief from him. I look forward to his analysis when he has time for it.

Specifically I would like to see a more detailed analysis of:

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.

On what do those who are directly involved with Emergency Management base estimates like "65,000 dead", how does it get adjusted as time goes on, how do they arrive at how many body bags refridgerated vans to lay in, etc.

One of the Big Gaping Holes here is that people don't realize how estimates are made and revised or why X body bags are ordered. The Ubiquitous Body Bag Number is always bandied about anymore and the general public (and/or the MSM) typically translates that number into the expected number of dead. It is pure speculation on my part but I believe the body bag count is not specifically related to the max number of expected dead but, rather, prudent positioning of body bags in various places to cover potential needs. Since it is impossible to know for sure where and how many bodies will be recovered it is necessary to distribute body bags rather far and wide in rather large numbers.

I saw a hint of this when I caught some nattering nabob interviewing someone doing recovery work. The person doing the work mentioned something about how they'd distributed body bags to various points so the people who might need to use some would have them near enough at hand.

...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... an enormous and unseen expenditure of energy during a major disaster."

This is the "bureaucratic mess". We can smooth this out but it is to some irreducible degree an intractable problem. These other agencies (each a bureaucracy in its own right) have "daytime jobs". They are each going about their normal business doing whatever it is we expect from them toward some end that is very different than Emergency Management.

Think of Patton's Army (actually a portion thereof IIRC) executing its "left turn" and heading off to help the Battling Bastards of Bastogne. Yes, they pulled it off and yes, it needed to be done. But the mission they were on was sacrificed - or at least long delayed.

But these agencies are not wartime (or Emergency Response) agencies and huge portions of them will never be directly effected by an ongoing disaster. Tearing them from their "daytime jobs" to respond will, even if we can make it as "efficient" as possible, never happen quickly. And we need to keep in mind that hurricanes, while potentially huge in scope and ferocity, provide about the longest potential warning period possible. Earthquakes, tornados, terrorist attacks and such are not nearly as "kind" about letting us know they are imminent. And as unpredictable as they are they are at the very top of the list as far as predicability goes.

Skook give us some more insight into the problems inherent in large scale systems (bureaucracies) when he describes the issues surrounding "turf wars" (my words, not his) - the frictions between federal and regional.

But there are no frictionless systems. We can only hope to reduce friction and/or harden the systems at the points where friction is most prevalent.

Which is all to say that no amount of federal preparedness can remove the absolute and unbending need for localized competence when it comes to Emergency Management.

I understand that Skookumchuk knows this. He tells us so:

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.

But this seems particularly hard to get across to the Math is Hard and Responsibility is Hard crowds. They are either incapable of accepting, or unwilling to accept, this or want some guarantees against the unpleasant potential outcomes of living where local resources are not competent when it comes to Emergency Management.

Re: the notion of sort of "Home Guard" or whatever that has a size and capability (tuned, of course, to responding to emergencies rather than the mission of the USCG) comparable to the USCG.

It seems to me the National Guard structure could be tweaked and outfitted to perform this role.

flenser said...

Knuck

I believe that last summer there was a simulated disaster involving a hurrican striking NO, and it was expected that 65,000 would be killed. Hurricane Pam was the name given the hypothetical storm, IIRC.

I think it is clear enough at this point that the response to Katrina was tremendous, apart from some typical malfesance by the Democrats. The real story is the media coverage.

To me this is shaping up as the new Tet offensive, where a huge American success is sold to the American public as a disaster. And the blogs have been exposed as being unable, and in most cases as unwilling, to counteract the spin. In fact, a lot of them are in denial as the the fact that they have been spun.


Lastly, I hope very much that the urge to more centralization can be resisted. If we need to make some gestures to placate the uninformed citizenry, fine. But talk of Yet Another Huge Governmant Agency is profoundly depressing.

Knucklehead said...

Flenser,

I agree re: the profoundly depressing idea of Yet Another Massive Federal Agency that we'll set in "motion", at huge cost, to sit on it's hands waiting for the inevitable next disaster.

Better to push an appropriate level of resources out to where they belong, encourage local competency insofar as humanly possible, and then live with the results as painful as those are for those within the reach of the incompetents.

We can't overcome bad local government with federal minders or federal money - it just isn't possible regardless of all the wishing in the world. Thinking lovely thoughts will not make us fly.

terrye said...

Rural people are better prepared than city dellers. Large urban areas are difficult to evacuate and the people are not as self reliant.

I have been stranded for days by both snow and flood and it never occured to me that rescue was even an option.

I just took care of myself. It seems to me we need to foster some of that self reliance in city dwellers and being poor is no excuse.

Rick Ballard said...

Terrye,

I sure agree with you on that. I wish you'd turn one of those stories into a post. Poverty doesn't cause the kind of behavior we saw, dependency does.

Knucklehead said...

Hmmm...

It seems Skook is not alone with his Walmart and FEMA ideas.