Saturday, April 15, 2006

FEMA did a pretty good job after all.

Big Lizards has an interesting post on FEMA's response to Katrina.

The Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security, Richard L. Skinner, has released a long-awaited report on the federal response to Hurricane Katrina; and while the report found a number of areas where FEMA needs improvement, it also completely undermines the major Democratic attacks against the Bush administration.

In general, the report brings much well-deserved praise for the speed and effectiveness of the federal response to the most devastating American hurricane since Galveston was hit by a killer storm in 1900 --

During the response to Hurricane Katrina, FEMA provided record levels of support to victims and emergency responders. Life saving and life sustaining commodities and equipment were delivered to the affected areas; personnel increased significantly in a short period of time to support response efforts and provide assistance to victims; and assistance was provided quickly in record amounts, sometime through innovative

I would like to add that skook has a very interesting post in the comment section. Anyone with interest in this subject really should check it out.


David Thomson said...

FEMA during the Katrina disaster probably performed at a C+ or B- level. The MSM would have almost certainly praised its efforts if Bill Clinton still resided in the White House. Mike Brown was not the perfect FEMA boss---but he was probably a little bit above average.

Anonymous said...

The 20,000 or so trucks moved during the first six months of Katrina are about what UPS does every day in less than a shift (UPS has about 88,000 vehicles worldwide). A typical container terminal at a US port, like the NYK terminal in Los Angeles, has a design capacity of 1,800 truck moves per day. So that’s a Katrina every 11 or so days, through only one NYK’s facilities. No muss, no fuss.

The government problem has several facets. First, FEMA and its Federal partners handle routine disasters all the time, but these usually involve small numbers of assets, so the normal volumes are very low. Then about once every five or ten years, the Feds are called on to transform themselves into an efficient trucking company overnight. This naturally is very hard to do. In large part it is because the organizational flywheel must already be spinning, in other words, as in the case of UPS or Wal-Mart, there must be an office building someplace full of billing clerks typing away at 60 words a minute, each and every day. And the drivers, the guys on the forklifts and conveyors, the truck mechanics, must all be comfortable at a certain pace. In theory, mechanically anyway, a large firm like UPS could handle all the trucks of Katrina in maybe 20 hours of overtime. That’s because the private sector flywheel is already spinning in a way that the public sector flywheel never can be. Given the fact that the system had to be started essentially from rest, the result speaks volumes about the talent and commitment of the FEMA people involved.

If we had Katrinas all the time, it would be easy to imagine a massive entrepreneurial response from the private sector - we would see some latter-day Henry Kaiser cranking out travel trailers for displaced persons by the millions. But the level of required industrial commitment has not been (and hopefully won’t be) on a scale similar to World War II style industrial production. This means that FEMA’s contracts must make good use of the private sector, in order to make services efficient, but they must be structured in such a way that their tasks will be doable. In other words, they shouldn’t cause too much disruption to their regular businesses. The private sector experiences peaks in their operations, but tries whenever possible to keep volumes steady and predictable. Certainly the peaks are nowhere remotely what they are for the Feds in a disaster response. So for the private sector also, disaster response involves a rapid redeployment of assets and is easier said than done - it is, after all, a disaster. Tweaking the relationship between the public and private sectors to optimize performance in catastrophic events is an ongoing job that needs a lot of thought.

There is a second fundamental difference between the operations of a Wal-Mart and the Federal response to a Katrina and that is the diameter of the pipe from beginning to end. Wal-Mart has control over the entire chain and has equal efficiencies at both the originating and receiving ends and everywhere in between. As does the Army, by the way. In the case of a Federal disaster response, while the trucks may quickly be loaded with donated bottles of water flying off the production line at the local soft drink manufacturer, by the time these trucks are unloaded by the retired volunteers in the church parking lot, the speed of the flow has slowed markedly. This means that things like cycle times and equipment utilization become almost impossible to predict. Unclogging the local pipe is complicated by the organizational structures at the receiving end, and these structures also greatly complicate efforts to put a uniform tracking system in place throughout the country - a difficulty that Wal-Mart does not have.

It is also a race within the disaster response community - between the trucks of bottled water and the local water company struggling to restore supply, between the people moving trucks of generators and the power company working 24/7 at the substation - and the results of such races are intrinsically unpredictable. But these are all problems that simply must be examined and solved to the degree that we can if we are to truly do our best in massive catastrophic events. (Katrina was not such an event, by the way.)

Third, unlike Wal-Mart or Safeway, which can predict demand based on feedback from analyzing millions of purchase scans at their checkout counters in near real-time, “demand” is frequently just an educated guess, done with all sorts of demand models and such, but still a guess. And one that can be overridden by a political forces that demand 1,000 trucks of water in a certain city right now - whether it turns out they are truly needed or not. This does all sorts of things to asset utilization, too.

The capabilities of the locals are really what makes a successful disaster response. The relationship between the Feds and the locals is basically the same as in any other offer of Federal assistance; show us the plan and we’ll give you the goodies. No plan, no goodies. Unlike the review for, say, a mass transit project, the review in this case will only take hours. But the principle is the same. A state that can quickly come up with a cogent plan and set of requests is in effect winning the race to get national assets deployed. If your state can’t tell the Feds what you want, you may go to the end of the line. You snooze, you lose. So places that have a lot of practice - Florida, Texas, California, even Guam, which gets hammered by typhoons very few years, will tend to have well-defined plans already in place and know what to do and what to ask for when the time comes. The ones that don’t get that practice - who knows? But the level of local effectiveness is absolutely crucial in determining how the area will pull through. As is individual preparation, the need for which should be evident to all but the most intransigent statists among us.

So in sum, the response was pretty decent, considering all the above. I’ll give it a solid B.

Barry Dauphin said...


Hey, you should put your comment as a Flares blog entry. it's very interesting, and something most people don't realize.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the kind words. In summary, an essential problem is - how do we provide a buffer in a "just in time world" that doesn't believe in buffers?

Maybe I'll do a post later. Right now Mrs. Skookumchuk had me open a bottle of wine and I'm informed it is almost dinner time. My brainstem level gustatorial impulses automatically get preference on all such occasions.

Charlie Martin said...

Skook, I second the suggestion.

Rick Ballard said...


I'll third it. Maybe with a link or two to some real plans - your point concerning 'no tickee - no shirtee' needs to be better understood.

'Cause Rove and Bush are already planning on where this summer's hurricanes are going to hit.

Anonymous said...


Earlier, I spoke of the race between, say, the guys driving trucks of ice and the power company trying to restore power to every refrigerator in the neighborhood. If you are prudent - and you always want to play it safe - you'll have ice left over.

And if you do have ice left over, where do you store it in the expectation of that next hurricane forming off the African coast? Where do you put it when the ice business, like any other modern business, follows a "just in time" methodology where they try to run their warehouses as close to capacity as they can?

You put it wherever you can at the time.

That might be a warehouse in Maine, as I think Olympia Snowe pointed out in baffled wonderment in one of her speeches during the investigation.

Disasters in a "just in time" world are something entirely new for the bureaucracy that began in a Cold War, duck-and-cover, backyard - fallout - shelter - full - of - canned - goods type of paradigm. Equally new and unexamined, in another context, are disaster responses in a wired, Internet world.

terrye said...


Yes, do a post. In fact you could cut and paste the comment.