- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 10, 2005

While many of our fellow citizens of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast struggle to cope with loss of family, friends, homes and livelihoods, we need to begin the debate for a more efficient evacuation and recovery in the next disaster.

We need to reap the lessons of this disaster and think ahead to the dire situation an enemy might inflict upon us, God forbid, by using weapons of mass destruction.

This should not diminish the heroic efforts of the vast army of disaster response professionals engaged in post-Katrina response. We need to cautiously focus on the lessons and not just seek to assign blame. This was catastrophic. The response is monumental. The problem is in the post September 11, 2001, world we may face tragedies well beyond the scope of the hurricane that just passed.

In any large-scale national emergency response, this much seems pretty clear:

(1) Transportation and Destination. We need to rethink evacuation plans and expectations. New Orleans proved what many emergency response officials have said for years: people need a place to go and a way to get there. Blowing the whistle to start the action sending city folk pell-mell into the hinterland only works for those with vehicles and credit cards. The underprivileged, homeless, hospital bound, nursing home residents, prisoners and others stay behind because they have no place to go or means to get there. We put much effort into plans to get relief and assistance into a devastated area. We need the same detail when we plan how to get people out.

(2) Anticipation. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for one, speaks eloquently about the “knowns and unknowns.” Sorting these identifies weaknesses in our plans and almost always leads to the same conclusions: We have to anticipate “worst case,” plan for these contingencies and move our aid, workers and assistance much sooner than originally planned.

In New Orleans, many clearly anticipated a possible levee breach and loss of the pumps. Also, every school child who had gone through a storm knew the electric power and plumbing would fail in the Superdome. Our reactions to these calamities did not reflect well on our prior planning or our plans’ flexibility.

(3) Innovation. When the plan fails, quickly make a new one. The un-repaired breach of the levee wall seemed to slow the relief and response plan to a standstill. Might rail cars have rapidly removed vast numbers of people from the immediate danger area sooner? “Thinking out of the box” strains the game plan. But just once in a while, a coach decides to throw the bomb and wins the whole game.

(4) Communications. This comes in two levels, tactical and the strategic. Tactical communications allow police, aid workers, city officials, the governor, the national guard and others to do their jobs. Strategic communications allow city and state officials to instruct, inform and calm the population. In this crisis, most communications failed. What was “Plan B”?

(5) Manpower. All disaster relief experts know it takes many people with expertise to forge an appropriate, effective response. Many times, we come up shorthanded. In New Orleans, a strong, early show of uniformed police or national guard troops may have changed the outcome.

(6) Resource Utilization. A good rule of thumb is don’t leave a bunch of resources on the shelf — both before and after the storm strikes. Could New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin have deployed his vast fleet of school and city buses to evacuate? Following a “national” disaster, one might anticipate a conference of state governors along with churches, civic groups and other nongovernment organizations (NGOs). Our national response to September 11 seemed to lack a “mobilization of all the people.” Our response to Katrina also seemed to rely too much on troops and volunteers. To be most effective in a monumental crisis, every state and NGO must be stimulated and tapped: just as every ally might be asked to support an international operation.

(7) Order and Confidence. Looting and violence became factors in the post-hurricane response. Uniformed people on the ground, providing security and assistance, combined with effective communications, may have nipped this devil in the bud. This emergency security contingent could have been comprised of national guardsmen, state policemen from Rhode Island, Michigan and anywhere else. Relief providers and security forces who know what they are doing, supported by effective communications, instill confidence instead of doubt, agreement instead of unrest.

(8) Decision. This could more appropriately be called leadership. We saw it fail early and succeed late. The Katrina crisis lacked a Rudy Giuliani. What the military calls “unity of command,” a single, streamlined decisionmaking authority and chain of command is also of paramount importance.

We should commend all the relief planners, first responders, medical teams, military members, citizen of good will and others who have opened their hearts and their homes and made an immense effort to ease the pain of Katrina survivors. We also need to pray for our citizen survivors and continue assisting those ravaged by the storm.

Despite a huge amount of caring, planning and execution, we, as a nation, failed to adequately respond to hurricane Katrina. Even the president Friday after the storm said, “The results are not acceptable.”

After the tsunami in Indonesia, Eric L. Tolbert, then a top FEMA official said, “We were obsessed with New Orleans because of the risk.”

When facing “the big one,” obsession is no substitute for being prepared — and reacting swiftly with innovation and nerve.

John E. Carey is president of International Defense Consultants Inc., a defense and emergency planning firm.


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