TCS Daily


Disasters and Responses

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - September 6, 2005 12:00 AM

The recovery efforts along the Gulf Coast are still ramping up, but the political point-scoring has been at full pitch for days now. I think that's counterproductive -- and says more about the immaturity of our political and media classes than it does about the recovery efforts -- but it's worth looking at some things that we know to see where we can improve things.

I've long been unimpressed with the whole Department of Homeland Security approach. (You can read some of my criticisms here, here, and -- dating back to when the proposal was first floated --here.) Now some people think that it's causing problems with the relief efforts. (Blogger Eric Muller blames the idea of putting prosecutors in management roles: "You can't cross-examine a hurricane.")

 

This means that I may have been onto something in this column from 2004, when I wrote:

 

I had a worrisome conversation the other day with a former administration official about homeland security. My complaint was that things remain futile and stupid, with airport security checks confiscating tweezers and engaging in other pointless but inconvenient measures, while real antiterrorism efforts remain weak. He agreed, but said that there was another problem: So much effort is being put into anti-terrorism efforts (futile or not) that the United States is now less prepared for major natural disasters than it was a few years ago. If we face a major natural disaster this year, he said, it's likely to turn out badly.

 

I withdrew that warning in the wake of Hurricane Charley, where the response seemed to be up to snuff, but I may have been premature to do so. And this isn't political finger-pointing, since support for the Homeland Security approach was bipartisan. On the other hand, as this report from the Washington Post makes clear, state and local response wasn't great either:

 

Other federal and state officials pointed to Louisiana's failure to measure up to national disaster response standards, noting that the federal plan advises state and local emergency managers not to expect federal aid for 72 to 96 hours, and base their own preparedness efforts on the need to be self-sufficient for at least that period. "Fundamentally the first breakdown occurred at the local level," said one state official who works with FEMA. 'Did the city have the situational awareness of what was going on within its borders? The answer was no.

 

One reason that the city didn't know what was going on was that its communication system collapsed almost immediately. Backup generators weren't positioned where they would be above flood waters, alternate communications plans weren't in place, and officials didn't seem to be familiar with their own disaster plans. (Evacuation was also ordered 24 hours too late, but that's another story.)

 

And this underscores another point. I've suggested before that individuals need to prepare themselves to go a week or more without food, water, or electricity in the event of a disaster. But obviously state and local governments need to do the same thing. If areas are going to be designated as shelters, they should be stocked with necessaries (not just food and water, but sanitary facilities) that are up to the task. And people who design infrastructure need to take survivability into account to a much greater degree than they do now:

 

I think that it's important for people who design systems -- whether it's a power company's distribution net, or a grocery chain's -- to plan for things going wrong. It's all very well for individuals to buy generators, and stockpile emergency supplies (here's the  Red Cross recommendations page and here's a column I wrote on this earlier). But, in fact, individuals can't go it alone very well for periods of more than a few days, and important infrastructure needs to be resilient enough to start working again pretty quickly. Some companies are starting to pay real attention to these kinds of issues, but there's a long way to go. And -- since most managers feel very taxed just keeping businesses running properly in normal times -- it's easy to ignore these issues.

 

Encouraging -- and perhaps requiring -- such measures would be a useful Homeland Security measure, increasing our resistance to both natural and man-made disasters. Will we see something like that in the future? I hope so -- though, frankly, I wonder if our political classes possess the requisite maturity and self-discipline to take constructive action.

 

For more coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, and to learn how you can help the victims of this disaster, please visit our special section Tragedy on the Gulf Coast. 

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