TCS Daily


Systems Breakdown

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - August 2, 2006 12:00 AM

A couple of years ago, I wrote here:

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.

Well, Hurricane Charley struck later that year, and the response looked okay. But the response to Hurricane Katrina the next year wasn't so great. And while it's fair to note that part of the difference between the response to Charley and the response to Katrina stemmed from a difference in the competence of the Florida and Louisiana state governments, it's also true that Katrina seems to have exposed some pretty major problems at the federal level, stemming from just the phenomenon I mentioned.

According to this report (free link) in The Wall Street Journal, the chain of command was too rigid, and priorities were off:

If there had been any doubt that the state of Louisiana would need federal help to cope with Hurricane Katrina, there was no reason for it now.

But for the federal government, reports of such destruction were immaterial in determining the scale of the calamity unfolding along the Gulf Coast. Federal officials had a single test for determining whether to treat the storm as an average disaster or as the catastrophic doomsday scenario everyone had long feared: Had the levees been breached by Katrina's storm surge, or had the water simply flooded over the top? Unfortunately, these were questions that state and local officials -- and even FEMA's senior staff -- never fully understood they had to answer.

At the Department of Homeland Security, federal efforts following disasters were dictated by the newly minted National Response Plan. Though billed as a plan for all disasters, it made a sharp distinction between garden-variety calamities such as Gulf hurricanes and more severe catastrophes -- generally terrorist attacks. By the department's reckoning, standard disaster response fell to local governments, backstopped by FEMA, while a catastrophic event assumed the states would be immediately overwhelmed and required a massive response from the federal government.

There were more things in nature than had been dreamt of in this management philosophy, though. And the structure seemed to be much too rigid and inflexible:

To Mr. Broderick, the trigger for a heightened response was clear: If the city's levee system was seriously breached and couldn't be repaired immediately, it was a catastrophe. Flooding over the levees, by contrast, even if it was severe, was "normal, typical, hurricane background stuff," he would later tell Senate investigators.

For all I know, Mr. Broderick is being scapegoated, but the report leaves little room for doubting that the decisionmaking process was top-down, pre-ordained, and inflexible. What's more, despite the wealth of information available -- too much information, really, for decisionmakers -- the important stuff didn't seem to be getting to the people who were in charge of making decisions. The WSJ reporters Chris Cooper and Robert Block have written an entire book on what went wrong, but that seems to be the crux.

This worries me about future disasters. We can't rely on media reporting -- it was dreadfully wrong where Katrina was concerned too, and that probably cost lives as rescue efforts were slowed by unfounded concerns about security, while the WSJ also reports that early on Broderick was confused by CNN reports suggesting that everything was fine -- but it's important to get quick action in the event of a disaster, whether the disaster is natural or terroristic in origin. One solution is to move as much decisionmaking power downward as possible, on the theory that people who are closer to the situation are in a better position to know what's going on -- an argument I've made in these pages and elsewhere on numerous occasions.

So of course I think that's a good idea, and in a big disaster significant outside help is always going to be days away, at best. But while self-sufficiency (or at least, as much self-sufficiency as you can reasonably manage) is an important part of disaster preparation, that outside help still needs to come, and it needs to get where it's needed as quickly as possible. More robust communications are one possibility -- authorities could just poll people in the disaster area on what's going on -- but in a real disaster the communications will be down. You can (and I've argued that we should) harden up communications systems, but that only goes so far.

I don't have a magic solution to this problem, but maybe you do. If so, respond in the comments. It does seem clear to me that we need an approach that's more flexible, and more capable of weighing information from numerous sources in a hurry. Any thoughts?

Glenn Reynolds is a TCS Daily contributing editor.

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9 Comments

Competent administration
From all reports, FEMA ran well under Clinton. It had a competent director with disaster relief experience who was not the college roommate of a major donor.

Then the decision was made to include FEMA in Homeland Security
That decision was made by both parties.

At First Blush
TO: Glenn Reynolds
RE: An Interesting Report

The system has serious problems. But the most serious part of them is the attitude, inculcated into almost everyone, that the government will solve EVERYTHING.

As we've see so oft in the past, and yet still have not realized it's import, the government can't solve ANYTHING. All it can do is render some forms of assistance.

In the case of the police, they tend to show up WAY after the use of their weapons would have been beneficial to preventing a crime.

People, themselves, solve their problems. The government can help, but the government's job is not to put you back on your feet when Life, in whatever form, knocks you down.

Individual preparedness for Lifes pit and pratfalls is the best protection.

That applies to self-defense, e.g., owning and knowing how to use a gun to protect your house. Or to weathering a breakdown in the infra-structure; no power, no water, no food, no heat for several months. Not to forget being locked-up in your house for several weeks because there is a bout of some pandemic that's rolled into town and the Public Health officials have declared a 'lock-down' emergency.

We, ourselves, are our own best defense.

Try not be 'stupid' in selecting where you live, e.g., under sea-level.

'Be prepared' to deal with the most likely really-bad-things that could happen in your community.

Regards,

Chuck(le)
[Chance favors the prepared mind. -- Louis Pasteur, father of microbiology]

P.S. Hope you're enjoying your 'vacation'. Looks to be of the 'bus-driver' persuasion.

Stuff happens
One thing that is very different is how the relationship between the disaster and the public reaction to the disaster is changing. Somebody raised the bar when noone was looking.In days past, noone expected that the Feds would come in and save the day. Now we're expected to do so anywhere in the world, at a moment's notice, as we more or less did in the tsunami and Pakistani quakes.And of course, in the US, we're quickly reaching the point where we expect that we can evacuate millions without so much as a traffic jam along the way (see last year's Rita.) And of course, noone is required to take precautions, make rainy day plans or do anything else.

All that said, I think the most important thing is communications. You'd think that at this, the most "communicated" period in history thus far, that we wouldn't have an issue. But we do.

By definition, communication is a a 2-n way street. One way is top down - we need ways to get news to the public. Federal officials weren't the only ones not to know that levees had broken. I love the idea (not mine) of "government" broadcasting emergency alerts to all cellphones within reach of the relevant cell towers. That would have saved many lives in Indonesia.Then there's communication up. 911 works pretty well, but enhance it to accept text and photos.Next, put up more surveillance cameras and use them intelligently not only to monitor crime but also infrastructure.Disaster response. The least awful part of Katrina was the response of private sector actors like Walmart. The US has the world leaders in logistics. It's time to outsource all response logistics other than military to those firms.
Disaster prevention. Adjust federal insurance programs to stop rewarding idiots who build and rebuild in disaster-prone spots - not just floodplains and flood basins, but also places prone to wildfire, quakes and so on. People have to take more responsibility for themselves.

The problem is not with who but with how!!!!
I am tired of this good/evil FEMA crap. FEMA and the rest of the machinery in the federal government can not solve problems relating to disasters nor rebuild cities in their aftermath. Those two jobs are up to individuals. No amount of resource or planning or picking the correct director is going to change that.

Walmart, The Salvation Army, etc seemed to be pretty good at providing assistance. Where was the government? I will tell you:
The city government left for less flooded territory out of the city.
The state government did not want to give Bush a moral victory so they did not do much of anything or ask for help.
The federal government, hampered in some left over ways by the Constitution, which Bush normally ignores anyway, can not just have the military charge into a city and start helping. They have to be asked to do so.

The real truth is that the hurricane was not a big deal and the subsequent evacuation due to the levee break was EXTREMELY successful, orderly and effective. There was little loss of life and they were able to evacuate 95% of the city in less than 72 hours. That is 95% of 300,000 or about 285,000 folks without a lot of government assistance. Oops, I forgot the fellow who stole the bus, I guess the city government really did help and I did not even realize it.

Bottom Up Reporting and Action
The lowest common denomimator are those affected by the disaster. Action must start with them, and reporting must also start there. Individuals must be aware of, and prepare as best they can for, potential danger, especially in an area where such a danger has occurred before, and is likely to happen again (such as in New Orleans).

Moving up the chain of action and reporting, the city's mayor must have a plan of action, and it must be implemented immediately and effectively. This was not done in New Orleans.

The state's governor must have a system of assistance in place. It is the responsiblity of the mayor to report his needs to the governor's staff. If federal assistance is required, it is the responsibility of the state's governor to contact the federal authorities for help in a timely manner. In Louisiana, before and after Katrina, this did not happen.

The governor was a Democrat, and did not want to appeal to a Republican president for help. That is how I called it as the events unfolded. I am still convinced that this was the case with New Orleans, Louisiana. It had more to do with partisan one-upmanship than with FEMA failing in its duties.

Had the President sent unsolicited troops and aid, you would have heard Democrats everywhere screaming about Dictator Bush and his overbearing ways. They would no doubt have accused him of grandstanding, and trying to embarass the Democrats in charge in New Orleans and Lousiana.

It is strange how the mainstream media failed to chastise the mayor and the governor the way that they did FEMA, and President Bush.

Wal-Mart -style logistics
One of the success stories in the Katrina aftermath was Wal-Mart -styl logistics pouring aid (especially bottled water and food) into the stricken areas, despite the best efforts of FEMA to screw it up.

Given the track record, we should consider further privatizing disaster response: We do it already with the Salvation Army and American Red Cross, so why limit the public-private partnership to non-profits, when patriotic profit-making corporations stepped up during Katrina?

Dan Schwartz
Cherry Hill, New Jersey

unwieldy bureaucracies
Too many bureaucracies, too big and powerful, too independent, too rich in appropriated funds--and we expect them to cooperate with each other? Have they ever?

Whether local, state or federal, they all share this big-government disease. Oh yes, and they're all jealous of what the private sector, including charities, can accomplish much more efficiently.

My money left over after taxes increasingly goes to the Salvation Army, where I think it is much better spent.

Failure isn't in one component
It's magic thinking that the failures in our three tier (local, state, federal) disaster response system are going to be solved by changing the head of FEMA. New Orleans had an evacuation plan on paper. They didn't follow it. The state of Louisiana had a disaster response plan on paper. They didn't follow it. The federal government had its own failures but the best federal response in the world wouldn't have saved those evacuation buses that weren't used to evacuate the poor as they were supposed to but rather were abandoned to rising water without even trying to save them.

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