Saturday, September 10, 2005

Accountability (3)

Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.

Remember when I said that we needed to have an unvarnished accounting of the disaster response for Hurricane Katrina, in order to be better prepared in the future? It’s looking like the chances of that happening are getting fainter and fainter. Beyond political maneuvering, there no value in the blame game, but an honest lessons-learned discussion would be nice.

A thought-provoking analysis, which should be read by anyone interested in being prepared for the next large disaster, was written last week by Laurie Garrett, at the height of the crisis at the Superdome and Convention Center. Some of the key points were: people who feel they have no reason to trust the government are unlikely to correctly respond to governmental instructions during a crisis; the ability of leadership to communicate with the public is critical to being able to respond appropriately; a sense of civilian leadership returning to the area needs to happen real soon, otherwise the refugees (I mean, displaced persons) will start to see themselves as under occupation; “[g]iven the overtones of racism, this could be explosive”.

Other good points she’s brought up were that the Mississippi Delta was America’s version of the tropics, from an ecological perspective. The flooding aftermath has left large pools of standing water that created extensive habitat for mosquitoes, at a time when America’s commitment to mosquito control has waned. Also, the experience in clearing mosquitoes from large, water-covered areas is in third-world countries, another reason why we should be reaching out to help from around the world (yes, I can hear ACSH and the Cato Institute from here shouting “bring back DDT!”). CDC’s perspective is:

Although infectious diseases are a frightening prospect, widespread outbreaks of infectious disease after hurricanes are not common in the United States. Rare and deadly exotic diseases, such as cholera or typhoid, do not suddenly break out after hurricanes and floods in areas where such diseases do not naturally occur. Communicable disease outbreaks of diarrhea and respiratory illness can occur when water and sewage systems are not working and personal hygiene is hard to maintain as a result of a disaster.

Another useful and brief resource on microbiological hazards that I’ve encountered is here on Medpage Today. CDC’s Katrina news and resources page also looks to be very useful.

Another thing to give one pause is the immense amount of debris and waste (including hazardous waste) that will be generated during the recovery. Hopefully, Ms. Garrett says, someone is giving thought to trying to recycle or reclaim some of this material for future levee construction or other construction purposes. The hundreds of thousands of now unemployed in the region could be put to work in green deconstruction, which would maximize the quantities of usable materials, as well as benefit the people. Another issue that will need to be addressed is indoor air quality, particularly molds and asbestos, in buildings that are water-damaged but not ready for demolition. As Ms. Garrett says, it would be a shame if all of it ended up in landfills. . .

. . . or worse; according to this account, reportedly from someone on the scene, the rumor is that debris removal in New Orleans will involve demolishing the structures and incinerating the waste. It’s hard to choose which is more exasperating – the potential air quality impacts; residuals disposal problem (burning all of that debris will leave behind a lot of ash that will have to be disposed of) or the waste of resources. Hopefully, this truly is just a rumor and not a sign that someone in a leadership position has their head firmly tucked up their ass.

The real test of “compassionate conservatism” will be how the mental health problems are addressed for hundreds of thousands of refugees. Displaced, broke, jobless, uprooted and disconnected from family and loved ones, one of the things they will need in the coming months is frequent and accurate information – about how things are going back home, the fate and location of family members, and as clear a message as possible of what’s going to happen next and when will they stop being displaced persons and start being citizens again; “[i]f government cannot inform, there is no government”. Of course this presumes there is a plan. . .

. . . such as the planning done when FEMA supposedly drilled for this contingency. FEMA and local authorities participated in the simulated disaster response to “Hurricane Pam” in 2004. Hurricane Pam, based on historical weather and damage data, brought sustained winds of 120 mph, up to 20 inches of rain in parts of southeast Louisiana and storm surge that topped levees in the New Orleans area. More than 60,000 fatalities occurred, one million residents were evacuated and 500,000-600,000 buildings destroyed in this scenario. According to FEMA’s press release, “[d]isaster response teams developed action plans in critical areas such as search and rescue, medical care, sheltering, temporary housing, school restoration and debris management. These plans are essential for quick response to a hurricane but will also help in other emergencies." FEMA seems to have been aware of the consequences from a Katrina-sized storm (notes to the inquisitive: read the statement of work for the “Southeast Louisiana Catastrophic Hurricane Plan from Talking Points Memo, then the post from Lenin’s Tomb on the plan that Integrated Emergency Management of Baton Rouge was supposed to have written for FEMA; I wonder if these are these the same critters). So what happened to make the plan fail so catastrophically?

Neo-conservatives wanted to reduce government “to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub", in the words of Grover Norquist. While that hasn’t happened (just the opposite, in fact), they’ve managed to hamstring government to the point that it apparently can’t perform even the most basic functions, such as safeguarding American from natural disasters. This is a significant problem. There is a lot that we individually and collectively can do to prepare and respond to disasters in our communities (this diary over at Daily Kos represents one such attempt). However, in the end, disaster response is not something that can be fully addressed by non-profits, faith-based organizations or privatization. It needs the involvement of government.

Postscript, September 11

The lessons-learned seems to be occurring. The catastrophic plan appears to have been incomplete, roles and responsibilities between federal and state/local officials were not clear, state and local officials were overwhelmed, and federal officials at the top were unresponsive at critical times in the crisis. Some people keep saying that “September 11th changed everything”, but from the looks of this, it seems that the changes were for the worse.

Lost in all of the noise is the ecological impact – oil spills, sedimentation, loss of the Gulf Coast fisheries, etc. The short attention spans of U.S. media being true to form, I had to read about it in a UK news outlet.


At 1:36 PM, Blogger kaspit said...

Nice piece. I linked to you from here:

Take care,



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