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September 12, 2005

Learning from mistakes (can we?)

So now the other shoe drops. To no one's surprise and most everyone's relief, Michael Brown has left FEMA, and will be replaced, at least on an interim basis, by an experienced fire chief.

This appointment, along with the earlier appointment of an experienced Coast Guard Vice-Admiral to manage the relief efforts for Katrina, seems to indicate that someone has recognized that the "Emergency Management" agency ought to be led and staffed by people who are trained and experienced in that profession. We have excellent proof here in the Katrina response, that if your emergency agency is led by lawyers, it will do an excellent job assuring that everything is properly authorized. The agency will be less concerned with moving quickly or with getting aid where it is most needed. Rather it will get the aid where and when the proper authorizations and legal restrictions allow it. Only the bureaucrats are happy with that situation.

Wouldn't it be a shame if this baby step in the right direction went no further? I'd like to propose a few similar steps we can take, now that the clarity of hindsight is available to us.

1. Staff the investigation right. Lawyers mucked up the disaster relief, and lawyers will muck up the investigation. Commission an investigating team made up of experts in disaster relief and planning. In a disaster of this magnitude, even the best conceivable response will look ugly. Things are genuinely a mess in the gulf area and only experienced disaster officials will be able to look past the many obvious barriers and see what realistically could have been done and ought to have been done. A bunch of politicos with an agenda will find enough chaos in any disaster recovery to fuel a witch hunt. A panel of genuine pro's, however, might be able to see past the rumors, misconceptions and partisanship and generate some useful findings.

2. Expand the Scope: In the planning and response to Katrina, officials did not appreciate the scope of what they were dealing with. They looked and acted too narrowly. Don't make that mistake again. Give the investigators full scope. Let them look at this problem from its inception in the corruption of Louisiana politics decades past, and follow it through generations of officials who failed to take the danger seriously, right though to the local, state and federal officials who couldn't perceive it as it happened. They might even take a look at the attitudes of the public, some of whom fled immediately and some of whom will not leave even now. This disaster was decades in the development, and should be studied in its fullness. A narrow look at the last two weeks won't save many lives in the future.

3. Restructure FEMA: Make it FERA, replacing "management" with "relief". FEMA is a coordinating organization. We need an organization that can move the trucks and planes, not "request them." FEMA needs to be able directly control real assets.

4. Give authority to the Federal responders: The state organizations are a weak link. As we have seen, the American people are looking for the feds when trouble hits. Let's find a constitutional way around all these concerns over authority. Perhaps we can link it to the President's declaration of an emergency area, or a disaster area (they different.) Right now the states are able to get all the federal money without giving up any control or authority. Change that. Once the President declares an emergency, and the state accepts that declaration, the federal responders will coordinate with the state officials but won't wait for authorizations. A declaration of martial law carries some significant implications, why is a declaration of a federal disaster so toothless?

There's no need for battles between the federal and state forces; everyone is trying to save lives, correct? Let's just prepare legislation to clear the way for federal forces to move into an area without bottlenecks. I don't expect that the Coast Guard choppers were waiting for a green light from Baton Rouge before they started pulling survivors off rooftops (perhaps they did, but I'd be surprised. My impression is that they can move into action immediately.)

5. Give Homeland Security/FEMA power to force better planning and preparation at the local level. This "waiting for the cavalry" habit needs to be dealt with. Some locales are spending the time and money to be prepared and work well with the feds, and some are doing next to nothing. Laziness, greed and incompetence didn't vanish after 9/11/2001. Some places just need some guidance and a bit of a nudge. Others will need a big stick to get them moving. The failure of one city to tend to its preparedness will cost us all.

Posted by Jay on September 12, 2005 at 08:39 PM | Permalink


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The Radical Centrist points out that to no one's surprise and most everyone's relief, Michael Brown has left FEMA, and will be replaced by an experienced fire chief. He proposes more steps: (1) staff the investigation right; (2) expand the scope; (3)... [Read More]

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