Wednesday, October 24, 2007

"The real story here is about preparedness"

One of my favorite people in the DCP community posted a comment last night. This comes from someone with a Coastie background who was deeply involved in Katrina efforts right from day 1.

V said:

Ok so I'm pissed off, so I'm going to say something. I apologize in advance if it's a bit angry.

I've read way too many ignorant and uninformed posts on way too many blogs that are comparing the SoCal fire situation to NOLA & Katrina. Most of the comments run along the theme of "there must be some sort of government conspiracy going on because San Diego, with all its white, rich, important-electoral-state people has been so well taken care of in this emergency, whereas in New Orleans, with all of its brown, poor, nobody-gives-a-damn-state people, everything was a complete cluster and a bunch of people died."

Ok that's total crap. And it pisses me off to read it over and over from people who should know better.

Allow me to explain. Because there's one big huge overwhelming difference and it has nothing to do with the demographics of the population.

California's wildland fire personnel are the most highly trained disaster response personnel in the country. They pioneered the Incident Command System (now mandated as the government's response structure in any type of emergency) back in the 70s. They train exhaustively. People have assigned disaster roles, assigned teams, assigned areas, assigned equipment. There are pre-existing contracts for equipment and support services for all the firefighters. Pre-existing agreements across the country for fire teams, aircraft, and military units (particularly the National Guards) to provide support. Detailed computerized networks for ordering equipment, tracking the progress of the fire teams, calling up reserves, filling contracts with civilian companies. The Wildland Fire folks are experts at this and yearly, they hold training and conferences to improve their expertise and share their knowledge with other agencies. I had the privilege of attending training two years ago and it was absolutely top-notch.

Roles are clearly defined, however. The Wildland Fire folks and all their associated support - they know that their job is just to fight the fires. They are not supposed to evacuate civilians or provide food to them or anything else. That is the role of the local and state governments. They, also, are well prepared. They have evacuation plans. Everyone regularly goes through extensive fire and earthquake drills. Full blown ones that simulate mass casualties, closing of major roads, loss of electricity & water, evacuations, etc. Since the last devastating fires, they have implemented a reverse-911 system which was used to great effect this time around. Furthermore, state and local governments have coordinated with the National Guard to again clearly define roles and pre-plan for emergencies - the National Guard is assisting at evacuation centers and with traffic control.

Finally, the Governator, for all his many other faults, was completely on top of the situation, immediately declaring certain counties disaster areas and pushing the President to do the same in order to clear the red tape and open up federal disaster funds.

So what is different here? The starkly glaring difference is that in New Orleans, there was a complete lack of preparation on all levels. There was no self-supporting, highly trained "hurricane team" that could be compared to the Wildland Fire folks. (In fact, the Wildland Fire folks were brought in to run logistics for emergency personnel, since it was a slow fire season, and were astounded by the complete lack of organization, training, and preparedness they found.) There were no coordination plans drawn up. What sketchy contingency plans did exist were incomplete, outdated, and never tested. Nobody ran drills, or if they did, they were incomplete and limited so they did not expose any problems. There was no effective way of notifying the whole city of a disaster. The mayor, the governor, and the president all delayed and delayed and delayed and thus hindered the ability of any federal aid to flow (which requires red tape to be "cut" in the form of a simple disaster declaration). I could go on.

Yes, there were racial issues in New Orleans dating back certainly to the 1927 Mississippi River flood, when the levees were blown up south of New Orleans to save the whites at the expense of flooding the blacks. When blacks were told to lay down on top of overtopping levees when the sandbags weren't tall enough. When whites forced blacks at gunpoint to shore up levees.

But it would be equally easy to try and throw a race card in San Diego where at least 50% of the population is Hispanic. In fact the last devastating fire a few years ago was started by a Hispanic man who was trying to signal when he got lost in the woods on a hunting trip. A lot of the folks at the shelters are poorer and browner, because the richer, whiter folks can afford to stay in hotels and fly out of the area and whatnot.

But not a single story is focusing on race with the fires right now. And with good reason. Because the real story here is about preparedness, not race or government conspiracy. And shame on us for not being able to see it. Because as long as we keep blaming problems on things other than what they are, it will take that much longer to be able to actually fix those problems and avoid them in the future.

V added this response to a couple of comments on her original rant.

V said:

Carol, yes, there is some impact in terms of a tax base, or lack thereof, and thus how much $$ is available for the local/state gov't to support its people.

I find it amusing that most stories about the massage therapists, magicians, clowns, etc. at Qualcomm make it seem as though the San Diego local government takes care of its pampered people this read a little more closely, though, and it turns out all these "extras" were donated - people donating their time to help out their neighbors.

As a general note, I just finished reading "Rising Tide" - which is about the Mississippi River flood of 1927, and was written about 10 years ago, and therefore was in no way impacted by Katrina. And yet the parallels and contrasts are telling. It is a comprehensive look at about 75 years of Mississippi River valley history and thus provides tremendously valuable background for anyone who is interested in why Katrina struck so many discordant historical notes for folks - and more broadly, why the Delta turned out like it did. I also realized (dumb me, yes) that the NOLA levees were originally designed to hold out against a rising river (upstream), not a storm surge from the Gulf & MRGO & Lake Ponchetrain (downstream). Hence part of the problem...

Christy, my point was that there was no integrated planning or preparedness - everyone planned for their own little corner of the world, and then when they all had to depend on each other, things fell apart. Compounded by a general distrust of the government by the public, a history of nothing happening unless bribes and back-door connections eased the way, and an antipathy between the mayor, the governor, and the president...that is not the way to prepare for disasters. So they knew the levees wouldn't withstand more than a Cat 3 (which Katrina, at landfall, was)...all the more reason to have a good integrated well-rehearsed comprehensive evacuation plan.

Thanks, V, for speaking up.

Unfortunately it appears to be a lesson lost on those in many places in our various levels of government.


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