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As Long as We Remember...

September 8, 2005

Needed: A Means Test for Disaster Response

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Since the force of Hurricane Katrina swept through the northern Gulf, I’ve been re-evaluating a career in local government. I’ve been trying to imagine what the local governments that I worked for would have done if a cataclysmic natural disaster had struck during my tenure.

I was the administrator for The Town of Brunswick, served as chief operations officer of The City of Frederick, and as a Frederick county commissioner before becoming a state delegate.

Local government officials tend to think that the basic planning and operational control mechanisms they have in place will guide them through the early hours of a disaster, whether natural or manmade.

I’ve been involved in disaster drills in Brunswick, Frederick, and Frederick County. Every intangible is accounted for, every procedure tested, and every communication tool is applied.

Unfortunately, Mother Nature pays no attention to the emergency planning of mere humans. When push comes to shove, many of our most sophisticated tools and techniques are as worthless as they would have been during the Paleolithic Age.

My guess is that New Orleans, Gulfport, Biloxi, Pascagoula, and Pass Christian, as well as all of the other affected areas, had conducted tabletop exercises, drills, and communication tests for a large-scale hurricane.

So, why the tragic and far from acceptable local and federal response? Why, if governments had planned and practiced for a natural disaster, are tens of thousands of people left to fend for themselves, lacking medicine, food, water, and safe shelter?

The factors that produced this tragic and completely unacceptable outcome are varied and many.

The federal, state, and local response to this disaster of historic proportion was lacking on just about every level. The Monday morning quarterbacking that accompanies these situations is an important part of changing how we prepare for – and respond to – future occurrences.

One important lesson from Katrina is that a mayor simply cannot order an evacuation, expecting that citizens will merely take him at his word that the situation is so serious as to warrant unquestioned compliance with the order.

The economics that rule our inner cities appear to have a definite impact on how people respond to an emergency. Too many of the refugees struggling through four days at the Superdome were low-income residents, people with mobility challenges, and folks who expected that their government would provide for their needs.

Wealthier, self-sufficient New Orleans residents were able to throw a bag in the trunk, fill up with gas, and head north or west to escape when the mayor put the word out to do so.

It seems logical (now that we’ve seen what happens when people can’t get out) that when the mayor of New Orleans ordered the mandatory evacuation, the city should have provided vehicular transportation to help facilitate that exit.

There may still have been a problem with people stuck in the city, living in squalor, unable to escape after the flood. Instead of having to deal with 40,000 people, it would be easier to accommodate the needs of 5,000.

The coming days will see us investigate, examine, and inquire into every aspect of the various governmental entities response to Hurricane Katrina. As usual, liberals will attack the president (the Rev. Al Sharpton has already been at it), and conservatives will beg for the time it takes to stabilize the situation before examining the response.

Rest assured, as always, if the tables were turned, GOP elected officials would attack the Democrats, and vice versa.

We do need to conduct a thorough analysis of how and why this happened the way it did. We need to understand why the full force of the federal response took 72 hours to fully mobilize; we need to examine why people refused to heed the orders of public officials; and finally, and most importantly, how much sense it makes to rebuild a major city below sea level.

Maybe this tragedy will cause our society to consider class differences, and how people of differing means respond to emergency situations. The world’s best strategy for emergency management is worthless if it doesn’t account for the inherent differences in how people respond to those emergencies.

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