Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Plans that have far-reaching effects

Katrina update. Back here, I wrote:
Louisiana, we now know (thanks to China at Lenin's Tomb) was one of the areas where the 'free market' reforms of FEMA took effect: in 2004, a private consultancy called IEM was paid half a million tax dollars to develop a 'Catastrophic Hurricane Disaster Plan'. It's not clear whether this plan was ever completed, let alone implemented. According to one source (cited by China), hurricane-oriented workshops in July and December 2004 produced "a series of functional plans that may be implemented immediately"; moreover, "resource shortfalls were identified early, saving valuable time in the event an actual response is warranted." However, a January 2005 report from the National Emergency Management Association (PDF) notes, "Participants from this exercise are waiting for a private contractor to finish the after-action report and plans from this exercise". Perhaps IEM's 'functional plans' weren't quite finished after all.
That NEMA report was dated 21st January 2005. You'd think that IEM would have got its 'functional plans' ready to go some time in the next seven months, but maybe not. Perhaps the reason why the local and national response to Katrina looked so shambolic was, quite simply, that the people in charge didn't know what to do.
Here is an important post by Greg of Suspect Device, who was present at the July 2004 'Hurricane Pam' exercise. You should read the whole thing, but here are a few particularly striking quotes:
As with most IEM projects, the Hurricane Pam exercise was put together at the last minute, in a blind animal panic with no time for refinement, testing, or subtlety, but it still was a remarkable and bold idea.
Attendees included emergency managers from all across Louisiana, representatives from the EPA, the National Guard, the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the DOTD, the Red Cross (who I remember as being marginalized and tolerated at best, with more than a little eye rolling from the "professionals"), the State Police, and many others. Also taking on important roles were representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA, who provided facilitators, computers, and a great deal of support.
There was a certain amount of contention, a few turf wars, some loud talk. None if it consequential, in the end, because of the single greatest emollient: FEMA. The Federal Emergency Management Agency promised the moon and the stars. They promised to have 1,000,000 bottles of water per day coming into affected areas within 48 hours. They promised massive prestaging with water, ice, medical supplies and generators. Anything that was needed, they would have either in place as the storm hit or ready to move in immediately after. All it would take is a phone call from local officials to the state, who would then call FEMA, and it would be done. There were contracts-in-place with major vendors across the country and prestaging areas were already determined (I'll have more to say about this later, but this is one reason FEMA has rejected large donations and turned back freelance shipments of water, medical supplies, food, etc: they have contracts in place to purchase those items, and accepting the same product from another source could be construed as breach of contract, and could lead to contract cancellation, thus removing a reliable source of product from the pool of available resources. I'm not saying I agree with this -- in fact, I don't, and think it's boneheaded -- but the reasoning is that if they accept five semis of water from the east Weewau, Wisconsin, Chamber of Commerce, the water supplier who is contractually bound to provide 100,000 gallons per day will be freed from that obligation.
The organizers of the exercise ... insisted that the plans contain no "fairy dust": no magical leaps of supply chains or providers ... Everyone tried to keep the fairy dust to a minimum, and they did so, for the most part, despite having big plans: LSU, Southern, Southeastern and other campuses dismissed for the semester and turned into giant triage centers/tent cities; acres of temporary housing built on government-owned land; C-130 transport planes ferrying evacuees to relatives in other states, and so on. Bold plans, but doable, with cooperation. A comprehensive plan was beginning to emerge.

Except that it didn't. A followup conference, to iron out difficulties in some of the individual plans and to formalize presentation of the final package, scheduled for either late '04 or early '05 -- I can't remember and can find no mention of the followup event on the web -- was cancelled at the last minute, due to lack of funding (which agency called the cancellation, I'm not sure, although the lack of funds would take it all back to FEMA, in the end).

So: Louisiana did have a hurricane plan, but was devising a new one, to be based on recommendation from the people who would actually be doing the work. The need to evacuate people from impact areas, including those without transportation or the means to obtain it, was discussed, despite media assertions to the contrary. ... There were and are officials in Louisiana, including New Orleans Emergency Management, who know the limitations of current planning and who have been trying to come up with a better solution.

The problem is FEMA, and by extension the Department of Homeland Security, which gobbled FEMA up in 2003. FEMA promised more than they could deliver. They cut off deeper, perhaps more meaningful discussion and planning by handing out empty promises. The plans that were made -- which were not given any sort of stamp of authority -- were never distributed or otherwise made available to those who most needed stable guidance; they vanished into the maw of FEMA
In comments, Greg sums up:
the state didn't convene the second Pam workshop, to flesh out the plan, because FEMA cancelled the funding, and that even the skeletal plans that were created are not available, because they're technically FEMA property and FEMA hasn't released them.
Greg also notes that the number of people without their own transport in south-eastern Louisiana was estimated at 100,000; he adds
The notion of doing something to evacuate those without transport was raised late in the game, but was left as an action item for the followup meetings.
It sounds as if the December 2004 meeting described here had not in fact taken place, because FEMA cancelled the funding.

It's not clear whether this plan was ever completed, let alone implemented. I think it's clear now. What's worse than handing responsibility for vital social support functions to a private company (along with a suitcase full of money)? Doing all that, then pulling the plug on them before they've finished the job. FEMA management aren't just ideologically-driven bureaucrats - they're incompetent ideologically-driven bureaucrats.


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