Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Disasters & Governments

Bob Williams has an interesting commentary in today's Wall Street Journal [subscription required]:
"Mayor Nagin was responsible for giving the order for mandatory evacuation and supervising the actual evacuation: His office of Emergency Preparedness (not the federal government) must coordinate with the state on elements of evacuation and assist in directing the transportation of evacuees to staging areas. Mayor Nagin had to be encouraged by the governor to contact the National Hurricane Center before he finally, belatedly, issued the order for mandatory evacuation. And sadly, it apparently took a personal call from the president to urge the governor to order the mandatory evacuation.

The city's evacuation plan states: 'The city of New Orleans will utilize all available resources to quickly and safely evacuate threatened areas.' But even though the city has enough school and transit buses to evacuate 12,000 citizens per fleet run, the mayor did not use them. To compound the problem, the buses were not moved to high ground and were flooded. The plan also states that 'special arrangements will be made to evacuate persons unable to transport themselves or who require specific lifesaving assistance. Additional personnel will be recruited to assist in evacuation procedures as needed.' This was not done.

The evacuation plan warned that 'if an evacuation order is issued without the mechanisms needed to disseminate the information to the affected persons, then we face the possibility of having large numbers of people either stranded and left to the mercy of a storm, or left in an area impacted by toxic materials.' That is precisely what happened because of the mayor's failure.

Instead of evacuating the people, the mayor ordered the refugees to the Superdome and Convention Center without adequate security and no provisions for food, water and sanitary conditions. As a result people died, and there was even rape committed, in these facilities. Mayor Nagin failed in his responsibility to provide public safety and to manage the orderly evacuation of the citizens of New Orleans. Now he wants to blame Gov. Blanco and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In an emergency the first requirement is for the city's emergency center to be linked to the state emergency operations center. This was not done.

The federal government does not have the authority to intervene in a state emergency without the request of a governor. President Bush declared an emergency prior to Katrina hitting New Orleans, so the only action needed for federal assistance was for Gov. Blanco to request the specific type of assistance she needed. She failed to send a timely request for specific aid.

In addition, unlike the governors of New York, Oklahoma and California in past disasters, Gov. Blanco failed to take charge of the situation and ensure that the state emergency operation facility was in constant contact with Mayor Nagin and FEMA. It is likely that thousands of people died because of the failure of Gov. Blanco to implement the state plan, which mentions the possible need to evacuate up to one million people. The plan clearly gives the governor the authority for declaring an emergency, sending in state resources to the disaster area and requesting necessary federal assistance.

State legislators and governors nationwide need to update their contingency plans and the operation procedures for state emergency centers. Hurricane Katrina had been forecast for days, but that will not always be the case with a disaster (think of terrorist attacks). It must be made clear that the governor and locally elected officials are in charge of the 'first response.'

I am not attempting to excuse some of the delays in FEMA's response. Congress and the president need to take corrective action there, also. However, if citizens expect FEMA to be a first responder to terrorist attacks or other local emergencies (earthquakes, forest fires, volcanoes), they will be disappointed. The federal government's role is to offer aid upon request."
Now I'm a long way from the hurricane damaged region of the country, and I know it can be quite a challenge to discern what is true and what is false just by watching news on television, so I don't want to point too many fingers at government officials. I do find Mr. Williams' commentary credible. Our system of political economy is a federal system. State and local government, not the national government, has the police power. There are police departments and fire departments at every local level of government. So, my intuition is that in our system it is states and local governments that are responsible for public safety after a natural disaster such as a hurricane. And, I think this is as it should be.

So, I guess I'm thinking that all the harping on the poor federal response by specific politicians, at all levels of government (national, state, and local), is about par for the course. When it comes to government, what are the people in government best at, especially if they are people who are elected to office?

There are a few other tidbits I find interesting in the aftermath of Katrina:

-- I've heard that the Louisiana Constitution does not allow the governor to declare martial law.

-- The President cannot call out or order the National Guard, unless the National Guard forces are first "federalized."

-- FEMA has been incorporated into a much larger bureaurcracy with the formation of the Department of Homeland Security, and therefore, it's response may be significantly slower now than in the past.

-- While the President has committed military personnel to the New Orleans area, it is the National Guard which is still under the direction of the state's governor which is responsible right now for policing the city.

Whether the national, state, and local governments could have done better in the aftermath of the hurricane, it seems to me that what we have witnessed is really not far from what we should expect from government following a disasterous event.

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