Tuesday, September 13, 2005

In the Wake of Poseidon: How it all continued to go wrong Part 1: The Hurricane Pam exercise in 2004 ended with a brace of big ideas and an honest feeling of hope. Emergency management professionals and responders from around Louisiana had finally sat down with each other and representatives from FEMA, the Red Cross, and other agencies, and begun the process of communication: assessing capabilities, defining needs, and planning for the big one. So what happened? It's easy to understand where the big plans went; the same place all big plans go. Hatching a plan to dismiss LSU for a semester or more and turn the campus into a giant tent city-triage unit, or to bring in fleets of Army transport planes to relocate evacuees, checks in hand, to any state where they cared to go, or to construct brand new temporary towns -- all of it sounded great, big strides being made, why didn't we do this sooner, etc. With everyone at the conference in the full flush of excitement, the monstrous logistical problems inherent to most of the Pam plans were glossed over by the planners -- all of that was to be ironed out later or modified accordingly, to be fair --or waved on through by FEMA reps. Even if the second Pam conference had taken place on time, there would not have been enough time or cooperation or money to put the large-scale plans into operation. These plans may (or may not) be feasilbe, and should be considered as part of future planning, but their (temporary) loss into the secret FEMA files really doesn't factor into the atrocious response to Katrina: we would have been stuck with a modified version of the existing plan in any event. There were more reasonable plans made at Pam, of course; less ambitious, more detailed suggestions for for search and rescue operations, mobilization of volunteers, medical care, even dewatering (or unwatering, if you want to be perfectly accurate and a pedantic little turd). Many of these plans could have been adopted with very little difficulty and for very little cost -- but Pam was a package, and when the feds decide to ignore something and the state decides not to care, well, baby, bathwater, you do the math. There have been some jumpy moves in the press and the blog world regarding FEMA's decision to "outsource" disaster planning. It would be nice, I suppose, to have an agency so well-funded and staffed that they could complete each and every aspect of their mission in-house, but I doubt it would ever happen. Privatization is everywhere, it's not going away, and I don't think it's evil per se -- I'd much rather see a company like IEM, which designed the Pam exercise, coordinating such planning than the unresponsive and bureaucratically hobbled leviathan that FEMA has become. IEM put that program together in a little over a month; can you imagine how long it would take FEMA to put together a similar exercise on their own? They couldn't order the fucking pastries in less than a fiscal year. Where IEM -- where everyone involved -- faltered is in feeding the hubris required to think a working statewide plan involving the coordination of local, state, and federal resources (not to mention the evacuation, rescue, and care of 100,000 people) could be whipped up in two week-long conferences. The creation of a comprehensive plan is a tremendous undertaking, obviously more complicated than FEMA was willing to pay and allow time for; IEM, which has always been loathe to turn down work, no matter how thinly their own resources are stretched, was certainly not going to argue with $500k (or whatever it was) under any circumstances. So, like Watterson's Calvin ignoring his homework for action-packed fantasy, the Pam attendees got carried away by the fairy dust (apparently a schedule II opiate) and ignored the existing plans, both NOLA and statewide-- plans so inadequate as to necessitate the very conference which ignored them -- in favor of starting from zero and creating an entirely new response plan. I said before that good things came out of Pam, and they did, but those good things seem to have been ignored in the face of this real disaster. Even the old, crippled plan was forgotten as fast as a soliloquy in a high school Hamlet. Bad things came out of Pam, too; the most significant of which are the over-reliance on FEMA and the learned inability to adapt and configure response efforts based on ground conditions. A plan is great, gotta have a plan, but FEMA apparently (I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt here, and assuming they're not just cruel and/or perniciously vegetative) was working from a plan when they turned back supplies, transportation, and assistance. The state was working from the plan when they sat and waited for those 700 buses to show up. Plans are a starting point, not the end-all inviolate script. What Pam shows me most clearly is 1) that planning, while absolutely necessary, can lull the planner into a false sense of security if the plan isn't tied to demonstrated ability; 2) that plans are not a substitute for creative thought and operational flexibility; and 3) that the single greatest asset that was granted to Pam attendees was the first, most completely, and most tragically ignored: communication. The Pam conference brought together the people who would actually be on the front lines and let them collaborate, creating plans and recommendations from a first-hand knowledge and experience. When the second Pam conference was cancelled, those newly opened avenues of communication vanished as fast as the phantom satellite phones that were so often mentioned curing the planning sessions. When Katrina finally bitchslapped Louisiana back into reality, the absence -- not only of the physical means of communication, but of the institutional knowledge of the avenues, structures, and purpose of communication from a centralized command-and-control office to responders in the field -- was the beginning of the horrifically inept response on every level: local, state, and federal. Next: Communication Breakdowns, Response, Recovery, and Business Continuity


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