Monday, August 31, 2009

FEMA Learning A Lesson?

A few days ago, my wife and I were discussing, among other things, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, commenting on how the reaction to the disaster and the rebuilding afterward contrasted markedly with similar reactions to hurricanes in such states as South Carolina and Florida. Now, it's true that our memories may be tained by time, but it seemed to us that after the hurricanes in South Carolina and Florida, there was some media attention, but it kind of just drifted off because -- this is our assumption -- people there were able to get on with their lives, get rebuilding, and get their lives back in order.

Not so in New Orleans. We're still hearing about this disaster four years on. I don't think it's because the amount of destruction was unprecedented -- though the same area did get smacked by Hurricane Rita that same year. I think it has to do with the expectations of those in the disaster areas. New Orleanais -- and this, too, may be a generalization -- seemed to be waiting for someone else to come in and fix things up, while those in other states didn't wait. They were survivors, not victims.

Now FEMA wants people to respond in that same way -- avoiding being victims, and concentrating on survival.

Amanda Ripley has a short piece on Craig Fugate, the new FEMA director, in the Atlantic. This is a particularly illuminating passage:
“We need to change behavior in this country,” he told about 400 emergency-management instructors at a conference in June, lambasting the “government-centric” approach to disasters. He learned a perverse lesson in Florida: the more the federal government does in routine emergencies, the greater the odds of catastrophic failure in a big disaster. “It’s like a Chinese finger trap,” he told me last spring, as a hailstorm fittingly raged outside his office. If the feds do more, the public, along with state and local officials, do less. They come to expect ice and water in 24 hours and full reimbursement for sodden carpets. But as part of a federal system, FEMA is designed to defer to state and local officials. If another Katrina hits, and the locals are overwhelmed, a full-strength federal response will inevitably take time. People who need help the most—the elderly, the disabled, and the poor—may not get it fast enough.
This is nothing new to our way of thinking. We have a fairly good disaster plan at home. We have food and water stored, along with wood for fuel. We also have a small camper well-stocked with propane we could use for cooking and even refrigeration. We lack a plan for storing automobile fuel, but that's a difficult commodity for anyone to store, but I could do better in keeping the 5-gallon can we use for the mower filled up, and I could buy a few extra cans and keep rotating that fuel through. More importantly, we're prepared to help each other. Though we weren't here at the time, Sugar City suffered a catastrophic flood in 1976 when the Teton Dam broke. (The photo included with this post shows Sugar City underwater.) Citiens here and in surrounding communities proved they could take care of themselves adequately enough without even state help, let alone waiting for FEMA to arrive. That's the way to go, to my way of thinking. It's good to hear FEMA now thinking along those same lines.

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