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September 11, 2005
FEMA Response Not The Issue

Jack Kelly writes about the widely-reviled FEMA response to Hurricane Katrina in today's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and wonders why people consider it so poor. Looking at the historic response to disaster from the federal government, FEMA actually improved its rate of transferring assets to the affected area, he argues -- especially when one considers that the disaster area comprises an area the size of Great Britain:

Journalists who are long on opinions and short on knowledge have no idea what is involved in moving hundreds of tons of relief supplies into an area the size of England in which power lines are down, telecommunications are out, no gasoline is available, bridges are damaged, roads and airports are covered with debris, and apparently have little interest in finding out.

So they libel as a "national disgrace" the most monumental and successful disaster relief operation in world history.

I write this column a week and a day after the main levee protecting New Orleans breached. In the course of that week:

* More than 32,000 people have been rescued, many plucked from rooftops by Coast Guard helicopters.

* The Army Corps of Engineers has all but repaired the breaches and begun pumping water out of New Orleans.

* Shelter, food and medical care have been provided to more than 180,000 refugees.

Kelly also points out the difficulties of getting assistance into devastated areas once the disaster has struck. FEMA, in an attempt to avoid these problems, pre-positioned aid on the outskirts of what it guessed would be the impact areas of Katrina, and for the most part guessed correctly. It could not foresee that Louisiana would not allow their responders, the Red Cross and Salvation Army, access to victims for days on end while Governor Blanco and Mayor Nagin played chicken with the trapped residents, trying to get them to leave instead of stay in place.

Kelly describes what FEMA faced for moving additional resources to address the evacuation operations that the state and local authorities should have completed before landfall:

Guardsmen need to receive mobilization orders; report to their armories; draw equipment; receive orders and convoy to the disaster area. Guardsmen driving down from Pennsylvania or Navy ships sailing from Norfolk can't be on the scene immediately.

Relief efforts must be planned. Other than prepositioning supplies near the area likely to be afflicted (which was done quite efficiently), this cannot be done until the hurricane has struck and a damage assessment can be made. There must be a route reconnaissance to determine if roads are open, and bridges along the way can bear the weight of heavily laden trucks.

And federal troops and Guardsmen from other states cannot be sent to a disaster area until their presence has been requested by the governors of the afflicted states.

Failure to properly recon these routes doesn't speed up the effort -- it creates a high probability of transforming rescue personnel into victims themselves, who will then require even more resources to rescue later. They have to use heavy vehicles to transport the goods and personnel to the afflicted. Journalists can get by with satellite vans and a handful of crew, and therefore might get by on marginal routes, but the military travels heavier than Geraldo Rivera and has to ensure that they can make the trip successfully in order to eliminate wasted time driving around looking for alternatives.

These are the reasons why FEMA makes clear that local and state authorities should plan on having their own resources in place for the first 72-96 hours after a disaster strikes. In this case, FEMA had significant resources in place prior to the disaster, and followed up with a massive response within their time frame after the levees broke and the disaster overwhelmed New Orleans and Louisiana. Unless people think that, as Kelly quotes a Guardsman, we can have Scotty beam the military down from the USS Enterprise at the snap of the fingers, the fact is that FEMA responded as designed to this disaster.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at September 11, 2005 9:02 AM

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» Katrina and Democratic Blame-shifting from The Unalienable Right
Jack Kelly has a good column today about the concerted effort of the left to shift all blame for the post-Katrina response to President Bush: It is settled wisdom among journalists that the federal response to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Kat... [Read More]

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» The Spin Continues from Sue Bob's Diary
As Captain Ed adds: These are the reasons why FEMA makes clear that local and state authorities should plan on having their own resources in place for the first 72-96 hours after a disaster strikes. In this case, FEMA had significant resources... [Read More]

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» Stage 2: Competing Narratives Emerge from protein wisdom

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