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ICG Risk Blog - [ As kill boxes become rescue boxes, 'senseless acts of planning' continue ]

As kill boxes become rescue boxes, 'senseless acts of planning' continue

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Part 3

From Los Angeles to Boston, from Seattle to Miami, plans to relocate, house and feed potentially hundreds of thousands of displaced people are embryonic at best and nonexistent at worst... [In] many places highways would clog quickly, confusion would reign and police resources would soon be overtaxed... [while] lacking private transportation, [the poor] could be left to fend for themselves in cities without basic services or law enforcement.

Katrina and Rita demonstrated what other major US metropolitan cities have belatedly discovered and what federal authorities should have long ago told them:

  • Preparations made only for localized emergencies involving relocation of a "few thousand or tens of thousands of people"
  • No preparations for evacuating millions of people "with little or no notice" so as to avoid chaos
  • No consideration of diverse spoken languages, recent immigrants and secondary effects such as geography or a second contributing event, natural or man-made
  • No preparation for sheltering dislocated and homeless populations
  • No planning for gaining consensus from the dislocated as to the timing of their return
  • And of course, no coordination and communication among local, state and federal authorities

No planning or improvisation are the watchword of mass evacuation strategies. Coarse plans insufficiently thought out are the norm. One of the very few cities to have actually exercised a mass evacuation plan, Washington DC during the 2004 July 4 fireworks event, has misleading data in their estimates of the rate at which people can be bled off the city as the revelers were not in a panicked state trying to close down their houses, take clothing and food for an indeterminate period, et al.

While I thought that there was far too much self-congratulatory chatter from state and federal officials, the specter of Rita repeating the "ultra-catastrophe" of Katrina did spur better communication, advanced provisioning, early mobilization of national guard and military, and saw a much quicker and less politically messy appointment of a Principal Federal Officer (PFO) in charge.

Preparations for Rita dwarfed those for Katrina, yet Rita was a far milder storm in almost all respects. Although both storms were declared an "incident of national significance" under the National Response Plan (NRP) (also here), the US emergency response system was simply not stressed as it was in Katrina. While some officials "acknowledged that Hurricane Rita had not presented the ultimate test for which they had prepared," we must be wary of smugness and comments of 'how much we've learned' after Katrina. The reader's mileage may vary but I do not concur with Robert Stephan:

"The big difference is that we have been gearing up our entire system for a month now," Robert B. Stephan, assistant secretary of homeland security for infrastructure protection, said in Washington. "There's no warm-up period -- the car is started and ready to go."

Traditional emergency service agencies still suffer vexing similarities:

  • Top-down command structure
  • Response-driven
  • Inherent bureaucracy issues
  • "Father Knows Best" syndrome
  • Success depends on compliance, standardization, shared protocols
  • Infrastructure maintenance is critical
  • Challenged by change
  • Exclusionary appearance/practices

Of these groups, the US Military (Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force, Marines) has the greatest readiness planning and the infrastructure for 'force projection' capable of turning kill boxes into rescue boxes.

Part 5

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita Were Like Night and Day
By Spencer S. Hsu and Steve Hendrix
Washington Post
September 25, 2005

In Plans to Evacuate U.S. Cities, Chance for Havoc
By JOHN M. BRODER
New York Times
September 25, 2005

Conflicting accounts from top on Katrina response
By Adam Entous
Reuters
Sep 15, 2005

Homeland Security releases national emergency plan
From Mike M. Ahlers
CNN
January 6, 2005 Posted: 9:44 PM EST (0244 GMT)

Gordon Housworth



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