The inept response to this disaster is an ominous harbinger of things to come if terrorists hit us with the big one. Ignore for a moment that fact that this scenario in New Orleans had been identified as a potential threat we should prepare for. …Yep. The questions raised about our response to Katrina aren't meant as finger-pointing or blame-casting. We live in a world where domestic tragedies like this are increasingly common. We knew this was coming, and it still took days before the USNS Comfort set sail. The hospital ship was docked in Maryland and will take 4 days to reach New Orleans.
The crisis response to a hurricane is the same as a response to a terrorist attack. Restoration or services, remediation, and humanitarian help are the same regardless of whether it is man made or nature made. The biggest problems in any response are always the same--chain of command (i.e., figuring out who is in charge) and communication. It is inexcusable for the Bush Administration officials to claim they had no way of anticipating this disaster or planning for it. At least they've been consistent. We now know that the failure to plan for the aftermath in Iraq was but a precursor of things to come at home.
Hopefully this debacle will inspire the Republican controlled House and Senate to get off their ass and demand the Bush Administration explain how it will respond if terrorists detonate a nuclear device in the harbor of New York City or Los Angeles. We don't know if or when such a tragedy will happen, but we do know it is something that could happen and that we should be prepared to handle. That is the purpose of holding crisis management exercises. You work on problems and potential solutions before you are in the midst of an actual crisis.
When avian flu hits the US, it won't hit one place only, and it won't give us a week's warning. When al Qaeda hits domestically, there won't be any warning. The casualty counts will be high, we'll have to restore services, rebuild the infrastructure and supply humanitarian aid. There need to be plans on the books that will work.
As I understand it, the US has war plans drawn up for any conflict that might break out. When it happens, they dust them off, make sure they're up to date, and take action. Until the '50s, we had plans on file for a war with England (can't remember where I saw that, but it was a reputable source).
Does FEMA have the same thing? Was there a plan for a massive hurricane in NOLA? Is there one for a nuclear attack on one of the large cities? Earthquakes in SF? What about a rapidly spreading contagion, like avian flu? I assume so, and it's clear that FEMA had been doing paper simulations of a hurricane hitting New Orleans. It's also clear that they feel the reaction to those exercises was hampered by underfunding.
What's the state of that planning? Is FEMA responsible for all of that, or is it elsewhere? How often do they loop local law enforcement, DoD, CDC, etc. into their planning?
I know I have at least one FEMA connected reader, and I'll be asking someone I know at DHS for some more info.
At this point, defending the planning before hand for the sake of defending President Bush is dangerous. If things went wrong, we need an honest discussion about it in order to do better next time. This isn't partisan. Avian flu will be serious, and we need a good plan to keep it from killing millions of people. We can do this, but we need to have a serious examination of what we did right and what we did wrong with Katrina to understand some obstacles to an effective response to H5N1.