Back in 1988 the county where Sioux City, Iowa is located organized a “Disaster Preparedness Program,” hired a guy named Gary Brown to run it and proceeded to poke fun at the drills they ran. The drills ran a little better, personalities got meshed a little better and the program got a little more respect.
On July 19, 1989 the crap hit the fan. They less than thirty minutes to prepare for a DC-10 with the tail engine gone. Trouble is when the engine went it took the hydraulics with it. The plane was flying in great spiraling circles. The pilots were powering the other two engines up or down to try to get some directional control. Sioux City was the closest airport. And didn't usually handle wide-bodied aircraft-so called "heavies." There were units from three states and the Air Guard lined up when that plane hit the ground, did a flip and broke up. The rescue teams moved more than a hundred injured people off the runways, into choppers and ambulances to local hospitals in less than an hour. 185 of the passengers and all the cockpit crew survived because people were trained and no one was willing to quit.
These events were the background for a made for TV film currently called A Thousand Heroes. It was made in 1992 and is barely available on video. Personally I think it should be required viewing for every emergency team in the country.
So, why did I tell this story?
I’ve been following the finger pointing in New Orleans with as much interest and dismay as every other American. The truth is that very few cities, counties or states are prepared to deal with an event like Katrina.
The biggest problem is you can’t spitball solutions to a crisis like Katrina two days before it happens. You have to imagine it months or better still, years before. You hope you’ve come up with possible solutions and then practice, practice, practice to work out the bugs.
Folks have asked “why weren’t the residents with no transport gotten out instead of being sent to the Superdome?” Good question. Answer, how? School busses? City busses? Tell the airlines “since you’re moving your planes out anyway, how about taking some people with you? How are you going to get refugees to the airport? Where are they going to go? How much fuel does a school bus carry in its tank. How far can an overloaded bus get on a tank of fuel? Where is this convoy going to get fuel? Send a tanker along with it? Where are they going to go? Will there be shelter when they get there? What about food, water, sanitation, dirty diapers? See where this train is heading? It’s too late to start asking these questions when you realize you needed those answers six months ago.
Carloads of volunteers are on the roads heading south hoping to help clean things up. I agree that they’d be better off sending money and staying home. The people handling this emergency don’t need more people on the scene who will need food, fuel, housing and sanitation.
We’re yelling at FEMA, but FEMA is basically a shadow of what it was. It’s been rolled into the Homeland Security fiefdom. Homeland Security, there’s a joke. I’m not the only one who noticed that in the months before last year’s election, Tom Ridge issued security alerts every time things got bad for Bush.
The current administration rolled everything into a new inexperienced federal agency, diverted resources from levee repair and upgrades to deal with a war we didn’t need to fight, ran up the deficit and issued tax cuts to those who already have more than any of the rest of us could hope to have, need or truthfully want. There’s plenty of blame to be shared. But I’m putting the lion’s share at doorstep of this administration and the neocon theorists who seem to be the only advisors who have the president’s ear.
A lot of things look good on paper and sound great in speeches. Reminds me of the old game of scissors, rock, or paper. You can’t cut water, rocks sink and paper gets soaked. You can’t cut the wind, rocks get blown around and the paper gets blown back in your face.