April 14, 2006

FEMA Rising

Hatched by Dafydd

The Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security, Richard L. Skinner, has released a long-awaited report on the federal response to Hurricane Katrina; and while the report found a number of areas where FEMA needs improvement, it also completely undermines the major Democratic attacks against the Bush administration.

In general, the report brings much well-deserved praise for the speed and effectiveness of the federal response to the most devastating American hurricane since Galveston was hit by a killer storm in 1900 --

During the response to Hurricane Katrina, FEMA provided record levels of support to victims and emergency responders. Life saving and life sustaining commodities and equipment were delivered to the affected areas; personnel increased significantly in a short period of time to support response efforts and provide assistance to victims; and assistance was provided quickly in record amounts, sometime through innovative means....

-- even while it highlights the need for significant changes, most of which were already being implemented before the DHS Inspector General released this report:

However, a lack of asset visibility in the resource ordering process, inexperienced and untrained personnel, unreliable communications, and insufficient internal management controls demonstrate a continued need for improvement in how FEMA supports its response activities and delivery of assistance.

Curiously, very little of what the IG's report finds wrong with the FEMA response matches the unsourced and bizarre charges hurled against the Bush administration by the Democrats. It's as if they come from two different universes.

The most serious accusations leveled by Democrats against the administration's "dangerously incompetent" response to Katrina were:

  1. That they "were warned" that the levees were going to break;
  2. That they were too slow to react before Katrina made landfall;
  3. That they were "shell shocked," and did not react after the hurricane hit;
  4. That they tried to "blame the victim" (the state of Louisiana) for FEMA's own failures.

By and large, the suggestions made in the report are good and should be implemented ASAP. But most were already in process before the report was published -- and some of the suggested changes were actually underway even before Hurricane Katrina hit.

And on these key charges lodged by Democrats, where the report speaks at all, it tends to exonerate President Bush and FEMA Director Michael "Brownie" Brown.

First, let's get one charge out of the way:

FEMA "was warned" that the levees would break

The Inspector General's report does not address this particular issue. However, Big Lizards has already debunked this false claim earlier: Into the Breach, Dear Friends!, and AP Doubles Down on Katrina Falsehood.

Now, on to the business at hand....

Too slow to react before Katrina hit

Two days and one day before the hurricane made landfall, President Bush declared emergencies in all three states, allowing FEMA to pre-position resources:

[F]ederal emergency declarations were issued for Louisiana on August 27, 2005, and for Mississippi and Alabama on August 28, 2005, authorizing FEMA to begin pre-positioning commodities and emergency management personnel.

And in fact, FEMA did just that, pre-positioning not only water, food, medicine, blankets, and other commodities but also four Urban Search and Rescue teams, emergency-ops vehicles, emergency communications and other support personnel.

In addition, many National Disaster Medical System (NDMS) teams, including Disaster Medical Assistance Teams, Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Teams, and Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams were activated and pre-staged in the region for deployment as soon as conditions permitted.

Pre-staging areas were set up at NAS Meridian in Mississippi, Maxwell AFB and Craig Field in Alabama, and Camp Beauregard, Barksdale AFB, and the New Orleans Superdome in Louisiana... plus more staging areas in nearby states (Georgia, Florida, and Texas).

FEMA had an extraordinarily active response prior to the hurricane making landfall, regardless of what Democrats later tried to claim.

Too slow to respond after Katrina hit

The report identifies a staggering number of rescue operations conducted by FEMA and other federal personnel under the direction of the DHS, many of which went unreported (or underreported) at the time and have been forgotten in the aftermath of recrimination and finger-pointing:

Rapid Needs Assessment teams were sent into afflicted areas as soon as the winds died down; rescue operations began immediately by national Urban Search & Rescue (US&R) teams, Coast Guard, and active-duty military; these rescue missions saved over 50,000 victims of Hurricane Katrina. Without them, tens of thousands would have died, rather than 1,326.

The USCG performed more than 30,000 rescues in the first week alone -- "more rescues than it performed in all of 2004."

Medical Needs Assessment Teams from FEMA Regions IV and VI were deployed to assess medical needs in the affected area. Over 50 Disaster Medical Assistance Teams were deployed.... Three National Medical Response Teams, five Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams, and three International Medical Surgical Response Teams were activated also.

There certainly were some problems, areas where FEMA needs significant work. But for the most part, these are areas that nobody has been talking about; they were never among the most serious charges made against FEMA Director Michael "Brownie" Brown or President Bush by overanxious Democrats.

For example, the report notes that FEMA lacked an "asset visibility program," by which they appear to mean a database that would allow federal, state, and local responders to know what commodities and personnel were available or on the way. This would certainly be a huge help for future disasters... but I don't recall Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) or Louisiana Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco complaining about the lack of a database.

What about those levees? The biggest lapse in FEMA's response was indeed with regard to the levees; but it came in the form of a communications breakdown between the field offices and headquarters:

DHS’ Secretary and key FEMA officials said that they did not learn of the first breach of the New Orleans levees until almost 24 hours after it occurred. FEMA staff learned of the breach the morning of August 29, 2005, at the FEMA Operations Center and, separately, through Public Affairs staff that afternoon. The HSOC also received the report through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. However, the information was not included in the DHS Situation Report until the morning of August 30, 2005, and in the FEMA National Situation Update and National Situation Report until August 31, 2005.

Regardless of when the breaches formally found their way into FEMA reports, it's clear that "boots on the ground" were well aware of the flooding and were dealing with the situation almost as soon as it happened.

Hurricane Katrina made its first landfall in Florida on August 26th at 6:30 pm; it was only a Cat-1 hurricane at that time, and there was little damage. Then it careened back out to sea and picked up strength.

It made its second landfall (the big one) on August 29th at 7:10 am in southeast Louisiana, this time as a Cat-4. Two hours later, the levees were breached. But as soon as the winds died down -- which was right around the time the levees broke -- federal emergency search and rescue, evacuation, and medical teams were already on the ground.

While federal and state coordination in Louisiana was bad (and the New Orleans emergency response was abysmal), Democrats just cannot argue that the federal response was slow. The feds were already on the ground, pre-positioned, and they began rescue operations as soon as it was physically possible to do so... as this report makes brutally clear.

The failures that did occur were higher-order problems that would only become apparent in the aftermath of a catastrophe the size of Katrina.

That they tried to shift responsibility to the states

In fact, FEMA's response in Mississippi and Alabama was markedly better than in Louisiana, and the report indicates (delicately) that this is mostly due to the competent response in the first two -- in contrast with the marked failure of Louisiana's state and local responders to coordinate with FEMA. What we have here is failure to communicate:

Incident command system (ICS) structures and unified command were implemented with varying levels of success in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana during the response to Hurricane Katrina. Mississippi immediately implemented a comprehensive ICS structure and integrated federal, state, and local personnel at all levels in a unified command. Alabama implemented an ICS structure, but at a smaller scale because Hurricane Katrina did not cause the level of damage in Alabama that it did in Mississippi and Louisiana. Louisiana experienced difficulty with fully implementing an ICS structure and establishing a unified command with federal, state, and local officials.

In particular, the Superdome fiasco is emblematic of the state and local failure in Louisiana:

Prior to landfall, FEMA pre-staged five trucks of water and two trucks of MREs at the Superdome. In addition, we were told, a few trucks of commodities were delivered to the Superdome after landfall. However, the unexpected large number of evacuees arriving at the Superdome and other locations within the city was not anticipated nor adequately planned for by state and local authorities. The limited commodities quickly became depleted, people with special needs were not addressed, various stages of civil unrest ensued, and FEMA responders pulled out of the Superdome until order and security could be restored.

Contrast this with the responses in Mississippi and Alabama, the other two states hit hard by the hurricane. Mississippi, under Gov. Haley Barbour (former chairman of the Republican National Committee), did the best:

FEMA’s FCO [Federal Coordinating Officer] and Mississippi’s State Coordinating Officer immediately established a unified command with a comprehensive ICS [Incident Command System] structure. Prior to landfall, FEMA’s Emergency Response Team-Advanced arrived at the state’s EOC [Emergency Operations Center] and began coordinating commodities and personnel for the response. FEMA and state officials told us that after landfall, federal, state, and local counterparts integrated and worked side-by-side to manage the response....

The ICS structure established in Mississippi [by the state] included geographic branches and divisions, and authority was delegated to personnel at the division level. In addition to establishing a unified command with federal, state, and local response personnel, the structure allowed FEMA, state, and local emergency management officials to manage Hurricane Katrina response efforts even though existing resources were overwhelmed according to FEMA and state officials.

Alabama did well too; under Republican Gov. Bob Riley, the state was prepared and flexible in its response to Hurricane Katrina:

FEMA and Alabama Emergency Management Agency personnel worked from the beginning to establish joint objectives and priorities. Joint incident action plans were developed also. Alabama’s FCO recognized that Department of Defense assistance would not be required and, two days after landfall, released the Defense Coordinating Element so it could move to Mississippi for future support operations.

Given the extreme difference in the state responses of Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana, it is perfectly fair to note that Louisiana, under Gov. Blanco and New Orleans under Mayor Ray Nagin were particularly inept, sluggish, and confused. While not every problem was Louisiana's fault -- there were federal problems, and many of the travails of that state were beyond the control of any mortal -- Louisiana state and New Orleans local governments must shoulder the lion's share of the blame... not the feds, who have never been the primary actors in natural disasters.

What's it all mean?

In the end, the report found many areas where FEMA in particular and the entire federal disaster response in general needed improvement; but they agreed with Big Lizards and most of the rest of the right-side of the blogosphere that the particular charges by Democrats that the Bush response was "dangerously incompetent" were just flatly wrong.

They of course expressed no opinion on the motives of Democrats in bearing such false witness... but I think rampant BDS and the Permanent Democratic Campaign Mode are the most likely suspects.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, April 14, 2006, at the time of 7:48 PM

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Comments

The following hissed in response by: Michael Combs

Concerning Katrina hitting Louisiana, the key question was, "Do you think the response would have been better if Democrats were in charge?"
"Well, they were!" However, even half a year later, it is hard to register the significance of local first responder responsibilities through the raging rhetoric of the Democrats, amplified by the Main Stream Media. Apparently, only "big government" can be expected to do anything, and it is felt by those who should know much better that "big government" can be everywhere needed, with whatever is needed, whenever needed, no questions asked. "Logistics" is a concept not understood by the media and Democratic politicians.

The above hissed in response by: Michael Combs [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 14, 2006 9:00 PM

The following hissed in response by: Don

State, local, and federal officials knew the levees might fail. According to Lieutenant General Carl Strock, Commander, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, "I think the bottom line message here is that we and the local officials knew the capacity of this levee system to handle this storm, and that is exactly why the mayor and the governor ordered the evacuation of New Orleans, because they knew that if a Category 4 or 5 hurricane were to strike New Orleans, that this levee system could not be relied upon. And that is why we evacuated the city. So had they not done that, the losses could have been even more significant."

Presumably they told FEMA.

The above hissed in response by: Don [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 14, 2006 11:53 PM

The following hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh

Don:

that is exactly why the mayor and the governor ordered the evacuation of New Orleans....

Except they didn't order the evacuation of New Orleans; the Grand Nagus merely suggested it. Some folks heeded the call, and the feds helped evacuate them. Others ignored it, and they paid the price of Mayor Nagin's ambivalence.

If they thought the levees were going to break, why didn't they move those buses to higher ground? Why didn't they prepare a refugee center with sufficient capacity? Why did the Louisiana Department of Homeland Security -- the state agency, not the federal agency -- bar the Red Cross from pre-positioning near the Superdome?

In fact, there was no mandatory evacuation of New Orleans until after the levee broke. That bad decision alone probably cost 600-800 of the 1,100 who died in Louisiana.

And there is nothing the feds could have done about that. They cannot order the evacuation of a city.

Dafydd

The above hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 15, 2006 12:31 AM

The following hissed in response by: Don

Ah yes, an old problem. More than one 'Don' posting on this blog. That last comment wasn't mine (I'm the Don posting about Italy).

The above hissed in response by: Don [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 15, 2006 6:24 AM

The following hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh

Don:

So don't leave us in suspenders, Don... how well did Italy do responding to Hurricane Katrina?

Dafydd

The above hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 15, 2006 7:26 AM

The following hissed in response by: radarbinder

Funny how you can read a comprehensive review in Big Lizards concerning FEMA's performance during Katrina but the major news media give nary a peep.

The above hissed in response by: radarbinder [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 16, 2006 9:54 PM

The following hissed in response by: cdquarles

Dafydd,

One other thing to note. While both AL and MS have Rep. governors, AL, has a 2:1 D legislature (I'm not sure about MS); but both have less corrupt governments overall than LA. I would talk a bit more about the Dixie M---a that basically runs LA, but I won't in order to protect my family ;).

The above hissed in response by: cdquarles [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 18, 2006 11:19 PM

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