Innocent Bystander

A little tech, a little current affairs, and my view on whatever has my attention at the moment...

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Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Hurricane Katrina Response

I've avoided posting about the Hurricane for the past week. The storm has been blanketed with coverage on every conceivable media outlet. Not only are the traditional outlets like TV, radio, and newspapers covering this, but so are bloggers, podcasters and other non-traditional information sources. Even blogs and podcasts that have nothing to do with current events are taking some time to cover the devastation on the Gulf Coast. With that in mind, I didn't see a need for me to add to the noise surrounding the storm.

But some of the things I'm starting to hear are just starting to bother me.

There have been a lot of accusations and finger pointing over the response in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Many people are saying that the response wasn't fast enough, and that not enough was being done in the days after the storm. Many people were even going so far as to blame the President and insinuating that he is some how responsible for how bad things are in the effected area...

With few exceptions, I say bull...

The situation on the Gulf Coast is extremely bad, nobody is going to deny that. But I think that those who are criticizing the Federal response to the disaster don't understand the scope of the situation. Hurricane Katrina devastated an estimated 90,000 square miles along the Gulf Coast, by comparison the state of Virginia is approximately 60,000 square miles. The area affected and the number of people affected is truely immense.

But lets start at the beginning. The storm struck during the night on Monday and by early morning power was out in throughout the area. The weather didn't improve enough that it was safe for officials to head outside to start making damage assessments until late Monday afternoon, early Monday evening. By this point there were only a few hours of daylight left to make preliminary damage assessments, because without power little can be done after dark. Before aid can be requested these assessments need to be made that way local agencies can determine what kind and how much aid to request. However because the storm subsided so late in the day any real substantial damage assessment had to wait until first light on Tuesday, 24 hours after the region started feeling the worst of the storm, and after the New Orleans levees had broken.

Now also factor in that many of the roads into and around the affected areas are blocked with debris, may be damaged, or even destroyed and that slowed down the relief efforts further. On top of that, then you have to factor in the HUGE size of the affected area and the amount of time it takes for the aid workers and their convoys to transit to the areas in need.

Then there's the flooding in New Orleans. The primary way aid is delivered to storm stricken areas is by truck, but with the flooding in the city this became difficult and some cases impossible. This meant that relief agencies had to struggle to find enough government helicopters (local and federal) to try and deliver aid while at the same time not compromise the ongoing rescue operations or damage assessment operations.

Many people have tried to draw parallels to the Asian Tsunami late last year. They like to yell that we did so much, so quickly for South East Asia that they don't understand why the same can't be done for a disaster here in the US. But was the US on the scene quickly in South East Asia? I don't think so, heck it was at least 24 hours after the tsunami struck before the US media had gotten over talking about post-Christmas retail sales and started paying attention to the disaster in Asia. Based on the news reports that were broadcast, the majority of the US Government's response was centered on Indonesia... predominantly Muslim Indonesia. While there was a response to other parts of Asia, it seemed the the main focus was in Indonesia... I also don't believe the the US response was as overwhelming as people think it was. The international response definately was immense, however the US was only a small part of that response.

All of that being said, there is definately room for improvement. Take for example the USNS COMFORT, a 1,000 bed US Navy hospital ship. The ship would seem to be tailor made for situations like this, yet with a Category 5 hurricane aiming for the US, it seems the the COMFORT was ready to sail once the storm passed. The COMFORT didn't leave for the Gulf Coast until Friday and is only just now reaching the area. Why did it take so long for COMFORT to sail? The same is true for many miltary assets, with a Category 5 storm threatening why weren't they ready to respond just in case?

The last thing is the remarks that the President is to blame because he's been cutting funding to the US Army Corps of Engineer's efforts to repair the levees. First, he's not the first President to cut funding for the levees. There's just not enough money in the Federal Budget to go around, we've got to pay for increased airline security, the war on terror, tax cuts, education, health care etc... Something has got to give in the budget. Even if the money wasn't cut, would the repairs have been done in time to have been completed before the storm hit? Would they have been sufficient to withstand the onslaught of the storm? In all honesty I think saying that if the President hasn't cut funding to repair the levees the damage wouldn't have been as bad is just like saying that if the President gave the National Weather Service and NASA more money they would have been better able to predict the course of the storm...

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