Monday, September 05, 2005

Another Rhodent Rant

"Hmph!" yet again!


I have been putting off this post because of the amount that I have to say. Everytime I sit down to start this rant I realize how much is involved. It is difficult to know where or how to start, and I wonder if anyone will take the time to read this whole post. I will try to break up the text with some appropriate illustrations for my points. The subject is, not unexpectedly, the problems before, during and after Hurricane Katrina.

The storm and the problems associated with it are larger
than any experienced in this country ever before.


There are no easy answers here, but some common sense is definitely in order. Disaster and hurricane preparedness is not an exact science. All anyone can do is draw upon prior experience, scientific projection, common sense, and the basic desire of most Americans to do the right thing. I have attended numerous hurricane conferences here in Florida over the years. They are large conferences and well attended by emergency management, medical people, Red Cross and the numerous other volunteer organizations that activate during a disaster. From what I have learned at those conferences, I have some pertinent things to say about what has happened and the efforts involved in the relief efforts.

Let's address prior experience first. At every Florida Governor's Hurricane Conference that I have attended in the past, a common theme has always been "lessons learned" from the previous season's storms. The first one I attended was the season after Hurricane Hugo. In the years following, some of the storms addressed were the infamous "March No-Name Storm", Hurricane Andrew, Hurricane Opal, Hurricane Georges, and the numerous other storms that have impacted our area of the world. I learned a lot and so did the relief agencies with each year's disasters. Even before Andrew hit Florida (and then LA) in 92, emergency managers talked about what potential for disaster awaited in the most vulnerable parts of our country. These have been and still are Monroe County, FL (aka the Florida Keys), the Long Island area of the Northeast, the Tampa Bay area of Florida, and or course, the bowl of New Orleans.

Anywhere a category 4 or 5 Hurricane hits is vulnerable. Devastation is to be expected. Last year when the Tampa Bay area was bracing for Hurricane Charley, many people evacuated to Orlando and other areas in the middle of the state. Then Charley took a strong right turn, hit Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda, and many of the evacuees from the Tampa Bay found themselves in worse conditions as Charley crossed the state than were experienced in the Tampa Bay area. My point: as prior experience tells us, these storms are still unpredictable. A slight change in direction, forward speed, or a mere few miles difference in the area of landfall can make a huge difference.

So back to New Orleans (remembering that this was NOT the only place hit!)... For years it has been known what a vulnerable city New Orleans would be if hit by a major hurricane. Were the major preparations for this eventual disaster entirely the responsibility of our federal government? To answer this question, I think I will use my own Pinellas County of the Tampa Bay area as an illustration...


These maps are the evacuation maps of upper and lower Pinellas County. Pinellas County is a peninsula on a peninsula. Lower Pinellas County is the home of the larger city of St. Petersburg. Notice how the center of the city becomes an island from the storm surge of a major hurricane. Upper Pinellas also becomes detached from the mainland. I also would not expect the three bridges from Pinellas to Tampa to hold up in a major storm. So what we have left are two islands on the West Coast of Florida... at least until the storm waters recede, the roads are fixed, and the bridges repaired... repaired after the storm has passed the area and those responsible for the repairs can get their equipment in place. It is expected that in a category 5 hurricane the downtown area of Tampa would be hit by a storm surge of 26 feet or higher. That's a lot of water and a lot of damage and more debris and roads to be cleared before Pinellas County can receive aid by any means other that boat or plane.

In the meantime... no water, no services (electrical, sewer, garbage, telephone, cell phones). Telephone lines have to be reconnected. Power lines and transformers have to be repaired, cell phone towers have to be repaired and put back into place, roads have to be cleared of debris... etc, etc, etc. One of the biggest points made at the hurricane conferences were that communications is always a major issue initially and that the people impacted by the storm are not in a good position to evaluate their own needs and the damage that has been done. That is where the state level emergency management agencies come into play... and FEMA comes in as soon as the state governor requests aid and the area is named a disaster area.



But what are the responsibilities of the people in the impacted area? Individuals that have the means to do so should prepare their homes for the storms. This means to have proper window protection, a "safe room" ready, the appropriate foodstuffs, water, and first aid supplies necessary. Everyone in the impacted area needs to be able to be self-sufficient for at least three days and probably should be prepared for at least a week. If you are in an evacuation area in Pinellas County, you need to get out EARLY! I could go on about these types of issues, but this information is available in many places.

People who live on the barrier islands, no matter how many times they are warned often do not choose to evacuate. Once the bridges are closed, they are on their own. After the storm they will require extra time and effort to rescue. Whose fault is that?

So what about the people that do not have the means to prepare their homes? Do they have the ability to evacuate to safety and sustain themselves for what could possibly be weeks? There is a shortage of hurricane shelter spaces in Pinellas County. There are many elderly who have special needs, such as Oxygen, that need to be in a place where their needs can be met. There are many people whose only mode of transportation is a city bus. This is where I think that the local governments and emergency management have the responsibility to provide transportation and shelter.


Some people will always bury their heads and ignore their peril until the last minute.

However, every year, at the last moment when a hurricane is threatening, people with special needs who have not bothered to register with the fire department or other government agencies responsible for getting them to a special needs shelter, are calling asking for help. This is hard to do at the last minute. It also makes it hard to have adequate supplies in place to meet the needs of the numbers who arrive... even when they plan for extra people. But still, I believe that it is the responsibility of the local governments and emergency management offices to have in place plans to evacuate people who have no transportation and who are in need of extra help. That is the type of things that can be planned for ahead of time utilizing city busses, school busses, and various types of emergency equipment where appropriate. It is NOT, however, the responsibility of the federal government.

Another problem that I see is greed. Local governments allowing homes to be built in areas along the bay that are only 3 to 4 feet above sea level and in areas that were once filled with mangroves, nesting sites for birds, and by no means safe from even a small storm surge. Now, their stupidity makes them the responsibility of federal flood insurance programs. Duh. Local governments greed for a larger tax base and compromising their cities to big developers for whatever reason causes a greater load on emergency management and relief agencies. Personally, I don't like the federal government providing flood insurance for $500,000.00 homes on the water. The money could be better spent elsewhere. Like providing grants to communities that ARE interested in disaster mitigation.

Knowing that a problem exists does not necessarily mean that it is easily fixed. If it involves relocating homes, local politics, people's egos, and greed, it becomes almost impossible to fix. Should downtown Tampa be relocated to higher ground? Should the city of St. Petersburg remove all vulnerable structures on its shores? Should all of the new half-million dollar homes be torn down? Should old historic hotels be abandoned? What about all of the new condos and apartment buildings being built faster than rodents reproduce? They are often not built with cement blocks but with wood products and stucco surfacing. It will not take too much winds to turn them into match sticks. Who is responsible for that? If I put up an expensive, but poorly constructed home in a vulnerable area, who should I blame when the house is turned into debris along with all of its contents?


The blame game is not helping the relief efforts.

This is not to justify the ineptness of some of the relief efforts that have gone on, but…
  • In order for anything to be done, the storm has to finish passing. This is more that just a couple of hours.
  • In order for buses and other vehicles to get in, the roads have to be cleared of debris and repaired enough for vehicles to use them.
  • Police, firefighters and relief workers from the impacted area are under too much stress to have so much responsibility when their own home and families are involved.
  • The US Military does not function as a police force...that is the role of local police agencies assisted by or replaced by the National Guard.
  • The superdome certainly was a shelter of last resort. It was not a shelter designed for an ongoing shelter.
  • Was there enough transportation provided for the poor to get to shelters?
  • Were there enough shelters?
  • Did many of the people needing help after the storm refuse to leave when warned?
  • Were there reciprocal aid plans in place with other states in the event of a major flood or hurricane for sheltering and aiding the citizens of New Orleans and the other vulnerable areas of the state?
  • Were there plans in place for evacuating hospitals and providing for alternative emergency care?


The problems in New Orleans have been there a long time. I don't think that strengthening the levy system would have been the whole answer. Sooner or later a bigger storm would come along that would overpower a stronger levy. Perhaps displacing buildings near the existing levies and building an additional levy system would make more sense. It would take time, and yes, that is something the federal government could help with... or could have helped with... before Katrina. But what about now? Should the city try to rebuild as it was? That is one of the big questions. But a question best left until people's immediate needs have been addressed. A question best left until those people have jobs, are receiving paychecks, or aid checks or disability checks. A question best left until the dead are buried and the funerals are over.


I have been very upset over some of the reporting that I have seen on TV this past week. Reporters whom I normally respect... and many that I don't... are already asking questions about people being fired or replaced and questions about whose fault it all is. This is craziness! We are in the middle of a disaster that is of a magnitude unseen in this country before. It is not just New Orleans. A large portion of the Gulf Coast has been impacted. The country as a whole has been impacted because of the interruption of oil and natural gas flow. People are doing the best that they can. When the recovery is better under control will be the time to determine fault. I still maintain that the responsibility starts with personal responsibility, then local government and relief agencies, then state level, then federal level. Everyone is responsible in a major disaster. WE each need to do for ourselves what we can and beyond that the various agencies need to plan ahead as best they can.

The Scientific community has made great strides in predicting what hurricanes will do. There are still elements in forecasting major storms that are unpredictable. (Sometimes, I think, the category 4 and 5 storms are less affected by weather patterns to the point that they seem to make their own weather patterns) Predicting people's behavior is less certain.


Many people get worked up over the presidential elections. Perhaps they should pay as much attention to their local elections. Local governments need to take more initiative for mitigation and preparation. They need to change some of their stupid policies about building codes and zoning. And the citizens of their communities need to take a stand and make their elected officials accountable for these issues.

Local churches and volunteer organizations have long been involved in relief efforts and sheltering. They provide host homes during storms for those that need to evacuate. They provide assistance. They support the shelters and provide food and support during the storms. National church and volunteer organizations are heavily involved in relief efforts after a disaster. Getting involved before a disaster happens is one of the best things that you can do. You will then be prepared and trained to do your part.

I have also heard some criticism of some of the relief agencies... specifically the Red Cross. Now, I have to admit that I am not a big fan of the Red Cross. This is mostly because of some of their reorganization structure changes that put Hillsborough County in charge of Pinellas County, and the assorted politics involved. However, nationally, Red Cross is a very crucial part of disaster preparedness and assistance in this country.

One of the criticisms that I read was that the Red Cross seemed to be more interested in advertising itself than providing assistance. (I know that I used to get irritated at the hurricane conferences whenever a Red Cross workshop would spend the first 10 to 15 minutes giving a brief history of the Red Cross. I heard it way too many times!) But there is more to the story... For the relief efforts after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Red Cross volunteers went in to provide aid in a big way. However, they did not all have identifying garments and insignia on so that people could easily see they were there. As a result, they were criticised for not being very present during the initial relief efforts for that storm. It seems to me that they have learned their lesson. Damned if they do, damned if they don't.

I want to point out how the various private relief agencies work together in a disaster. They each have their own areas of expertise. Southern Baptist Convention has always been great at serving food to large masses of people. Red Cross and Salvation Army are some of the first responders. Catholic Charities is usually there for the long haul... for instance, they maintained the tent shelters in South Florida for the poorest of the poor for a long time after the other agencies were gone. My point is that all of the groups have a role to play. Don't hesitate to donate to any of them that are asking for funds to aid in the disaster. The money will be put to good use. Red Cross is a good choice because it is there so quickly. But so are the others. I usually give to Red Cross and then through my church. If you can donate blood, do it. What we do in our local communities to support the agencies that are in the midst of the disaster is just as important as being there... they cannot function without our support.

Get involved somehow. Give money, give blood, volunteer, take an active part in local politics to hold your local officials accountable for local disaster preparations. Do something. Take personal responsibility for your own situation as best you can. Learn where the resources are in your local community... for yourself and for others. Play a role in educating others. Ignore the blame game. It doesn't solve anything. It doesn't help anything. It is distracting to the efforts being made.




Remember, we are just now getting into the
peak of the hurricane season,
and it does not end until November 30th!
And... hurricanes can strike in the same place
during the same season, as was the case last summer.

24 comments:

PBS said...

Wow, this is a really great post! Everyone should take the time to read and think about it.

frustratedwriter said...

Well said! Hear! Hear! I appreciate a veteran of hurricanes coming out and stating the obvious of impeding factors to the relief effort. Thank you so much for writing this!

happyandblue2 said...

You make some very good points. I've read a lot of posts on the disaster. What I seem to be reading is that help is needed and the federal government doesn't seem to be taking the lead in providing that help.
In Canada the federal government plays a greater role in providing services and aid to it's citizens.
As a Canadian I have been finding the U.S.A. system hard to understand.
You helped clear up some of the confusion I have with this post..

L said...

good post, btw :)

I was reading somewhere that approximately 30% of NO population lived below the poverty line, and that about 1 in 5 people did not own a car. Not sure how true that is, but it would really explain why such a huge number of poor people were left behind.

Rhodent said...

I heard the same statistics about the amount of poverty in NO. You would think that the city would have been better prepared to provide transportation and shelter for that number of people. Still, I think that a certain number of people stay by choice... at every economic level. I'm sure it will be looked at as the response efforts are evaluated when things get a little more organized. It takes time... I remember that it took 2+ years to get all of the phone lines back up after Andrew... and that was not an urban area! Dade county got smarter... they now have better building codes and I'll bet the zoning decisions are better scrutinized these days.

Rachel said...

I couldn't have said it better myself!! I agree with you 100%!!

Alisa said...

That was an excellent post!!! I think you should submit it to newspapers and magazines ... Letter to the Editor, maybe?

Thank you!

Ralph's Homespun Headlines said...

Nicely done. I have attended some of those conferences and helped cleanup after Hugo. A lot of people have no idea what goes into an effort of that type. THANK YOU
Ralph

Rainypete said...

Excellent post! This one should be printed and distributed to all storm sensitive areas in the US.

Jamie Dawn said...

Good, informative, reasoned post.
Thanks very much.

Adrienne said...

I could HUG you! I'm so sick of some of the crap I've read about this disaster that other people have written on their blogs. I'm going to point them all in your direction to read what you've said.

You've said it perfectly!

You're awesome.

Nyx said...

We're not as close to the problem down here as you are up there but your post still made perfect sense to me - well written.

Rhodent said...

Thank you all for reading this long post,the nice comments, plugs and hugs. I don't like to rant too often, but I couldn't contain myself any longer on this one!

jpr said...

lurk

Julie said...

Really interesting and cogent post. You've given me a lot to think about!

Tony Myles said...

There's some great insights and emotion in this... thanks for sharing.

frustratedwriter said...

I love it when you rant! such an insightful post! wtg!

Susi said...

As a Ft Walton Bch, FL survivor of Opal & Ivan, I totally agree with your rational description of the problem. We all knew that we'd be on our own for up to a week. How to prepare for an extended stay on our own was part of the knowledge we passed around before & after a big storm. My dau was in Grenada @ Medical sch: she showed all her friends how to prepare: Lots of water, canned food, shelter, etc. What happened in N.O. was not unexpected. There are Grasshoppers in all societies. Us Ants keep warning them. Things won't change.

alena said...

Cool Blog, I never really thought about it that way.

I have a Hurricane Katrina blog. It pretty much covers hurricane related stuff.

Thank you - and keep up the thoughts!

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Semper Fi!

Bill Adams

TheDevilIsInTheDetails said...

Be prepared for the next noaa hurricane or find another one that's similar. As the Boy Scouts say: "Be Prepared"!

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