Saturday, September 24

Arkansas the Model

Amazingly, as many as half the evacuees from Katrina and Rita are expected to stay in Arkansas. It's especially amazing to me because if I hadn't caught the John Batchelor Show last night, I wouldn't have known that Arkansas splendidly managed a huge relief effort without any help from FEMA.

John interviewed Kane Webb, the deputy editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, whose article about the Arkansas relief effort was featured in the Wall Street Journal's September 22 Opinion Journal Online. I urge you to read Kane's article, Huckabee's Ark. (Subscription /registration not required.) The details give some support to Dave Schuler's argument posted at The Glittering Eye. In his September 9 list of suggestions for dealing with the Katrina aftermath, Dave wrote:
FEMA should be abolished. We should go back to something that more closely resembles the old Civil Defense approach. National Civil Defense should concentrate primarily on coordinating local Civil Defense (which in turn should be primarily volunteer), establishing standards, and measuring performance. Congressional rules should limit how much funding (for any purpose) states and localities should be able to receive that don't meet civil defense performance standards.
Earlier I'd contested the same argument from Dave by observing that two wage-earner families and single parents couldn't be expected to volunteer the time necessary to make the Civil Defense model work. After learning about the hugely successful volunteer response in Arkansas I'm willing to rethink my remark.

However, one learns from Kane's report that Arkansas has a striking advantage: the state is disaster prone. They've had lots of practice, on a yearly basis, at mustering quick help for residents made homeless and jobless by tornadoes and other natural disasters. When Katrina struck, Governor Mike Huckabee simply converted his well-tested TRACE (Tornado Recovery and Community Enhancement) response network for use by Katrina victims.

Practice seems to be the key to effective civilian response to an emergency. The state of Texas had a well thought-out plan for dealing with a massive evacuation effort, which they refined after absorbing the lessons of dealing with Katrina refugees. Yet the unprecedented number of Texas evacuees ahead of Hurricane Rita turned up oversights; notably:

> Failure to pre-position emergency gasoline refill tanker trucks along the evacuation routes.

> Failure to adequately coordinate timing of evacuations between state counties, which resulted in gridlock on the evacuation routes.

> Failure in Houston to adequately inform residents that the mandatory evacuation order extended only to the low-lying areas of the city, which contributed to gridlock on routes out of Houston and the run on the region's gasoline stations.

Of course the failures need to studied against everything that went right about the evacuation, which was considerable. All levels of Texas government did a great job handling the largest US emergency evacuation in history. Yet the failures stand as a warning about the limits of planning.

Drill is needed to iron out wrinkles that hide in planning on paper. This has been shown time and again since 9/11 when officials conduct homeland security drills. Every time they hold a drill they find situations that planning had overlooked.

Officials in New Orleans and Baton Rouge rationalized their poor readiness for Katrina by saying their planning was unable to imagine how a catastrophic hurricane would affect the region. Imagination is not a good friend in such instances, as the military could advise. Only lots of practice, in the form of drills, helps one prepare for the unimaginable.

Looking back, simple oversights had such horrific consequences that they defy comprehension. One example is that the New Orleans police department and Memorial hospital were thrown into chaos simply because they hadn't thought to stock up on diesel fuel for back-up generators.

But there is nothing like hindsight, which is best turned up through drills instead of the real thing. I will give Dave Schuler this much: If Americans are willing to make the time and take on the expense of routinely drilling for disaster, we might get away with abolishing FEMA -- or at least making it only a liaison agency between state governments and the federalized military.

If we want to consider the Civil Defense approach, the Arkansas response to the Katrina disaster is the model to study. Let's hope Governor Huckabee writes up a detailed report for presentation to Congress.

It would also be a help if the mainstream television media exerted themselves to report on the Arkansas success story. I can't understand why the Big Three (ABC, CBS, NBC) didn't do coverage in Arkansas during all these weeks of the Katrina aftermath.

If I missed the coverage I will apologize for my remark. Yet despite all the time I dedicated to watching broadcast coverage I don't recall reports about the all-over Arkansas relief effort, which involves so many of Katrina's victims.

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