Saturday, September 17, 2005

Disaster Response: Reducing Blame to Fundamentals

In a veritable blamecasting festival, we are witnessing a variety of imaginative methods for distracting and passing the buck. One that is fast becoming an old favorite is “I take full responsibility.”

When delivered free of any rolling heads or changes in policy, it translates as “I hereby declare that I am the mature one; now tag! You’re it.”

Always try to see a way around standard polarized opposition. One way is to back away from the left-right chasm and parse the situation in terms that your opponents would have trouble denying. (even though they clearly want to.) Here are a few fundamentals to copy and pass on. These facts stand above partisan finger-pointing.

1) In the year 2000, a blue ribbon panel described three worst-case emergency scenarios: a terror strike on New York City, a levee-breaking storm hitting New Orleans, and a mammoth quake in California. Hence, warnings had been given. (This was, in fact, just one of many accurate predictions.)

2) On September 11, 2001 it became clear that the 21st Century would feature emergencies that strike suddenly and unfold rapidly. The very same complexity that makes our society creative and free also offers many points of vulnerability, to terrorism or natural calamity. The lesson: we should prepare to for what can be anticipated... but also bolster resilience against the unforeseen.

3) Despite a near-universal effort by government and media to suppress or ignore it, one salient fact stands out from the events of 9/11. An informed and fully empowered citizenry can react with fantastic agility and resiliency. We are told that America “panicked” that day. Yet, there were almost no events that supported such a view. Every useful action that was taken that day, to reduce the damage, ease suffering and fight back against our enemies, was taken by citizen amateurs, armed with cameras, cell phones and undaunted will.

In contrast, the one common trait of emergency response officials at ALL levels, during the Katrina Disaster, was to at all costs pevent citizens or amateurs from doing anything. Anything on their own behalf. Anything on the community's behalf. Anything illegal. Anything quasi-legal or even anything legal. Anything at all.

4) While “emergency” spending increased under the Bush Administration, the lion’s share has been spent on a war that at-best could be justified as “elective surgery”. In other words, removing Saddam, while desirable since 1991, could have been done at a deliberate pace, after careful advance planning and building a mature consensus among allies. Preferably a clever plan that used local forces on the ground, instead of our own, an approach that worked well in the Balkans and Afghanistan.

(Noteworthy and significant: those demanding his ouster in '03 were the same parties who deliberately left him in power, in '91.)

Instead, a frenetic “emergency” was invoked, based on flawed (and possibly deceitful) evidence, demanding that a complex and difficult task be performed in urgent haste, following a war plan concocted in secret by a small coterie of amateurs. Even those who admire the goal should admit, this was more clumsy and costly than it had to be.

5) While elective surgery in Iraq was pursued as an “emergency”, our nation’s actual emergency readiness languished to levels much lower than pre-9/11, and possibly pre-Pearl Harbor. At present, our active and reserve military strength is stretched thin while emergency stockpiles have gone the way of the Budget Surplus. Some - even before Katrina - legitimately questioned our ability to respond to a new shock of any kind. These questions now seem especially cogent.

6) One might have expected FEMA to be enhanced after 9/11, with critical attention paid to general flexibility - our ability to respond well to any national emergency, including - but not limited to - terrorism. Before Iraq, drills involving federal state and local agencies had uncovered countless command flaws of the very kind that we saw emerge, tragically, during Katrina. But contrary to assurances made at the highest levels, this process of drills and contingency planning ebbed after 9/11, with budgets transferred to Iraq.

The crux? Whoever bears tactical blame for this or that specific blunder - even if the Governor of Louisiana and the Mayor of New Orleans were pinheads - it remains irrefutably FEMA’s job to prepare a fail-safe process that we all can rely upon. One that will react quickly and adjust with agility, overcoming all individual failings.

By definition, FEMA is the agency with responsibility for managing emergencies. Could anything be more clear? Can there possibly be a deeper and more profound test of confidence, than for a mission that was so clear to have been so clearly botched?

In the post 9/11 era, should any organ of the United States Government have received higher priority? We were warned.


Anonymous said...

One thing that gave me hope over the last few years -- and that has me puzzled now -- are the number of disaster simulations that were held, I assume under the auspices of Homeland Security.

I recall an actual practice Marine landing in San Francisco as part of a disaster relief scenario, and several epidemic-handling simulations.

Were these valuable? If so, why aren't there more of these, not just for WMD and plague situations, but simulating things like chlorine tankers derailing and earthquakes and such?

* * *

One interesting feature of life in California and Oregon have been voter pamphlets. Huge newsprint booklets running describing ballot measures, with Pro and Con arguments, and rebuttals to the Pro and Con arguments, plus descriptions of costs and stuff.

While I'm sure a lot of people toss the things immediately, and base their vote on visceral feelings, it's neat to know that someone, somewhere, has gone through the trouble of laying things out in detail.

Now, where this is going: If state governments have the resources to create these booklets, why can't they prepare and mail out emergency procedure books?

You could have several versions:

* "Boy Scout Manual" versions.

* Comic book versions for semi-literates.

* Really detailed versions for wonks.

You could include forms to volunteer to be on local preparedness communities, perhaps with TESTS you could mail in. If you pitch in, you might get a pancake breakfast and lecture every month, and get a special volunteer services cell phone.

What we need to make this stuff happen is leadership . . . imaginative, hands-on, wonkish leadership.

Whether you agree with his politics or not, one thing that Clinton had was a ferocious love for the work*. He was up to his elbows in work and burned the midnight oil. He and Gore were wonks, and curious and open-minded.


* And the Help. :-)

daveawayfromhome said...

@stefan: The emergency pamphlets sound like a great idea, as long as they arent handled by the same people who sanitize textbooks for classrooms. I especially like the idea of a comic book version, not because illiterates need it, but because it can be used to educate children. Start children off thinking there is something that they can do in an emergency, even while they are still young (and there is no reason why they cant), and imagine what kind of adults they will become.

@DB: Any list of errors is important in establishimg what went wrong, but it seems to me the problem is not establishing blame (nearly everyone, even many partisans, know who is ultimately to blame for NOLA), but making that person or people pay for their mismanagement. Somehow, the idea needs to be gotten across that to say (after much delay), "yep, it's my fault, mea culpa, so sorry" isnt enough. You wouldnt accept empty words from your kids, why do we accept them from our leaders every day!
I think we need to start pushing the idea that if our leaders are going to get the Big Rewards for their oh-so-important management skills, then they need to be slapped with Big Punishment when that management goes awry. If an Executive can get 20X the salary of the average Good Worker, then shouldnt that same Executive suffer 20X the punishment of the average Bad Worker. Establish this is idea in the mind of the general public, make it into policy, and you might be amazed at how fast workers compensation rises, and executive compensation falls.


sure said...

I lived in Seattle for about a year, until the costs became too prohibitive. While I did not have any advance warning from politicos at the local level, there was a piece of advice that I took to heart: prepare for the inevitable earthquake in Puget Sound.

I took the professor up on his advice and bought 4 cases of bottled water and nonperishable food (NOT MREs, I do not want to be backed up for days) and socked them away in an unused corner of my closet. Together with water purification tablets, a big UPS and several propane canisters, a Coleman camp stove and a comprehensive first aid kit, I was ready for the big quake that is projected to hit Seattle. The question is not IF but WHEN.

Total cost: about $200.

Bottom line is that I had a stock of supplies ready. When I discussed the necessity of having these supplies, I received several suspicous looks. I was looked at as the local "survuvalist" type. After I gave them the facts of the situation (including a projection of earthquake damage from the US Geological Survey) and the excellent reasoning that, since our own government has proclaimed their inability to protect us from future homicide "martyr" attacks, I was given one of two reasons(excuses) for not getting the same supplies:

1- "It's too expensive!" No, the alternative is much more expensive.

2- "I don't have to worry about that!" Darwin in action.

Here is a little exercise. Figure out what is the likely calamity that could fall on you in your local area. Few places in the US are truly safe from disaster, either man made or natural.

Now tell me what your city/county/state/federal proposes as a response to what threatens you. Do they even have a plan? I am willing to wager that 90% of the people in the country do not have the first clue.


Anonymous said...

One of the problems with any kind of accountability is almost all of our politicians and now reporters tend to come from the same general background, live in the same areas, and go to the same parties. That doesn't do much to promote accountability when it means you might not get to the good parties. And honestly, quite a lot of politicians are corrupt, from harmlessly to dangerously, and I'm sure many are afraid if they start rocking the boat, they'll fall out too.

To which I say BFD. I really don't care too much if in going after corruption we take out harmlessly corrupt politicians, too.

Of course, the biggest challenge to accountability on a federal level in this case is the fact the Republicans control the whole government. And they've elevated party loyalty to the highest virtue lately. There's no way I can see the Republicans in Congress investigating federal incompetence that springs from both the Executive and Legislative branches. Because they'd be implicating their own, mostly. And the press is lazy and trying too hard to keep "friendly" and keep "access". Which is sad.

But yes. Greater responsibility SHOULD mean greater, well, responsibility. But it usually doesn't, since the ones in the position to require accountability are often the ones in charge, who aren't going to make themselves responsible when there's lower-level scapegoats available. Both in business and in government. And even with outside forces, like laws, it's nearly impossible to pin things on the people in charge, because they're rich enough to afford the best lawyers and other forms of defense. For example, only the CFO of Enron's been sentenced to anything, hasn't he? And has there been any move to strip any of them of their ill-gotten gains?

Anonymous said...

Hey, I lived in the Bay Area! (In fact, the San Andreas fault was about a mile and a half up the hill.) Everyone I knew had a Earthquake kit of some sort.

Oracle held a regular class on preparedness, and brought in a dealer with pre-packaged kits.

The preparedness pamphlets I suggest could tell people how to put together a kit, where to store it, and how to maintain it (e.g., every year you donate the food to Food Bank and put in new stuff; every few months you use the water on the lawn and put in fresh).

David Brin said...

One advantage of having a boy scout in the house is you update the first aid kit. By all means do as Stefan say. I know I do. ;-)

as for accountability. Here is a scenario.

As this dismal 8 year kleptocratic raid winds down, the Democratic Congress of 06 propels investigations that endanger the republic because they uncover so MUCH corruption that the right circles its wagons - declaring a "witch hunt." They even call it an "attempted coup."

Particularly galling, the fact that there were no indictments of Clinton era officials - despite the neocons' howls that it was the "most corrupt ever." The contrast with a tsunami of indictments in this admin, will be staggering.

One rationalization I expect to hear: "We could have indicted LOTS of Clintonians, but we refrained because we care about national unity and did not want to tear the country apart... the way these liberals are now tearing us apart!"

But let's take this farther.

Can we expect TONS of presidential pardons, as W is about to leave office? SURE! A no-brainer. But a question for any lawyers out there:

* Can a president pardon for acts that have not yet been tried or even indicted?

If so, he'll simply give a holy blessing to all cronies... a "get out of jail free" card.

On the other hand, if there must first be an indictment in order to get pardoned, dig this. The Bush admin may suddenly - in an apparent spate of transparency, start "investigating" and indicting its pals in a frenzy of disclosure! All in preparation for a festival of pardonation.

Sorry, but my brain works funny, especially since I had a tooth pulled two days ago. Now where's a predictions registry when you need one?

daveawayfromhome said...

No, no, I like that thinking, and it's so simple. You know, whether the BushCorp does it or not, Karl Rove thought of doing it. Question is, what will we do about it? My arguement for being a pessimist is that pessimists are always ready for the worst while optimists are caught by suprise. If you know what's coming whose fault is it when it happens?
Unfortunately, this is just the sort of thing that also makes me feel totally helpless sometimes.


Rob Perkins said...

That much is true about Clinton. I still think we don't see more of the kinds of disaster scenarios because at the federal level, the job is absolutely huge.

Have others besides Bush said that they take full responsibility? (I note that Michael Brown's head has rolled, for example.)

One criticism. Now that resources have been brought to bear, it appears that there was never any shortage of actual physical resources to handle the disaster once it was upon us. It's both heartening and frustrating to see that Americans will respond to most any immediate crisis, but we never seem to find the political will to try averting them in the first place, if it's at all possible.

Instead, what we had, in my opinion, was a failure of logistics, a shortage in foresight, in spite of warnings, and in that I'm in agreement that the Federal apparatus was completely distracted by the operations in Iraq, when there should have been more balance between home and foreign threats, and more energy (it doesn't take a lot to write a plan) placed towards disasters which have no malicious hand behind them.

IOW, we didn't fail to get there with needed material, we just failed to get there *in time*. And it seems to me that this places the onus even more on top executive-branch levels than if the larder were empty of physical resources, because our mayors, governors, and Presidents run the crisis planning department.

Hey, put Giuliani in charge of FEMA. I'd bet he'd love the challenge, and we know he can manage a population 1/10th the size....

Other ideas... move FEMA into an undersecretary position reporting directly to the DHS secretary, something the President could probably do at any time. Then... *Congress* should fund FEMA at levels which will guarantee it can attract the best logisticians in the country, perhaps even away from military service doing the same thing. Perhaps Congress could even pass a law requiring the Cabinet and undersecretaries to *listen to the fourth estate*, by receiving briefings of the news reports of the week/hour/day. (The President could insist on this without an act of Congress, but it seems nicer to have the check in place)...

Rob Perkins said...


I think the Feds publish those pamphlets through the print office in Pueblo, CO, already. In any case, there are the web sites as well, which don't cost as much to the gummit, for the wonky types.

We have the voter pamphlets in WA, as well. It doesn't always help to have those statements, when judicial candidates don't file anything useful for the pamphlet.

@DB -- The President may pardon anyone. Marc Rich never had a trial, I don't think.

I don't believe for a minute that the Democratic Party, should it gain back both houses of Congress and the Presidency, would fail to be just as corrupt. Neither should you, IMO.

But I *do* expect a power shift to the Dems in '06, and I do expect corruption to be uncovered. However, I also expect no indictments whatsoever.

Sorry about your tooth. Good healing!

Woozle said...

For what it's worth... I've created a web site for the purpose of tracking and discussing issues. (I think the idea of using it to track predictions would fit in nicely, too.) It is wiki-based, so anyone may participate; so far I've had very little interest, but then again I haven't promoted it much (a word which here means "at all, aside from mentioning it to a few friends").

It is:

Front page links to its Hurricane Katrina article, among others. For more detailed explanation of how I expect the site to work, click on the "about issuepedia" link at the bottom of any page.

(I hope I'm not committing blog spammitude by posting that link here... the site is non-commercial, no ads, not even a plea for donations (yet (-; ), and I'm only mentioning it because DB was discussing the use of technology to increase accountability and so forth, and I was hoping that this might be a stab in that general direction. I haven't posted about it anywhere else yet.)

Mark said...

Dr. Brin wrote:

Can we expect TONS of presidential pardons, as W is about to leave office? SURE! A no-brainer. ... Now where's a predictions registry when you need one?

I was going to suggest a "pardon watch" (or perhaps "Medal of Freedom Watch"), but it sounds like this could be absorbed by woozle's Nice work!

Tony Fisk said...

Quoth DB:
One rationalization I expect to hear: "We could have indicted LOTS of Clintonians, but we refrained because we care about national unity and did not want to tear the country apart... the way these liberals are now tearing us apart!"

It would be typically ironic if, as I suspect from afar, Kerry quit the field so abruptly after the last election for this very reason.

Anonymous said...

"I think the Feds publish those pamphlets through the print office in Pueblo, CO, already. In any case, there are the web sites as well."

Absolutely true. And the GPO has produced some great stuff.

BUT . . .

And this is IMPORTANT . . .

The very act of LOCALITIES -- state and county and city -- preparing a document makes them have to *think* about their preparedness procedures.

It is like the API (application program interface) that is drafted up when software engineers start work on a new piece of software. It lays out, completely and precisely, how other programs interact with the program. It shows what input is required, and what other programs should expect in the way of output. It is, in effect, an outline of the program, and a bill of work for the coders.

One *dead simple* and *incredibly useful* thing FEMA could do that would be to *require* localities to produce, publish, and distribute a set of emergency procedures! Where are your storm shelters? What hospitals are capable of handling smallpox victims? What fire departments have decontamination gear? If a bridge or interstate collapses, what are alternate ways out of town?

Also: Publishing them would, in a sense, be a contract: This is what we can do for you, and this is what you should do for yourself.

FEMA could even provide funding and advice for preparing these.

You know, all of the above sounds *dead obvious* to me. I suspect that a truely competent director and staff would have thought of this stuff already.

Just this morning, I read a piece -- from the Seattle Times originally -- that the Northwest FEMA chief was another political appointee -- a 2000 GOP campaign director -- with a *DEGREE FROM A DIPLOMA MILL!*

Is being a fraud a requirement for being a top-level manager in Bush's FEMA?


David Brin said...

One thing I will call for, as soon as America takes back its government, is to dissolve, end and abandon the Medal of Freedom.

It has been turned into a mockery. Let us establish a new medal that is adjudicated by 2 dozen of the country's most respected... the kind of "office"people long wanted Walter Cronkite to hold. Make the House Democratic caucus nominate their most respected republican and vice versa. Include ex presidents AND the losers of each presidential election, since millions voted for them, too.

Requires 2/3 vote.

As an extra dig, give this new medal to the 1/3 of past MoF winners who really deserved it.

Anonymous said...

@rob perkins:

"I note that Michael Brown's head has rolled, for example."

Well, sort of. As I understand it, he was "recalled" to Washington, then resigned a couple days later. Because, I quote: "As I told the president, it is important that I leave now to avoid further distraction from the ongoing mission of FEMA."

So, forced out, probably, but I suspect more because he became a media liability than because of incompetence and lack of qualifications. Why do I think this?

Well, because, according to the NY Times:
"Republicans said Karl Rove, the White House deputy chief of staff and Mr. Bush's chief political adviser, was in charge of the reconstruction effort, which reaches across many agencies of government and includes the direct involvement of Alphonso R. Jackson, secretary of housing and urban development."

Karl Rove? In charge of the reconstruction efforts? I'm sorry, but WTF? He has no qualifications for urban development, reconstruction, human aid, disaster recovery, or ANYTHING related.

"I don't believe for a minute that the Democratic Party, should it gain back both houses of Congress and the Presidency, would fail to be just as corrupt. Neither should you, IMO."

I don't know about that. "just as corrupt?" Almost certainly not. The Bush Administration, from what I've seen and IMO, is mind-bogglingly corrupt. Both sides are not always equally bad (or good). I would certainly expect some level of corruption from almost any political administration, simply because people in power have so many more opportunities to be corrupt. But the Bush administration has made corruption an art form.

@ pardons

I don't know if they require an indictment or anything or not. Most presidents have pardoned a bunch of people at the ends of their terms. Of course, the only pardons I can think of off the top of my head are Marc Rich or however it was spelled, and the Iran-Contra gang.

@ Accoutnability

I think parts of the Republican party have been fighting against the whole idea of accountability, largely by attacking the people who could hold them accountable. Thus, the "liberal media" canard, parts of the "Republican War on Science", and generally trying to make truth be something subject to argument no matter what. Do I think this applies to all of the Republican party? Not really, but the factions pushing this also overlap with the factions in charge. If there's no trustworth standard for truth, how can you hold anybody accountable for little things like lies?

Yes, I realize I'm not exactly helping the "polarized opposition" but as I said, both sides are not always equally wrong. And claiming "the other guys are/would be just as bad" is a typical way to avoid accountability, because if nobody could do a better job, then how can you have screwed up?

Rob Perkins said...

@Stefan, yeah, it's completely obvious. But, FEMA has no power whatsoever to require anything from anyone, right now, even though I could easily see the President restructuring it so that it *can* marshal Federal resources more easily, all it could ever really do with State and local resources is catalog them.

The best we can expect in a Federation like the United States, I think is to publish standards and publish municipalities and states who do not conform.

David, there are whole factions who think the same thing about the Purple Heart, y'know. I'm not one of them!

Anonymous said...

"The best we can expect in a Federation like the United States, I think is to publish standards and publish municipalities and states who do not conform."


If the President can micromanage SCHOOLS and threaten to cut off funding if they don't turn themselves into test-prep mills, then FEMA can do what I suggest.


Anonymous said...

call me paranoic, but i can't help but think: what if the gouvernment has not dropped the ball, but simply held the ball, waiting patiently for the private charity and resourceful citizens to intervene in the disaster relief. that saved them some well earned millions to be invested in more lucrative endeavors like another emergency international surgery.
after all, public appologies on major tv channels are as cheap as they come.

Rob Perkins said...


It's just not that simple.

Anonymous said...

I've long thought that the correct answer to "I take full responsibility" and then nothing getting done is to arrest and try the person in question for manslaughter, presenting the statement as a confession of guilt.

In short, make them take the responsibility they claim to have accepted.