Katrina, FEMA And Local Authority

Larry Price
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Wednesday - September 14, 2005
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Do you remember the legend of the brave Dutch boy Hans Brinker, who supposedly put his finger in a dike to prevent a flood in his native Holland?

If you visit Spaarndam, Holland, your tour guide will eventually take you to the statue of Hans Brinker kneeling there with his finger in a dike. It says, “Dedicated to our youth to honor the boy who symbolizes the perpetual struggle of Holland against the water.”

New Orleans could have used a Han Brinker. The modern-day equivalent of this youngster would be someone from the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA).

All of the stories about Hurricane Katrina tell a lot, not by what has been said, but what was omitted and how. Doesn’t anyone find it odd that the emergency management agencies at the city, county and state level are almost absent in the news?

The mayor was shown attacking the federal government for its response while saying nothing about the first responders who work for the city, county and state involvement. It all sounded like a political move to divert the citizens’ anger to the federal government, not the local blunders.

Everyone in government at every level knows that the only way to deal with an emergency of Hurricane Katrina’s level is a comprehensive integrated emergency management team. It did not help that the Department of Homeland Security was right in the middle of a major reorganization that has not yet been approved by Congress.

Try to imagine if we had tried to deal with Hurricane Iniki’s aftermath in the manner New Orleans is doing. Blaming the federal government is not a prudent maneuver. Do you remember the red tape the state and C&C of Honolulu went through before, during and after the Manoa Stream flood?

FEMA was created by executive order, not law. It was the Homeland Security Act the realigned several agencies responsibilities. Since that time, the accepted approach to emergency management is to use a process divided in four phases: mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. It is necessarily integrated among all levels of government, state, local and federal.

Clearly the intent of Congress was to limit the ability of FEMA to charge in and take over the disaster area without state and local government participation. The lack of an effective evacuation of residents and inadequate sheltering plans created major problems. Both of these areas are local responsibilities in coordination with the Red Cross and other agencies, not FEMA.

There is little question that “The Government Team” may have failed to perform to expectations, but to single out a federal agency for the blame is wrong. If the City of New Orleans was evacuated when requested by the National Weather Service, the problem would not have been as catastrophic.

The main point is that FEMA has been a Godsend for Hawaii and it deserves our support. It is staffed with dedicated and competent people who are essential during the chaos of a disaster.

In every one of these emergencies there is an “after-action review” to determine what could have been done better before attempting a political hatchet job on government officials who did the best possible job they could under the circumstances. As I remember, the news and the weather channels were predicting that the main strength of the storm would miss New Orleans. Can you imagine how much worse the disaster would have been if Hurricane Katrina had been a direct hit?

If we have learned anything from New Orleans’ disaster, it’s that we need to fully support all “first-responder” agencies in Hawaii, because they are crucial to the protection of the state of Hawaii against all hazards, natural and manmade.

By the way, the legend of Hans Brinker is fiction and not accepted as folklore in Holland. The legend is of American origin. The only reason the statue of Brinker was erected on the dike was to pacify the tourists from America who like to believe in miracles.

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