Sunday, September 11, 2005

Commentaries of Alexander the Average

(… just a note: Tonight as I listened to CNN, I was thunderstruck at the statistic of only 154 confirmed dead. The report didn’t clarify whether that was in reference to New Orleans only, or the entire region affected by Katrina. God be Praised! I know a lot of people have nonetheless suffered terribly, but it appears that reports of wholesale death of tens of thousands of victims may have been premature.)


Mr. Kris Alexander has posted a good and brief critique of the restructuring of FEMA under the rubric of the Department of Homeland Security (you may click on the title of this post to link to his blog.) His post includes an unusually objective analysis (i.e., devoid of conspicuous bashing of all things conservative) from NEWSWEEK magazine, as well as a brief excerpt from a National Emergency Management Association report, each linked to its original source.

Alexander’s web page indicates he’s a “humble gov’t employee and Army Reserve Officer […] OIF/OEF veteran. Posting on the military, intelligence, and gov’t stuff.” As a result of his experience and attitudes, his sources and his comments convey a sense of sober authority sadly lacking in many of the critiques lately being flung about by the poopheads of the alleged news media like so much simian waste.

Here’s a little excerpt:

“…I never thought placing FEMA under DHS made much sense, and I’ve thought that DHS’s priorities have been wrong-headed from the start.

FEMA understands disasters, and many of its programs have been in place and effective for years. Since its inception, DHS has been chasing its tail looking under every rock for the next 9/11 while ignoring the nuts and bolts issues that face our countries. Hurricane season comes every year. Long after you and I are dead, and 9/11 is a distant memory that our grandkids re-live on the history channel, Hurricane season will come. People are fleeting, Mother Nature endures.”

It’s a good piece to balance the hysteria of the last fortnight. He makes a good case that FEMA’s mission has been diluted or diverted dangerously from its original charge, and that a sort of paralyzing preoccupation with improbable terrorist scenarios has drained valuable resources and talent.

Those are charges that may need to be debated publicly over the next few years.

His criticisms seem valid, even if they don’t prove the specific cause of this particular screw-up. It has been almost twenty years since I produced a handful of animated programs for FEMA back in the early 80’s. At the time the FEMA experts advising me and my brother seemed to really know their stuff, and I was impressed with what I saw. But it's possible I was just a bumpkin from the hinterlands, unable to grasp the larger view of a hidebound and ineffectual bureaucracy. I bow to his greater knowledge of these matters, but I would pose a few comments and invite response.

1) Threats from "mother nature" are sufficiently documented to have a statistically-derived predictability. Because of that, planning for hurricanes, earthquakes, forest fires, etc., can be made based on centuries of experience, with alternatives based on observations of hundreds of documented studies of variations in magnitude, wind factors, temperature, humidity, and so on.

2) Because terrorists have the ability of invention, choosing tools from the full gamut of mundane as well as exotic technologies, the range of possible scenarios is intrinsically more difficult to define than for natural disasters.

3) The inventiveness and perversity of terrorists makes it extremely difficult to assess the probability or likelihood of a given scenario.

4) The cost of the effort involve in identifying hypothetical terrorist scenarios, then preparing a plan for response, is trivial compared to the cost of an actual attack and its aftermath. And the cost of preparing a plan for terrorist attack cannot be substantially greater than that required for natural disaster.

5) The costs in actual preparations may vary widely, according to whether response plans call for investments in vehicles, tools, personnel, training, research & development of new technologies, stocking of pre-deployed supplies, etc.

6) As we have seen, the cost of a single terrorist attack can be nontrivial compared to that of a natural disaster. I recall estimates made in the second year after 9-11 well over two billion dollars in losses resulting from that attack — including insurance benefits, loss of the businesses and buildings, aircraft, fire trucks, police, & rescue vehicles and equipment, interruption to the stock market, and impact on travel, hospitality, and tourism industries, in addition to the deaths of the victims. And that is for one day’s attack, involving only some twenty terrorist perpetrators, with say a year’s training and living expenses as their cost.

7) While I can understand the objection to redeployment of manpower and supplies based on wildly improbably scenarios, it’s more problematic to me to dismiss the need for planning and at least minimal preparation for terrorist contingencies.

In any case, while it may be early to pass judgment on Katrina and its aftermath, the problem in this case appears to have been the combination of New Orleans/Louisiana long-established governmental ineptitude along with the unprecedented and unpredictable strength of the storm.

Eventually, we will have a much clearer picture. I think that the comments and analyses of folks like Mr. Alexander will do much to help us see things in better focus.


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