Sunday, September 11, 2005

Feds Were Not Always This Incompetent: The Response to Hurricane Marilyn

Will wonders never cease? A friend of mine pointed me to an article in the National Review criticizing the Bush Administration's response to Katrina. They were pretty enthusiastic. Unfortunately, they were blaming bureaucracy in general, as if the notion of a government agency included incompetence by definition, wrapping it up with: "Unfortunately, there is not much that can be done to make bureaucracy less bureaucratic."

You can excuse the NatReview for feeling this way. After all, conservatives spend all their time when they're out of power complaining how government doesn't work. Then when in power they spend all their time proving the point.

There is a way to make government work though. You have to want it to work. You have to give a damn about the mission you're about. Then, all things can be possible.

I was looking around to find out how well the Feds have responded to previous hurricanes and came across this excellent resource at the Quick Response Program and the Natural Hazards Center of the University of Colorado. That center reminded me of an excellent test case measuring the response of the Bush I and Clinton administrations to similar situations. In 1989
the Bush administration spearheaded relief efforts in the US Virgin Islands following Hurricane Hugo, while the Clinton administration relied on many of the same personnel and resources to respond to Hurricane Marilyn's USVI destruction six years later.

Quick Response Report #82 , written by Betty Hearn Morrow and A. Kathleen Ragsdale of the International Hurricane Center of Florida International University, reported on the response to Marilyn, with specific reference to comparing that response to Hugo. The Hugo response was very unsatisfactory:
"In the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo, many St. Croix residents had expressed anger that the first federal planes to finally arrive several days after the storm carried troops armed with guns, not food and water, in what many felt was an overreaction to earlier looting reports (Morrow, 1992). There was a strong racial tone to the perception of many that the U.S. troops had arrived to protect white tourists from black locals, not to provide disaster assistance to the U.S. citizens of St. Croix, most of whom were people of color."
The notion that a majority Black community had to wait several days for Federal relief efforts to arrive should have a familiar ring to it for anyone following the controversy of Federal response to Katrina in New Orleans. Even so, was that just a function of the remoteness of the Virgin Islands and the difficulty in mobilizing a large relief effort? Apparently not, as the Clinton administration's response to Marilyn was quite different:
"In anticipation of their need, a number of FEMA disaster specialists had been sent to St. Thomas before Hurricane Marilyn's landfall. By daybreak on September 16, relief supplies and personnel had already begun arriving (FEMA, 1995e). This was the first deployment of the new Federal Interagency/State Field Assessment Team designed to provide quick and technically accurate early damage assessments. According to their reports, St. Thomas received the heaviest impact - 80% of the homes were damaged, 40% were uninhabitable, and 20-30% of the businesses were destroyed (FEMA, 1995b, 1995c)...

"Within one week after the storm, FEMA had directed close to 60 strategic missions transporting more than 1,500 emergency personnel and 1.3 million tons of essential cargo, including food, water, and plastic sheeting for roofs (FEMA, 1995a). Federal Coordinating Officer Dennis Kwiatkowski was quoted as saying, "We are pulling out all the stops in getting supplies down here to make recovery happen" (FEMA, 1995e). Five distribution sites were being operated by the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency (VITEMA) on St. Thomas. More than 2,100 federal agency personnel had been deployed. Four contracts had been awarded for immediate housing repairs. Dive teams had begun assessing infrastructural damage to the area's harbors and Navy Seabees had begun structural repairs to public buildings. Military and security forces included about 500 Army, Air Force, and Navy personnel, 500 National Guardsmen, and 500 federal law enforcement personnel (FEMA, 1995d). All major roads had been cleared, the St. Thomas airport was open for visual flight operations using a mobile air traffic control tower, and the St. Thomas Hospital was operational using generators for power."
So all of this happened "within one week", meaning that much of the work was already done on the ground in the time that the Federal Katrina responders took to glom onto the fact that they needed to respond at all.

Was the vastly quicker response to Katrina due to a much more talented force on the ground? No, most of the people involved were also involved with Hugo's response and could compare the two:

"Indeed one veteran FEMA reservist made these unsolicited remarks: "One thing that is noteworthy for your study, is that we seem to have had more active Army with weapons at Hugo. Here we have an adequate supply of federal marshals and they're doing a good job, but they [the military] were much more noticeable at Hugo. He had been one of the first FEMA workers to be sent to St. Croix after Hugo, which he attributed to having a military background. Yet, he stated, "I never felt one iota threatened on St. Croix . . . Other than the tension involved with going through one of these things [a hurricane], I found the people very helpful and honest." He had driven his rental car all over the island and was often helped when he lost his way. There was a general feeling that the atmosphere was more relaxed on St. Thomas
and, yet, the recovery process was going a lot faster than it had six years earlier on St. Croix."
So the Bush I Administration waited several days before getting help to the victims of Hurricane Hugo. When help arrived the first response was to send in the army to stop looting.

The Clinton administration responded much quicker, with humanitarian disaster relief in position in real time, offering much faster response to a devastating situation in St. Thomas. Because help was already there, looting by desperate people never happened.

Fast forward to Bush II's administration, which reverted to Bush I's pathetic too late and a dollar short response to Hugo. Once again the main initial concern was sending in the troops to stop looting, instead of disaster relief efforts. Once again help comes days too late.

The difference in these situations is that the Clinton administration WANTED to use government to make a difference for people. It's part and parcel to the Democratic Party ideology. The Republicans on the other hand have since Reagan wanted to shrink government down to a size small enough so that he could "drown it in a bathtub", as Grover Norquist famously said.

In a recent blog post I opined that right wingers were not qualified to run government, because their incompetence sprang from the simple fact that they hate their jobs, preferring to drown their jobs in a bathtub rather than execute them to the best of their ability. That blog post went up months ago. Unfortunately, Katrina just added a deadly exclamation point to the argument.

2 comments:

Lilly said...

The leftist assessments of hurricane relief in September of 1989 in St. Croix are quite different from my actual experience of surviving Hugo. Before food, we needed order as the entire island had gone chaotic; mass looting (even the Captain of police was later arrested by the FBI), guns shooting, and rampant violence had made a devastating situation even worse, and the first order of business was, in fact, Order. No one had the luxury of your politically correct views at the time, as we were more concerned with surviving through each day as bullets sailed through the air and Palestinian-owned machine-guns guarded the 2 remaining grocery stores not completely destroyed by the 210 mph winds. To call our government's much needed protection 'racist' is just stupid, you weren't there, you didn't see what was happening. People were crazy, stealing, looting, shooting-- no one was safe, whether 'good' Black or White citizen, we needed Order! Bush Sr. did what was needed first and foremost, and your overly-sensitive thoughts can't re-write actual history!

Richard said...

Thanks for your comment Lilly. A couple of observations here. First, what I quoted was no "leftist assessment" but a peer-reviewed scholarly paper written by two academics of no known or visible ideology. Second, nothing I quoted contradicted your eye witness account of the chaos on St. Croix, and conversely nothing you reported as to what actually happened disagrees with the paper's assessment.

You appear to have missed the point here. Like with Katrina, disaster relief that arrives days too late will find as the first order of business to restore order, as the situation will already have gotten out of hand. People in disaster situations without food, water infrastructure etc. have been known to do some pretty desperate things. The key to running a disaster relief agency like FEMA is to anticipate the disasters and have help in place right away. St. Thomas didn't suffer the same chaos with Marilyn because the Feds were there with relief before the hurricane hit. After Hugo, St. Croix waited for days for the cavalry to arrive with a destroyed infrastructure to cope with.

Had Bush Sr.'s administration been at all either competent or concerned, they could have heeded the warnings of Hugo's possible destruction and gotten supplies and manpower where they were needed right away if not beforehand. They didn't even bother to show up until after you endured how many days of lawless chaos. I am angry on your behalf that the cavalier attitude of the Bush Sr. administration put you through that experience unnecessarily.

Kind Regards,
Richard