Sunday, October 05, 2008

In Louisiana for Gustav and Ike

On Tuesday, September 9, I drove from Tallahassee to Baton Rouge to assist the state of Louisiana with their response to Hurricane Gustav. I deployed in response to a state-to-state request for assistance by Louisiana for persons with mass care expertise. Since so many people from so many states volunteered to come to Florida's assistance in 2004 and 2005, I decided to repay the favor.

I did not have a lot of fun in Louisiana but I learned a lot. When I arrived in Baton Rouge I immediately saw the tell tale signs of a recent hurricane: debris lying in great piles on the side of the road; traffic lights askew and inoperable; and fallen trees leaning against houses, their exposed roots looking like so many gnarled hands.

The trip wasn't fun because the Louisiana Department of Social Services (DSS), which had submitted the request for assistance, did not really have a job for me when I arrived. In fact, when I got at the Louisiana State Emergency Operations Center (EOC), I couldn't get anyone in DSS to talk to me. As I found out later, DSS was immersed in a crisis that would ultimately result, a few days later, in the Governor removing the head of the Department.

The crisis was all about food stamps. Rather, the inability of the public to access their disaster food stamps, as promised. I heard about the problem on the radio as I was driving in. The ever helpful media found the obligatory little-old-lady-being-mistreated-in-a-disaster story. I heard the woman say, "They told me that I could get food stamps here today, and I stood in line for hours, but they said that they had no food stamps."

No Governor responds well to this kind of media coverage, but this was already strike two for DSS during the Gustav response. The week before DSS was late in getting showers into evacuation shelters in the northern part of the state. The Governor, handling his first disaster, had a low tolerance for mistakes and a great desire to show that his administration was accountable.

The morning after I arrived, and I had a chance to explain to DSS why I was there, they thanked me by throwing me into the middle of the food stamp crisis. I threw myself into the problem with my customary zeal, calling upon all my considerable emergency management experience. It didn't do any good. Whether it was to save me or them from embarrassment (I never did find out why, and I didn't ask) they politely asked me to work in another area the following day. Naturally, I said yes.

With that, I could have gone home but Ike was heading for Texas and there was a real possibility that it might curve and slam into Louisiana. I worked with my friend Eric Jones, who was the Red Cross State Liaison at the Louisiana EOC. We tried to help Texas by phone, passing along advice that may or may not have been used. By Sunday morning, after Ike had hit Texas, I listened to the morning conference calls with the southern parishes and realized that Ike's impact on Louisiana had not been that bad. I said good bye to Eric and my DSS hosts and headed for home.

What did I learn? The workers in Louisiana are just as smart as we are in Florida and work just as hard. The emergency management system and processes they use, however, require them to work twice as hard as we do in Florida to get the same level of results. Information, for example, is very hard to acquire in the Louisiana EOC. I saw no evidence of situation reports or Incident Action Plans, as required in the National Incident Management System. As a result, a lot of activity by the state in response to the two hurricanes was not coordinated or even visible within the EOC.

I was also fortunate in that I was able to visit the Joint Field Office in Baton Rouge, the state/federal headquarters that has been in existence and coordinating the recovery efforts in Louisiana since Hurricane Katrina. I was also able to visit the Red Cross Disaster Relief Organization in Baton Rouge. The Red Cross was doing their usual capable job of organizing large numbers of volunteers into productive activities.

The people of Louisiana were very courteous to me under difficult circumstances. And the food was good.

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