Thursday, August 20, 2015

What did Katrina teach us about responding to big events?

"But why did we fail? The challenge was both at the local, state, and federal level. We found ourselves too often planning for what we were capable of managing and then hoping it never was any worse. And we thought that if those systems could respond to the day-to-day challenges, we'll scale up in a larger response. And what Katrina demonstrated is you don't scale up. So, you either build for the big events or you're going to fail."

(Craig Fugate's response to a question about what we learned from Katrina, quoted in

Craig said that the key lesson learned from Katrina is that jurisdictions (local, state and federal) must be ready for the big events when they happen if they want to respond in a manner that our elected officials and general public expect. When I put this quote out on social media, some emergency managers responded to the effect: "We can only respond with the resources given to us by our communities, and they aren't focused on Big Events."

I don't think Craig meant that a municipality or a county must stockpile resources sufficient for the Big One. I think that there may be different interpretations of what Craig meant by "build for the big events." No jurisdiction is staffed for a catastrophic event nor will they ever be. Each jurisdiction, I believe, must be prepared to build and staff an organization capable of manging a big event when the time comes.

I'm a State Mass Care Coordinator and I have no budget and no staff. When, not if, the CAT 5 hits Miami I have to be ready to "build for the big event" to meet the enormous increase in quantity and complexity of mass care tasks that must be managed. We must design an organizational structure with written procedures tested and in place to meet this or any other catastrophic event. Personnel to staff this structure would be ordered at the time of the event through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, Mutual Aid and through additional staff provided by the voluntary agencies.

After much time and effort (but little expenditure of funds) that organization and those procedures were created and are available at our State ESF 6 website. We tested and refined those procedures (to include the use of multiple mass care task forces) during the 2012, 2013 and 2014 National Mass Care Exercises held in Tallahassee in conjunction with the State Hurricane Exercise. The AARs for these exercises are on that same web site.

Rather than stockpile resources jurisdictions should plan to acquire the operational coordination capability necessary to manage the resources that will flow in like a tsunami when the Big One happens. The alternative is throw up your hands, tell FEMA to do it all, and then criticize their results.

I wouldn't recommend that second course of action.

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