Friday, September 28, 2007

Blackwater in the news

The Blackwater Security Company is one of many companies in Iraq providing security to State Department and other officials and contractors. The New York Times reported that there were 7,000 security men operating in Iraq. A Blackwater detail was involved in a firefight recently and the Iraqi government claimed that a lot of innocent civilians were killed. The Iraqis government's immediate reaction was to order Blackwater out of the country.

I had my own experience withe Blackwater when I was in Karbala. I wrote an account of this visit in my book, and I have included that account with some pictures here on my site.

This was in 2004, but I still noticed that the Blackwater people didn't have a lot of patience with the Iraqi drivers. If an Iraqi was in the way, the would bump his vehicle in the rear, causing him to move over and let the convoy by. These Blackwater guys had a tough job in a rough environment, but if I was an Iraqi I would have a problem with the way the average citizen was being treated. I imagine that the reaction of the Iraqi government is a kind of payback for the sum total of indignities that the Iraqis have suffered the last four years from Blackwater and other security companies.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Hurricane Katrina, the aftermath - Part 2

Rightly or wrongly, the federal government was blamed for what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. FEMA was blamed for failures that were the responsibilities of state and local governments. In response to this I see FEMA, reacting to instructions from Congress and the Department of Homeland Security, preparing to assume tasks that have traditionally been within the purview of state and local governments.

There is an unfortunate moral hazard for emergency managers who prepare to respond to a disaster. This hazard is especially grave in a place like Florida, which has been subject to an inordinate number of disasters in the last decade. The better we are at rapidly responding to a disaster, the less the citizens feel like they need to prepare themselves and their families to respond.

Many who solicit aid from the government or the Red Cross or Salvation Army after a disaster aren't really in need and don't need the assistance. If they don't need it, why do these people stand in line for a free Red Cross meal? Why do they wait in their expensive cars for hours for a case of water and a bag of ice? Because it's free.

A veteran of many disasters calls it "freestuff." When the freestuff is made available human nature seems to drive everyone to the table to make sure that they get their "fair share." Whether they need it or not, many believe that it is their "right" to get freestuff when it is made available.

Some people in a disaster actually need the freestuff. They are poor. They are disabled. They are elderly. They are the weak, the ones ones with the least capacity to weather the strain of the disaster and the ones who do the most suffering. And many times the strong are able to stand in the long, hot lines to get their feestuff while the weak cannot.

For a variety of reasons communities respond to disasters in different ways. Some do a better job at it than others. In some places, like Florida, we get a lot more practice. Yet, in catastrophic events, no matter how good you are, communities and even states can get overwhelmed. In these situations, the federal government has to step in and help.

In the thorough, big budget way that the federal government goes about doing things, FEMA and other federal agencies are planning on how to take over from communities and states when they are overwhelmed. They are even planning how to take over some of the tasks performed by agencies such as the Red Cross and Salvation Army.

The Red Cross, Salvation Army and other such agencies do wonderful work in a disaster. I can personally testify to the great deeds that these agencies perform EVERY DAY. Because if your neighbor's house burns down it's a disaster; if your house burns down it's a catastrophe. The Red Cross and Salvation Army are always there during disaster or catastrophe, no matter the size.

The work force of these agencies is made up almost entirely of volunteers. And, as opposed to the the flood of well-meaning people who arrive at a disaster to help, these agencies provide trained, organized and managed volunteers operating with a central purpose toward set objectives. Most of these people are local, trained volunteers helping their own communities.

If FEMA, at the behest of Congress and state's that want to forfeit their responsibilities decide to assume these tasks that have traditionally been done by the communities, then we all lose. No one will volunteer to do a job that FEMA will pay top dollar to perform. And outsiders, with no knowledge of our communities will be brought in to respond to our disasters. And as we stand in line to get our freestuff, we will bitch and complain about the inefficient and unorganized response to our disaster.

And we will be right.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Vadym the Ukrainian

Vadym NANYNETS, a member of the Ukrainian military mission to Iraq, mentioned me by name in an account of his tour published (in English) in the online site Welcome to Ukraine. Fortunately for me, the reference was favorable.

Vadym, along with two Ukrainian military officers, Ruslan Myroshnychenko and Dmytro Cherednychenko, worked with me at the South-Central Headquarters in Hilla. I had never knowingly met a Ukrainian before. I was surprised to find out they were Led Zeppelin fans. Vadym knew all the verses to "Whole Lotta Love."I was impressed.

Vadym was a civilian working with the Ukrainian military. In a previous post I spoke about my trip to
Abu Ghraib prison so that Ruslan could visit a Ukrainian prisoner incarcerated there. In my book I describe the incident where Ruslan and Deborah Harrison are wounded in an Iraqi ambush while returning from a trip to Baghdad. I can still see Ruslan sitting on a stretcher in the Babylon Hospital, his body armor and helmet on the floor at his feet. His shirt is off and he has a big grin on his face. There is a small bruise and a trickle of blood on his shoulder where one of the bullets had deflected off the car and imbedded there barely under ths skin. Outside the hospital I saw Vadym, obviously upset over Ruslan's wound. I could only ponder on how lucky he was.

This was Ruslan's last day in Iraq. He was due to head back to Ukraine the next day. In fact, he made it to his farewell party later that night.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Hurricane Katrina, the aftermath - Part 1

Two years ago today I drove into Hancock County with the responsibility of coordinating the human services response to Hurricane Katrina in the six southern counties of Mississippi. Governor Barbour had requested from Governor Bush that the State of Florida assume the responsibility for coordinating emergency management in southern Mississippi. I was one of six thousand Floridians who responded.

This was my first visit to a catastrophic disaster. I had traveled extensively in Latin America and seen a lot of poverty and misery. I had been to two war zones. But on that day in September 2005, I had never seen anything like Hancock County. The big difference, in my mind, was that these dazed and bewildered victims were American citizens. I never dreamed that what I saw overseas could happen in the United States.

Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath led a lot of people in our great country to a number of very definite conclusions. Many of these conclusions were derived from television images of New Orleans. These conclusions have been repeated for two years in newspaper columns, magazine articles, television shows and Spike Lee movies. The biggest conclusion was that the federal government, in particular FEMA as an organization and George Bush as an individual, was responsible for the horrible images of suffering and death in New Orleans.

For two years I have been telling anyone who cared to listen that that conclusion was wrong. As the August 2007 edition of the National Geographic makes clear, the failure of the levees around New Orleans was caused by dozens of politically driven, as opposed to engineering-based, decisions by a variety of governmental entities at all levels over a period of fifty to one hundred years.

The federal government does not deserve all the blame for the horrifying images at the Super Dome and Convention Center. FEMA made some mistakes, but the overwhelming blame for what transpired lies with the Mayor of New Orleans and the Governor of Louisiana. Evacuation of the citizenry has been and continues to be a responsibility of local government. The evacuation plan for the city was designed and executed at the city and parish level, with some assistance by the state.

The big question for me was the holdup in bringing water and food to the victims stranded at the Super Dome and other "lily pads"around the city. I asked this question to emergency management professionals that I had worked with who were in the Baton Rouge Emergency Operations Center during the crisis. They told me that vehicles loaded with water and food were ready to enter the city and resupply the lily pads. The vehicles were not sent in because city officials declared the city unsafe.

Regardless of the facts, the federal government got the blame. For the past two years, the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA have been developing capabilities to step in when local and state governments are incompetent and do their job for them. As these federal plans and policies gradually come to light, I can see very grave consequences. I will outline these consequences in Part 2.