Wednesday, December 15, 2010

"Messages from Babylon" available from iBooks

In an effort to maintain my edge in the changing world of book publishing I arranged to have my war memoir "Messages from Babylon" converted to iBooks format and made available in Apple's bookstore. I have seen it on my iPad and it looks pretty good.

The big difference is that all the pictures are in color instead of black & white, and I added additional photographs from my vast archive of Iraq pictures. Another addition from the print edition is I added a list of acronyms at the front of the big to assist the poor reader in navigating the CPA, KBR, MSR thicket.

The print edition of Messages is still available online or I can sell you an autographed copy if you are really that interested. I didn't publish this book to make money, because I haven't, but I at least try to cover my costs.

I hope all of you have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Think of all the servicemen and women overseas during the holidays: some in harm's way. I've been there, and now I can't ever forget them.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A national mass care strategy

Last month FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate and American Red Cross President Gail McGovern signed a Memorandum of Agreement between the two organizations. The MOA provides a framework for the planning and conduct of feeding and sheltering of survivors in the event of a disaster.

In addition to the American Red Cross, Craig wisely invited representatives from other faith based and voluntary agencies involved in disasters to the signing ceremony. Craig charged them all to come up with a new national mass care strategy. Craig didn't consult with me about whether we needed a new national mass care strategy, but if he had, I would have said yes.

A strategy lays out a plan or method for achieving a specific goal or result. In my mind, I can think of no more important national mass care goal that being able to feed and shelter the survivors of a catastrophic event. I say this because I can think of a number of very plausible disasters (a number of which are in my home state of Florida) where the nation would have a difficult time feeding and sheltering the citizens impacted by the disaster.

The problem is not with the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the Southern Baptist Convention or any of the other faith based or voluntary agencies that get involved with mass care during a disaster. These organizations are supported by the donations of the American people and these donations are able to sustain a disaster feeding and sheltering capability that works in most disasters.

But what about those disasters where the national resources of the faith based and voluntary community are brought to bear on a single catastrophic disaster, and those resources aren't enough? What happens then?

The resources of the state and federal governments would have to augment the resources of the voluntary community. Unfortunately, because we don't have to do that very often, we aren't very good at it. Figuring out what is needed, ordering it, and then getting it to the right place at the right time is not easy. I had to do just that in 2004 during Hurricanes Charley, Francis, Ivan and Jeanne, and I can vouch for the difficulty of the task.

Even though no one had ever trained me how to coordinate mass care at the state level, I had four hurricanes in six weeks to figure out how to do it. I did a lot better on the fourth hurricane than I did on the first one. 

A new national mass care strategy needs to focus on increasing mass care capability at the state level. To do this we must train state mass care coordinators to perform their role in a catastrophic event. This role involves performing an important series of steps should a big event strike their state: define the scale of the disaster, estimate the state mass care requirements for that size disaster, determine the mass care resources that the voluntary agencies are able to provide, and request the resources needed to meet any shortfalls from other states or the federal government.

Right now, few state mass care coordinators exist that can perform that role. FEMA is preparing a course to teach state mass care coordinators how to perform these tasks. The course will be completed by the end of this year and presented to select state mass care coordinators at the beginning of next year.

A new national mass care strategy must include as a goal the training of state mass care coordinators in all the FEMA Regions. Once they are trained, we need to plan  and conduct exercises that allow these coordinators to practice their new skills in realistic situations.

If this is done, they won't have to learn their jobs on the fly in the midst of their first big disaster, like I did. Furthermore, they will be trained and ready to deploy to assist other states when an big event occurs. The state of Florida, for one, will sure be able to use them.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Comparing "The Hurt Locker" to "The Green Zone"

I finally saw the movie "The Green Zone" (TGZ) on DVD a few weeks ago and could not help but compare and contrast the film with "The Hurt Locker," (THL) which I watched in the theater when it was released last year. I don't write many movie reviews, but the "The Hurt Locker" had such an effect on me that I wrote a review, which you can read here.

THL was nominated for nine Oscars and won six, including Best Picture and Best Director. The movie was well done and well acted but, as I stated in my review, was not an accurate representation of what it was like to be in Iraq. I'm not just talking about minor details. There were major errors in the representation of the soldiers and the war and this ruined the movie for me.

TGZ didn't get any Oscars and didn't make enough money to cover the expensive production costs of recreating the Iraq war in 2003. Yet, that expensive recreation made the movie for me. If you want to know what it looked like, down to the most minor detail, in the Green Zone during the first year of the war, then you should watch this movie.

The Green Zone was a collection of Saddam's palatial buildings along the Tigris River in downtown Baghdad. Inside these buildings were the headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority and the Combined, Joint Task Force 7, the political and military nerve centers of the Coalition's efforts in Iraq. The perimeter of the Green Zone was fortified with blast walls, barbed wire, sandbags, Abrams tanks, Bradley Fighting vehicles and sweating, irritable and nervous American soldiers.

The rest of Baghdad (and Iraq, for that matter) was the Red Zone, known in previous wars by such names as Indian Country and No Man's Land. Personally, I breathed a sigh of relief whenever I passed the checkpoint and entered this oasis in a surrounding desert of violence. Below is a picture of me, Bede Strong and a CPA employee who's name I don't recall in the Green Zone in front of a giant bust of Saddam Hussein. This bust was one of several that were removed from atop the central Palace in the Green Zone. This picture was taken December 7, 2003 (my daughter Lindsey's birthday).

Paul Greengrass, the Director of TGZ, also directed two of the Bourne movies, as well as "Flight 93." As a fan of all those movies, and of Matt Damon, who played a Chief Warrant Officer in TGZ, I was expecting a thrilling action-adventure flick. I wasn't disappointed. Reviewers said that all the wonderful things (acting, script, cast, direction) that go into making a good movie weren't as good in TGZ as in THL.

But the Green Zone carried me back to Iraq. The Hurt Locker didn't.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Situation Report for Mississippi for 9/12/05

Florida Area Command

Stennis Space Center, Ms.

Human Services Report #9

1900 9/12/05

Current Situation
 The Human Services Branch inspected every shelter in the affected area to insure that every victim was sleeping on a cot, had a blanket and was receiving hot meals. The inspection identified 18 shelters with 1,801 persons. In the upcoming days, shelters will close and consolidate as the counties move to free up school buildings and get the children back into classrooms.

 An eyeball inspection of Harrison and Hancock counties in the last two days reveals an abundant supply of water and ready to eat meals. The Counties are asking for additional MRE’s but are being urged to redistribute within the county. The ARC and TSA are being instructed to distribute the MRE’s in their warehouses using their mobile feeding operations.

The Salvation Army has 6 kitchens and 40 canteens in the coastal counties. Reports from the field are that they have been performing well. TSA fed over 26,000 meals on the 11th.

The ARC needs to improve the ability to supply the shelters and kitchens in the area. This is not from a lack of will or effort. More effective and trained leadership on the ground is needed to channel the tremendous efforts of the volunteers. We are providing to the ARC our kitchen and shelter support assessments so that they can take appropriate actions.
Mark Rohr, a Fairfax County, Va. Battalion Fire Chief has arrived to assume the Human Services Branch Chief duties. The transition and handover is under way and should be completed by noon on Sep 14.

Unmet needs


Future Operations

• Continue assistance to small community of Pearlington in Hancock.

• Work with ARC to assist in achieving better support to kitchens and shelters.

• Deploy USDA commodities to kitchens as they arrive.

• Prepare to end response and transition to Recovery.

• Prepare for and implement demobilization of Florida human resources by Friday, September 16.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Situation Report for Mississippi for 9/11/05

Human Services Report #9

1900 9/12/05

Current Situation

• The Human Services Branch inspected every shelter in the affected area to insure that every victim was sleeping on a cot, had a blanket and was receiving hot meals.

• An eyeball inspection of Harrison and Hancock counties in the last two days reveals an abundant supply of water and ready to eat meals. The Counties are asking for additional MRE’s but are being urged to redistribute within the county. The ARC and TSA are being instructed to distribute the MRE’s in their warehouses.

• The Salvation Army has 6 kitchens and 25 canteens in the coastal counties. Reports from the field are that they have been performing well. The ARC is not doing a good job of supplying the shelters and kitchens in the area. This is not from a lack of will or effort. More effective and trained leadership on the ground is needed to channel the tremendous efforts of the volunteers

Unmet needs

• None

Future Operations

• Continue assistance to small community of Pearlington in Hancock.

• Work with ARC to assist in achieving better support to kitchens and shelters.

• Deploy USDA commodities to kitchens as they arrive.

• Prepare to end response and transition to Recovery.

• Prepare for and implement demobilization of Florida human resources by Friday, September 16.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Situation Report for Mississippi for 9/10/05

Human Services Report #7

1900 9/10/05

Current Situation

• The situation is Southern Mississippi continues to improve as the arrival of electricity and more FEMA Blue shirts has had a noticeable affect on the morale of the citizenry.

• The Red Cross reports that there are still 1,641 victims in 20 shelters in the six southern counties of Miss. The ARC reported serving 31,000 meals in the area.

• Discovered and assisted, along with ESF 8, a small Vietnamese community in Jackson County that, for cultural reasons, was hesitant to come forward and seek assistance.

• Facilitated arrival of 17 trucks from New York to new donation warehouse at Stennis Airport.

• Increasing reports of widespread abandoned/lost animals. An animal control team from Hillsborough County arrived in Hancock County after working in Jackson and Harrison Counties.

• Reports of food shortages by ARC and TSA kitchens.

• Beginning the process of demobilization of human resources from Florida

Unmet needs

• USDA commodities are not arriving as rapidly as needed.

• There is no ESF-17 representative and there are significant animal issues, including rodents, which must be dealt with.

• The scarcity of trucks is affecting the ability to move critical resources into the area.

Future Operations

• Continue assistance to small community of Pearlington in Hancock.

• Continue assessment of small coastal communities

• Deploy USDA commodities to kitchens as they arrive

• Improve quality of life in the shelters

• Prepare for and implement demobilization of Florida human resources

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Situation Report from Mississippi for 9/9/05

Human Services Report #6

1900 9/9/05

Current Situation

• The corner has been turned in southern Mississippi, as response has peaked and is now on the downhill side as Recovery begins to move into high gear.

• Field Teams report significant improvements in electricity and diminished activity at the POD sites. This is further confirmed by the long lines of trucks parked everywhere here at Stennis. There are 238 water trucks and 170 ice trucks sitting at Stennis.

• The Red Cross and Salvation Army has arrived in force and now have a significant presence in the area. The Salvation Army reports 12 canteens in Jackson, 13 in Harrison and 2 in Hancock (with more on the way). The Red Cross has augmented the ERV’s in the area with over 40 panel vans.

• The Red Cross has a warehouse in Gulfport and the Salvation Army a warehouse in Biloxi. Resources such as cots, blankets, bath kits, bleach, lime and USDA commodities are moving from Stennis to these warehouses for distribution by ARC and TSA mobile feeding vehicles.

• New mobile kitchens have arrived and Stennis is providing logistical support to these kitchens.

• The city of Pearlington, in Hancock County, received their first hot meals since the storm from the ARC and TSA.

Unmet needs

• Six loads of USDA commodities arrived and were pushed forward to TSA and the ARC. Mississippi Dept. of Education responded promptly to an emergency plea and is providing three loads directly to the ARC and TSA warehouses today.

• There is no ESF-17 representative and there are significant animal issues, including rodents, that must be dealt with.

• The scarcity of trucks is affecting the ability to move critical resources into the area. The delay in receiving USDA commodities is due to the shortage of trucks. The Dumpster vendor reports that they will not be able to move in their assets due to the trucking shortage. The trucks needed to move these resources are sitting on Stennis with unneeded water and ice.

Future Operations

• Continue assistance to small community of Pearlington in Hancock.

• Deploy human resources to Pearlington to establish local government

• Continue assessment of small coastal communities

• Deploy USDA commodities to kitchens as they arrive

• Improve quality of life in the shelters

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Situation Report from Mississippi for 9/8/05

Human Services Report #5

1900 9/8/05

Current Situation

• POD in Pearlington moved from damaged fire house to Charles T Murphy Elementary School.

• Visited and assessed 4 other coastal towns in western Hancock County. Catastrophic damage in each. MRE’s and supplies ordered through tracker.

• 6 Human Services staff from Ft. Walton Beach arrived this PM.

• Conferred with Red Cross in Gulfport, and discussed the usage of tracker.

• Conferred with Red Cross in Waveland, and discussed the usage of tracker.

• Local Government meeting about moving the POD at Stennis International Airport to possible the Library.

• Salvation Army liaison arrived – Neil Lewis

• ESF 11 received and inventoried 2 loads of USDA commodities.

Unmet needs

• We have orders for 10 trailer loads of USDA commodities and only have 3 loads of spaghetti on hand.

• Insect spray, batteries, flashlights.

• No ESF-17 representative

Future Operations

• Continue assistance to small community of Pearlington in Hancock.

• Deploy human resources to Pearlington to establish local government

• Continue assessment of small coastal communities

• Deploy USDA commodities to kitchens as they arrive

• Improve quality of life in the shelters

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Situation Report from Mississippi for 9/7/5

Human Services Report #4

1900 9/7/05

Current Situation

• ESF 15 representatives did a Volunteer and donations assessment in Hancock and Harrison Counties. They are relaying these assessments to the State ESF 15 in Jackson, MS.

• Verified shelter locations and cot requirements in Harrison Counties. Ordered cots on hand to be dispatched tomorrow.

• Conducted assessment of Pearl River County and Purlington in Hancock County. Pearl River is doing better but the conditions in Purlington were very bad. All homes destroyed and inhabitants living in muck from storm surge. Delivered 500 cots within 2 hours of report and ordered numerous additional resources for tomorrow.

Unmet needs:
 Desperately need tarps. Many people living in damaged or destroyed homes or without shelter at all. A heavy rain storm will be disastrous without some attempt at cover.

Future Operations

• Continue ESF 15 assessments.

• Continue to add resources to shelters to improve living conditions of the victims.

• Identify additional locations to deliver USDA commodities.

• Receive and deploy additional Human Services personnel in support of the Counties.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Situation Report from Mississippi for 9/6/05

Human Services Report #3

1900 9/6/05

Current Situation

• Conducted direct coordination with Red Cross and Human Services representatives in Hancock, Harrison and Jackson Counties.

• Received and briefed 2 Red Cross liaisons to Florida Area Command.

• Developed a distribution plan for the cots, when they arrive.

• Began development of a distribution plan for the 36 truckloads of USDA commodities en route.

• 2 additional Human Services staff due in today and 11 tomorrow

Unmet needs

• Additional staff to meet Human Services requirements for Florida Area Command

• Cots, blankets, pillows, personal hygiene packets for shelterees

Future Operations

• Prepare to move to a hard facility

• Develop plan for utilization of additional staff

• Working to identify and source resources necessary to improve living conditions in shelters.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Situation Report from Mississippi for 9/5/05

Human Services Report #2

1900 9/5/05

Current Situation

• In conjunction with Hancock County, coordinated a plan to consolidate the Shelter population in well run shelters with sanitary conditions.

• Shelter population here at Stennis Space Center, originally 2500 persons, is now down to 150. FEMA has relocated to other states, and population will be down to zero by noon tomorrow.

• Initiated coordination with Harrison, Pearl River, and Jackson counties to begin consolidation of shelters in those counties.

Unmet needs

• Additional staff to meet Human Services requirements for Florida Area Command

• Cots, blankets, pillows, personal hygiene packets for shelterees

Future Operations

• Prepare to move to a hard facility

• Prepare to receive additional staff

• Working to identify and source resources necessary to improve living conditions in shelters.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Situation report from Mississippi for 9/4/05

This is my first situation report from the Florida Area Command in Hancock County, MS. I arrived on September 2. I will publish the rest of my situation reports daily for the next week.
Human Services Report

1700 9/4/05

Current Situation

• FEMA ROC in Atlanta advises no alternative arrangements for current population in shelter for at least 30 days.

• Working assigned Human Services missions

• Working with ARC to provide Baby food and cots to shelters in Harrison and Jackson Counties

• Receiving and inventorying Infant food items at LSA Stennis

• Coordinating staffing issues for expanded Human Services Branch

Unmet needs

• Additional staff to meet Human Services requirements for Florida Area Command

Future Operations

• Prepare to move to a hard facility

• Prepare to receive additional staff

• Working to identify and source resources necessary to improve living conditions in shelters.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Notes from a trip to the earthquake zone

The magnitude 8.8 earthquake that struck at 3:30 A.M on February 27 of this year was the fifth largest in recorded history. For the survivors in the Chilean coastal city of Constitución the shaking was only Act I in a drama that was repeated in other towns along the coast. The two minutes of shaking by the earthquake was followed in twenty minutes by a tsunami that inundated and destroyed the low-lying portions of the city on the water’s edge.

During a visit that I made to the city in July I got a chance to talk to some of the survivors. I was in Chile on a visit organized by the Greater Los Angeles Chapter of the American Red Cross. The eighteen members of the group included not only members of the LA Chapter, but state officials from California’s emergency management agency, scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey, a civil engineering professor from the University of Colorado, a physician, and me, a state emergency manager from Florida.

On the afternoon of the second day of our tour of the earthquake affected region, we departed the city of Talca, the capital of the Maule region of Chile, for the city of Constitución. The city lay at the juncture of the Maule River and the ocean, gradually occupying and then filling the valley as we descended from the mountains. When we arrived at the river’s edge in the center of town we were presented with a view of the Pacific. Dusk was approaching and the spectacle of hundreds of sea gulls circling to our front diverted us from the panorama of an orange band that separated the horizon from the low hanging clouds.

As our vehicle crept forward, I saw an island in the river to our right, and eventually the reason for the interest of the birds. The Constitución fishing fleet was unloading their catch; orange, blue and white plastic tubs filled with strips of silver. Young men muscled the tubs from the boats and stacked them by the street to be loaded on waiting trucks. The fishermen wore slickers and had dark, sunburned faces. They stood on their boats and stowed their nets with practiced hands, repeating the motions of centuries.

The thought came to my mind: what a hard job.

Beyond the fishermen was the island, and I tried to imagine that awful morning. On the day of the earthquake the city had planned a traditional annual festival. In order to get a good view of the festivities and the fireworks, local inhabitants and visitors from out of town camped on the island that divided the river as it passed into the sea. When the terrible shaking had ended, three fishermen were able to use their boats to begin evacuating the island. They knew what was coming, and what would happen if those people could not be taken off. They carried away forty-five, and then went back for more. When the tsunami hit two of the fishermen were killed. Later, when they searched the island, dead children were found hanging in the trees.

The tragedy of the deaths is great, but what is surprising is that more didn’t die. Of the five hundred and seventy six deaths from the Feb 27 earthquake, approximately half were from the tsunami. The 7.0 earthquake that struck Haiti the prior month was several orders of magnitude less severe, yet the death toll was in the hundreds of thousands. Haiti is not like Chile, as anyone with a cursory knowledge of the two countries could tell. Yet Chile clearly handled the response to the earthquake very well, despite the size and severity of the event. Why did they do so well? That question was the reason for our visit.

The big measure of the quality of the Chilean response was that the coverage of the disaster dropped off CNN after a few days. As every emergency manager knows, if Anderson Cooper is still camped with his TV cameras in the middle of your response after two weeks, then you must have done something wrong.

We are writing a report of our findings and look to have the first draft completed by the end of this month. When the report is completed I will share it with you. I will be making presentations on what we learned at every opportinity in the upcoming months.

On our way to Constitución we stopped by a temporary village, or Aldea, that the government had constructed for those left homeless by the tsunami or earthquake. Two women inhabitants approached us, drawn by the strangers and not afraid to talk about their plight. The Aldea, constructed on the empty land of a nearby sawmill, consisted of small wooden structures, called mediasaguas. Communal bathrooms and showers served for sanitation. Utility poles were installed in May and brought electricity to the dwellings. Although protected from the rain, the poorly insulated houses could not keep out the cold.

We asked if we could see inside one of the mediasagus, and after a moment’s hesitation, the women to the left in the above photo said yes. She led us down a muddy street, where a trio of girls made mud pies with toy dishes. Inside the home a man, probably her husband, crouched over a tub of dishes in the middle of the floor. He stood to greet us with dripping fingers. The home was clean and neat, but the man’s eyes clearly conveyed the daily struggles of their existence.

As we said good-bye to the people in the Aldea, the woman who had shown us her home embraced the women in our group and, in the custom of her country, exchanged kisses on the cheek with the men. We were leaving to continue our journey into the earthquake zone and eventually return home to our families and homes. She was left to continue her life of cold, wet and mud in a small wooden shack to which the earthquake had condemned her.

“No nos olvide,” she called out to us as we climbed into our vehicles. “Don’t forget us.”

Her plea broke my heart; the first, but not the last time this was to occur while I was in Chile. No, I won’t forget her. Hopefully, you won’t either.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Chilean earthquake of February 27

The 8.8 magnitude earthquake that affected Chile on February 27th of this year was in the top ten in recorded history, affected 80% of the country's population, and caused $30 billion in estimated damages, a sum equaling 18% of the country's Gross Domestic Product. Considering the immensity and size of the quake, the death toll of 576 (nearly half of which came from the impact of a tsunami on the coast) is remarkable. Why were the number of deaths so low?

I am here in Santiago with a team assembled by the American Red Cross to find out why. The team of 18 includes a civil engineering instructor from the University of Colorado, a scientist from the U.S. Geological Survey, a trauma surgeon, as well as public health and mass care specialists from the Red Cross and the states of California and Florida. The government of Chile and the Chilean Red Cross have made available to us in the last two days key individuals who have provided us with a wealth of information. This information is being captured by the team and will be included in our final written report.

At the end of each day we meet to go over what we have we have heard and attempt to digest what we have learned. A word that I have seen in many emergency management articles in the last six months is "resiliance" and this word has come up in our discussions about Chile. The people and country of Chile appear to have developed a culture of resiliance. How did they do it, and what can we learn in order to transfer this culture to our own country?

The largest quake in recorded history was a 9.2 magnitude that ocurred in 1960, off the southern coast of Chile. The quake affected a part of the country that was less densely populated, but did result in a change to the building codes. Another quake in 1985 resulted in a further strenthening of their building codes. Consequently, only two large buildings collapsed during the 2010 quake. Over 300,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed in the recent quake, but they were all older, smaller buildings made of adobe.

The coastal inhabitants of Chile are primarily involved in the country's large fishing industry, and they grew up listening to stories about the 1960 quake from their parents and grandparents. The warning they heard was, "If the ground shakes so much that you cannot walk, then when the shaking stops you must run to high ground. Don't wait for a warning from the government. Run." And run they did. Most of the tsunami deaths were from tourists visiting the coast who failed to follow the locals as they moved to high ground. This is what we mean by a culture of resilience. 

We have heard what the people in the capital have had to say about the government's response to this catastrophe. Tomorrow we drive into the earthquake zone to talk to the people who had to experience it on the ground. We are interested in hearing what they have to say. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

My trip to Chile with the Red Cross

I was invited to participate by the American Red Cross as a mass care subject matter expert on a team of 18 persons on a trip to Chile. The purpose of the trip is to gather some of the hard lessons learned by the Chileans as a result of the terrible earthquake they suffered in February of this year. We depart on this Red Cross sponsored trip this Sunday, July 18 and will return to the United States on July 28th.

Although I am taking leave from my job to make this trip, my emergency management responsibilities required that I request and receive permission to leave the country during hurricane season. My condition for participation to the Red Cross was that I be allowed to scurry home if a big storm threatens Florida.

I have known about the possibility of this trip since May, but was afraid to talk about it (or even think about it) until the last few days, when it looked like the Storm Gods were going to smile on me for at least the next 7 days. But now that it looks like I am going to be able to go, I am excited and see this as a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

My lifelong urge for once-in-a-lifetime adventures was dramatically diminished after Iraq, but it it has been six years since my return from the Middle East, and I feel ready for another adventure, even if it is only of the small, ten-day variety.

I have seen the tentative itinerary, and after some initial meetings in Santiago, the capital, we travel south by vehicle into the earthquake zone. I have studied the local newspapers on the Internet, and the stories I read have confirmed that the country is still suffering through numerous, complex problems caused by the event. Yet, since these problems are no longer reported by CNN or Fox News or the New York Times, the people of the United States know nothing about them.

But I will.

I have been to every country in Latin American except Cuba and El Salvador (I have been to Chile twice). I speak fluent Spanish. But this trip will be different. Traveling outside the capital by vehicle, and getting to see and talk to emergency managers and survivors of one of the largest earthquakes in recent history, will be educational and enlightening.

There are real emergency management lessons to be learned there in Chile, lessons that we can bring back home for use in California, and even in Florida. I am going to do my best to find them.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Increasing national mass care capacity

I have been on the road the last two weeks advancing the cause of national mass care capacity, courtesy of FEMA funding and the knowledge that Florida will need to draw on this national capacity should a catastrophic event strike the state. In my humble opinion our national mass care capacity has been hindered by two significant shortfalls: a lack of mass care coordination capability at the state level and a lack of integration of mass care voluntary agencies into emergency management at all levels of government.

Providing shelter and food to survivors is the primary role of mass care in a disaster. The capacity to deliver this mass care role has traditionally been provided by the large voluntary organizations like the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army and the Southern Baptist Convention. These agencies have national organizations, mobile equipment, legions of trained volunteers, and full-time staff with the expertise to marshall these resources at a disaster location in order to feed and shelter the survivors.

These organizations respond to hundreds of incidents requiring mass care support every day. My very own Capital Area Chapter of the American Red Cross in Tallahassee responded yesterday to a multi-unit apartment fire, and was on hand with an Emergency Response Vehicle to assist both the firefighters and affected occupants of the buildings. I donate monthly to my local Red Cross Chapter, as do many others, so that this capability will be there when needed. 

When the disaster is greater than the local capacities of the voluntary organizations, then they call on their national organizations, bringing in personnel, equipment and organizational expertise gained from multiple responses across the country. But what happens when the disaster is catastrophic, when the mass care capacity required for the event exceeds the available national resources of the voluntary agencies?

This is where the overall lack of state mass care capacity comes in.  If the event exceeds the capabilities of the voluntary agencies  then the affected state must either provide resources to address the shortages, or request additional resources from the federal government through FEMA, or both. Unfortunately, because catastrophic events are so rare, most states not only have no one trained to perform this critical function, they have no one identified to perform this critical coordination role in a disaster.

Due to fate and circumstances, I received considerable experience in the role of state mass care coordination when I was involved in the response to eight hurricanes during 2004 and 2005. FEMA provided me the opportunity to assist in the development of a state mass care planning course, and then serve as one of the instructors for the pilot course June 8-9 in Lake Mary, Florida. State mass care planners from 11 states in 4 FEMA Regions were on hand for the pilot, and I think FEMA did more to enhance state mass care capacity in those two days than they have done in the last year.

Now that we have completed and tested a two day planning course, we will develop a two day state mass care operations course. If we don't get too tied up with hurricanes between now and the end of the year, we should have the operations course ready to pilot by the beginning of next year.

As for the lack of integration of mass care voluntary agencies into emergency management at all levels of government, we am working on that, too. I will explain what we are doing in a later post.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

"Senator's Son" by Luke Larson: a novel of the Iraq war

During the ten months that I spent in Iraq I kept telling myself that I would write a novel based on my experiences. Beginning in the summer of 2004, after I returned from the war zone, I began working on a manuscript and am still slaving away on my third (or is it fourth?) draft. Despite the handicap of being a Marine (or maybe because of it), Luke Larson has written a true "insider novel" documenting a key turning point in the Iraq war: the Awakening of the Sunni tribes in Anbar province.

Bing West, in his outstanding book on the "surge," the Awakening and General Petraeus, entitled "The Strongest Tribe", outlined the big picture on the important and critical change in strategy implemented by the United States in Iraq in 2006-2007. As a Marine infantry officer on the ground in Ramadi, Iraq during this period, Luke Larson experienced first-hand the problems of the previous strategy and the remarkable results that became manifest when the strategy changed. Luke did a skillful job in his novel of explaining why the strategy was changed and why the new strategy was successful.

Larsen is much more proficient in infantry tactics and counterinsurgency warfare than he is in the craft of writing a novel, although the literary deficiencies are a distraction rather than an obstacle to the reader's ability to absorb and understand the many important messages that the author conveys.

In 2008 I wrote 3 posts on writing a war novel (see On Writing a War Novel, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3). One of the big problems with writing a novel showing "how it really was over there" is that the military is a subculture of the larger society. The Army (and to a much greater extent, the Marines) is a subculture of the military, and the servicemen and women serving in Iraq occupied another subculture of their own branch of the military. Each subculture has different acronyms, folkways and mores. To translate this reality so that the average reader would understand is like translating from one language to another. In the process, a lot is lost.

Luke endeavors mightily to overcome this issue, and mostly succeeds, although I am a poor one to judge in this area. My service in the Army and in Iraq gave me a greater depth and breadth of understanding of what the Marines in Luke's novel faced. I have actually been to Ramadi, but I wasn't kicking down any doors while I was there, either. Thankfully, I never faced the intense combat described in "Senator's Son."

A good indicator of some one's combat experience can be determined by asking them how often they were scared. This is an inexact science, since many people have different definitions of the word "scared." The Army asked me this question in a survey while I was out processing in Kuwait prior to coming home. I answered bravely that I had not been afraid when I was in Iraq, but I think I may have lied. I believe that Luke Larson was scared many times when he was in Iraq. The Marines that he so winningly brings to life in his novel spend a lot of time being scared, whether they admit it to themselves or their buddies, or whether they continue on feeling that they must be brave.

This book is about what it was like to be in Iraq during the toughest days, in one of the toughest neighborhoods. But it's hard for me to tell how real it is. I wasn't there.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Blaming Iraqis for what Bush has done

While reading the voluminous comments to a NYT article on the Iraqi election I noticed that many of our citizens continue to spew vitriol and hatred toward President Bush, even though he has passed from the world stage. One wonders if they will carry such grudges with them for the rest of their life. As for myself, I have mostly forgiven or forgotten Bill Clinton's many transgressions. At least with Slick Willie, unlike Tricky Dick, there was the relief and satisfaction of an impeachment.

Unfortunately, the unrepentant Bush-haters associate Iraq with their grievances, and must by their arguments inflict collateral damage on the poor, long-suffering Iraqi populace. Iraq and Iraqis are associated with their list of Bush "crimes", and must receive some of the blame. The situation is somewhat similar to the actions of the anti-Viet Nam war crowd in the sixties and seventies. In their righteous fury over the war they released their anger on the nearest object available, spewing profanity and saliva in greeting to hapless, battle-scarred nineteen-year-old Viet Nam veterans as they debarked back home from the jungle. Although I did not fight in that war, I will carry an unforgiven and unforgotten grudge against those righteous ones for the rest of my life. Fortunately, the returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans have not been subjected to similar offenses.

The fact that Iraqi success with democracy would vindicate (even if only in a small way) Bush causes his detractors to denigrate any signs of Iraqi progress. Personally, I believe that a successful, democratic Iraq would vindicate Bush in a big way. From my experience living in Iraq and the considerable study I have undertaken in the years since then, I believe that the Iraqis will be successful. The benefits of unity that strain to hold the many factions together in one country are greater than the centrifugal forces of dissolution. The constant and common interaction of the Iraqis with the numerous Iranian pilgrims has thoroughly indoctrinated them on the perils of rule by the mullahs.

Finally, and most importantly, I learned through my own observation that the Iraqis are intelligent, religious and hard-working, qualities that can take them a long way in overcoming their present and past difficulties. I heard an Iraqi sheik say that his people had been traumatized by Saddam for thirty years, and we Americans should make allowances for that. Many of their current problems are manifestations of that trauma.

Their elections and political interactions may not meet our elevated standards, but they are at least as good or better than the elections we conducted in Chicago in the 1930's. And if you still insist on hating Bush, that is your right to continue to waste your time in that manner. Just don't blame the Iraqis for what Bush has done.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Back at the National Hurricane Conference

Last year the National Hurricane Conference was in Austin, Texas. I think. I have been to so many it's hard to remember. The most memorable Conference (in retrospect) was in New Orleans in April, 2005. That was the last time that I saw the Big Easy before it was destroyed by Hurrcane Katrina five months later. Fortunately for me, the Conference this year returns once again to Orlando.

I spent the first day listening to presentations organized by New York City Officringse of Emergency Management and the New, New Jersey and Connecitcut Regional Catastrophic Planning Project. FEMA has been spending $35 million a year the last four years to support ten of these catastrophic planning inititives across the country. From 2007 to 2009 I worked on the Florida Catastrophic Planning project, which developed a plan to respond to a Category 5 hurricane striking south Florida. The detailed consequences document for this storm was almost 100 pages and made for grim reading.

As the representatives from New York City made clear, and I agree, the big advantage of these planning intitiatives is that it brings representatives from local, state and federal jurisdictions together in order to solve very tough problems. And New York City would face a very tough problem if it were struck by a Category 3 hurricane, as happened in 1938, when a lot fewer people lived there.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

What I did for the Haitian Earthquake

I have this love-hate relationship with my Blackberry. I am old enough to remember the pleasure in receiving and reading letters (remember those?), especially when I was overseas. The Blackberry is a cascade of these little pleasures, instantly available on my hip. The content of the messages are irrelevant. What is important is that they were sent to ME.

On the other hand, every time I hear my Blackberry buzzing at an odd hour, I am reminded of the reason that the State of Florida has issued me this device: to contact me in case of a disaster. And at those odd hours, as I am pulling my Blackberry from it's case to read the message, I wonder if this will be the message that changes my life: the summons to the state emergency operations center (EOC) to respond to the Big One.

I have been summoned in some way similar many times before. In 1998, before anyone even heard of Blackberries, I was driving my daughter to school in the morning when I heard on NPR that 5 tornadoes had struck central Florida in the early morning, with widespread damage and casualties. I made a mental note to head over to the state EOC after dropping off my daughter to see what was up. Seconds later, I felt the vibration of the pager on my belt. Because I was driving I handed the pager to my daughter and asked her to read aloud the text message. "Report to the EOC," she read aloud.

On the morning of January 13, 2010 I received an email with the same instructions. I had heard about the Haitian earthquake the night before but didn't expect to be involved because it was in another country. I was wrong. I had not really read the state's Repatriation plan.

Over the next three weeks I was to learn a lot about Repatriation, and the way the federal government functions and doesn't function during a disaster. But most of all, I was to be reminded (once again!) that Florida has the best state emergency operations team in the country.

Repatriation is the return of U.S. citizens from overseas after a disaster. The Department of State is responsible for orchestrating this movement. State tasks the federal Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) to take care of these citizens as they arrive, possibly with nothing more than the clothes on their back. Within HHS the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) signs an agreement with a state agency designated by the Governor to perform the Repatriation services. In Florida, the Governor designated the Department of Children & Families (DCF).

According to the state Repatriation plan, which is based on the draft November 2008 Office of Refugee Resettlement Plan (ORR), DCF would meet the returning U.S. citizens at the designated airport in Florida and assist these citizens in moving onward to their homes, primarily by lending them money for airfare, hotel rooms and food. The recipient of the money would sign an agreement promising to pay the federal government back, receive their support, and then move on their way home. The federal plan also says that federal ORR will reimburse state DCF and all other state and local agencies for any expenses related to this federal operation.

Who pays, as in so many other things in life, is an extremely important part of the plan.

Unfortunately, when I arrived at the state emergency operations center the morning of Wednesday, January 13 I was not familiar with either the federal plan or the state plan. Not very many other people at the state EOC were familiar with the plans either. I went from meeting to meeting, as we all tried to get organized to support this federal mission, leafing through the plans while trying to listen to people telling me new information. Nobody in any of these meetings had ever done this before.

That afternoon we crammed into a room at the state EOC to listen to a conference call with the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and two other states. ORR told us that there would be no Repatriation from Haiti, and if there was, then they would take care of it. This was the first of several times that we received misinformation from ORR.

Fortunately for all concerned, we didn't believe her. We were watching the news along with everyone else, and we knew that the people on the island were in serious trouble and would be desperate to get out and return to the United States. The state EOC remained at a partial activation, and we returned there the next day with the expectation that something was going to happen,

And at 5 PM Thursday afternoon, January 14, something did happen, We received a phone call from ORR (the same person who assured us the previous day that there would be no Repatriation) that a planeload of U.S. citizens, some possibly with "medical issues," was bound for Miami, would arrive in two hours, and could we possibly meet the plane and provide any necessary assistance? With a shake of our heads, we sprang into action.

Within thirty minutes we had set up a conference call with federal ORR, the state EOC, Miami-Dade county emergency management and the Miami airport to begin the coordination to receive the flight. DCF had to round up a reception committee (this was after 5 PM, mind you) and get them to the airport by 7 PM. I distinctly remember, in the confusion, someone on a cell phone saying, "Everyone is meeting at baggage claim fourteen," as they struggled to get everyone linked together at the airport.

And after that, every day, at all hours, the planes kept coming: large Boeing aircraft chartered by someone, one and two engine private planes, and finally, US Air Force C-130 and C-17 aircraft. And with one or two exceptions, they were all coming to Florida. Despite numerous desperate phone calls and emails to everyone in the federal government we could think of, no one was able to tell us when these planes were coming, where in Florida they were going, and how many people were on board. I can understand this not happening the first few days, but after one week? Two weeks? Three weeks? It took three weeks before we finally received good, reliable flight information from any source other than the ones we were able to create ourselves.

In the meantime, we were left to our own devices. A number of knowledgeable people put their heads together and created what we called our Flight Following cell. The cell was established at the state EOC and ran 24 hours a day. The cell had a video feed from Miami's Air Traffic Control Center. As the planes took off from Port-a-Prince their radar signature indicated their destination. As these planes were identified, the tower in Miami called them and requested information on the number of persons on board, and whether any medical or other special needs were required on arrival.

All of this information was entered by the Flight Following Cell into a spreadsheet in Google Docs. With the information "in the clouds" the people at the receiving airports in Florida could access this spreadsheet and plan on having the necessary resources available to meet the arriving flights. The establishment and continued operation of this cell enabled us to stabilize the operation and meet the needs of the survivors as they arrived from Haiti. A large number of organizations contributed people to staff this cell, but of particular note and assistance (because we so rarely worked with them) was the Federal Aviation Administration and the Customs & Border Police, two federal agencies that really helped us out.

The Department of State declared the repatriation to be over on February 19. Ultimately, over 25,000 U.S. and foreign nationals on over a thousand flights arrived in Florida for onward movement to their homes. The Department of Children and Families gave financial assistance to almost seven thousand citizens. The American Red Cross fed over 13,000 meals and 55,000 snacks. Almost 700 injured Haitians were evacuated to Florida hospitals.

I played a small part in Operation Haiti Relief, but I was proud of the part I played. And I was proud of the many people throughout the state who made this operation a success.