Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Red Cross and historic flooding in Colorado

On Tuesday night, September 17 I was sitting at home watching the Braves lose another game to the Nats when I got a phone call from a local emergency manager in Colorado. He got my phone number from a friend of a friend and wanted to "pick my brain" about the long term shelter problem he was facing.

For Colorado, the Big One had finally arrived. And for the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the Baptists, and the state/local emergency managers involved in mass care in the state this is the Big Test. Are they prepared? Did all that time they spent writing plans, teaching classes, and conducting exercises build the required level of capability in Mass Care Services required?

Based on media reports and my discussions with friends responding to the disaster the answer is Yes. Has everything gone perfectly? Good Lord, if that's your standard then you'll never be happy. It's a disaster. If everything was all right then we wouldn't have a job as emergency managers. The problem we always face is that when the disaster strikes the citizens have never read our perfectly drafted plans. They don't obey our carefully crafted public messages. They insist on acting in what they perceive to be their best interests at the time.


The first rule of emergency management is that the citizens will do whatever they want, regardless of what they've been advised. The second rule is that no matter what we do, it won't be enough - especially when it comes to mass care. So if you're in the job accept these rules, move on and do the best you can to help the most.

The Big News in this disaster has come from the Red Cross. For the first time in my knowledge the Red Cross Disaster Relief Operation is organizing according to the Incident Command System (ICS) and issuing daily Incident Action Plans (IAP). For me, this is great news and long overdue.

There has been a lot of discussion (at least, if you hang out with the people I do) about the re-engineering the Red Cross has undergone and is still undergoing. Change is painful and controversial. I was not privy to the reasons for the current re-engineering and no one is in a position now to know how successful it will be.

I have discovered (to my dismay) that there are some people who devote an inordinate amount of time criticizing the Red Cross. The Red Cross is a big organization that plays an important role in disaster responses of all size in every corner of our nation.  Public institutions in our society must expect to be criticized and such criticisms are often required to drive needed changes. An institution like the Red Cross, which survives primarily on public donations, is especially sensitive to public criticisms.

Yet most of the criticisms of the Red Cross that I hear are motivated more by destruction than a desire for change. Unfortunately, this is common in much of our social discourse these days. In my view, the critics have an unreasonable expectation of the capabilities of the Red Cross and, in some cases, an unreasoning sense of entitlement. Both of these problems apply to the Staten Island politician who, in the days after Sandy struck, publicly denounced the performance of the Red Cross only to discover that no, no, the Red Cross doesn't perform search and rescue operations in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.

We need the Red Cross. We need the idea of the Red Cross - the idea that we can respond to disasters with volunteers and donations. We can get mad at people in the Red Cross. The people who are human and make mistakes and do stupid things. But we can't confuse the people in the Red Cross with the idea of the Red Cross. We need the idea of the Red Cross. The people will come and go. We need the idea to live on.