Friday, August 28, 2015

How Florida saved southern Mississippi after Katrina

I am still amazed at how few people across this nation are familiar with the amazing and historic story of how the state of Florida, at the request of Governor Haley Barbour, assumed emergency management responsibility for the six southern counties of Mississippi before Hurricane Katrina had even exited their state. Under the direction of then Director of Emergency Management Craig Fugate Florida moved over 6,000 local and state responders into the affected counties and purchased in excess of $180 million of supplies for the affected counties.

I participated in this event and wrote an account of what I saw that was published in the Orlando Sentinel when I returned. This past week I have been posting pictures in social media to educate the public that New Orleans and Louisiana weren't the only places affected by Hurricane Katrina. Someone needs to write a book about what Florida did in Mississippi after Katrina and I have that task on my list of "Things to Do."

My friend Rand Napoli, at the direction of Craig Fugate, led the initial "Task Force Florida" element down I-10 into southern Mississippi in the early hours of August 30th, 2005, the day after Katrina impacted the coast. Rand allowed me to publish the following pictures and an account of those hectic first few days:

Rand Naopli and Jeanne Pincha-Tulley, the Incident Command for Calif. Task Force 3, our U.S. Forest Service logistics partners, discuss plans in front of the Florida Mobile Command Vehicle.
"Task Force Florida search and rescue teams, firefighters, law enforcement, ambulance transport capability and Florida Forest Service assets left long before sunup on the 30th and were on the ground and rescuing folks in Biloxi and Gulfport mid-day on the 30th. Everything that we had staged in and around Tallahassee that was meant for the Florida panhandle (which is where we thought Katrina might make landfall) went with us to MS."

Morning briefing for fire and Emergency Medical Service crews headed
to rural areas to treat survivors and provide water.
"The search and rescue task forces were directed to drop off in Biloxi and Gulfport and got to work while the command team and other assets continued on to Stennis. We had been told that FEMA and the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) would be meeting us there and they would have their command established. It was several days before FEMA and MEMA had an operational presence on the ground in southern Mississippi."

"Beginning the morning of Day 2 (August 31st), we sent dozens of units (usually a Fire Engine and an ambulance together) loaded with as much water and commodities as they could carry out into the 6 counties to treat survivors as needed and to leave water for them."

"The plan was to stay for a few days, do primary search, treat any injuries and other medical issues we found, distribute the water and other commodities that we brought and come home when MEMA and FEMA were able to take over. That didn’t happen very quickly, and Task Force Florida turned into the Florida Area Command and stayed for months"

Some of the 300 trucks of water, ice and commodities that were staged at the Stennis Space Center and then distributed into the affected areas in the first days of the Florida Area Command.. 
"It became obvious immediately when we arrived that this was a long term event and that’s when I advised leadership at the Florida State EOC on a satellite call late that first night that southern Mississippi was hit much worse than even the folks at MEMA and FEMA realized (not to mention that the nation's focus was on New Orleans) and “we needed a bigger boat,” lots more people and that this would be a long term deployment."

Because of Rand's phone call and other reports from the area, Mike DeLorenzo, the State Emergency Response Team Chief, and I spoke after the morning briefing September 1st at the Florida State EOC. Mike told me that there were considerable human services problems in the affected area and that he was going to recommend to Craig Fugate that I be deployed to the Florida Area Command at the Stennis Space Center to coordinate the mass care response.

Later that morning I was directed to proceed to Mississippi. I recruited two other employees from my Department, Peter Newman and Candace Bunker, to come with me. We left Tallahassee on the morning of September 2nd and arrived at Stennis that afternoon into the middle of a catastrophic event, with instructions to try and make things better.

We immediately had our hands full. But that's another story. I guess I'll talk about it when I write the book.

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.