Tuesday, September 06, 2005

What was the Plan man?

I was talking with Erik in the Op Center on Friday and we were discussing the response to the disaster in New Orleans. I opined that things could have been handled better but he didn't see how. He didn't understand what I meant.

Sure, we can't know before hand where the nasty devil storm is going to hit. And even days before we couldn't predict it's ferocity when it came ashore or where exactly that would be.


But a plan could still have been put together. I know because I wrote all kinds of plans for the Army. OpPlans, Contingency Plans ... well there may be other names but these are the main two types. One to lay out how things are going to happen for X operation and one to lay out how things should go down if Y happens and Z operation needs to start. Let me give you an example. (this is the five paragraph field order format which ends up being how most [good] military officers think)

1. Situation: A big natural disaster hits on or near New Orleans. The levees may break, there may be lots of collateral damage as buildings are blown down or flooded. Power will likely go out along with other services (sewage, fresh water, police, ambulance, medical) stopping.

2. Mission: Save as many people as possible. Make them as comfortable as conditions permit. Feed, house, clothe them and ensure they have adequate medical services.

3. Execution:
Concept of the Operation: Lots of people will need to be moved from a dangerous place to a safe one. This will take vehicles capable of covering the terrain and carrying people. There will need to be a place to take them too. Fuel, oil, relief drivers, maintenance, etc will all be needed for the vehicles. Once the people are there they need a place to sleep, shower, go to the bathroom, food to eat, water to drink, etc.
Specific Assignments: Who will do what, who will be responsible for what. Find the organizations or people who can do it and put them in charge of it. Find someone who is good at organizing and put them in overall charge.
Coordinating Instructions: Who, what, where, when, why.

4. Service and Support:
This is the meaty details about where supplies come from, go to and who gets them there. Who gets them from there out to the folks who need them, be they evacuees or rescue types doing the getting.

5. Command and Signal:
Talking about things, giving orders, responsibility, authority, all of these "being in charge" type of things.

You can put, even without knowing the details of where or when, a lot of stuff into this sort of Contingency Plan. Most military officers know this and have done it hundreds (if not thousands) of times for smaller operations. Bigger plans take a few more people a bit more time and are even more short on details but can still be drafted. The key is to have a framework that you can hang the details on when you get them.

And I've done this thing in about 20 minutes. Six months ago they (civil defense types in Louisana) had an exercise which it turns out had nearly identical conditions as this. Why wasn't the plan done then? I won't point my finger at the president like Mr. Robinson of the Washington Post does but I can't help but ask that question. Which leads to 'how many people didn't need to die if you had a plan ready?'.

The answer can only be saddening.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is truly amazing that last year, right before elections, Bush managed to get down to brother Jeb's state within 48 hours of Ivan. Also, semis were waiting at the border for the storm to pass with much needed water and other supplies. Also the National Guard were poised and ready to go and prevented looting from even taking place. Why not now?

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"As people flooded out of New Orleans, it was officials at the state and local level who rose to the challenge, making it up as they went along..."

In a city where a catastrophe is a "likely scenario" they should not have been making it up as they go along.

I wouldn't expect you to criticize the mayor but to lay all of the blame at the Presidents feet and to put forth words like the sentence above makes me wonder if the Ombudsman was on Leave. Since we live in a Republic there HAS to be a seperation of powers. One such seperation is at the local, state, and federal levels. To get right to the point it would be a massive and unwieldy undertaking to expect (even in this post 911 age) the federal government to have an evacuation plan for every major city and town. It is logical to presume that my local and state governments to take the lead in such matters. One reason is that they are more attuned to the region since our officials live and breathe everyday in that particular area. Another reason is to limit government's reach. Who wants the federal government to dominate Baltimore's contingency plans for instance. Any local emergency is headed by the state and local governments, plain and simple. The federal government PLUGS INTO EXISTING state and local government efforts. "Well, we needed the federal government to take the lead because because this disaster was too big for LA and NO." Even so there should have been better preparation when you know that this disaster is "likely". California gets strong earthquakes that are "too big for Calif" but they have plans that are well executed. Same with Florida (especially in 2004). This is America, not the Soviet Union.

Your excusing state and local officials sounds partisan to me. Surely you can quickly think of a few failures that were at the state and local levels..right? They're obvious. How about the Mayor and Governors failure to fully utilize all modes of transportation to get the citizens out of the city? Yes, I am referring to the hundreds of unused school buses(Louisiana disaster plan, pg 13, para 5 , dated 01/00 ). There should have been refuge locales coordinated at the State level located OUTSIDE of New Orleans. Given that the Superdome was chosen as a place of last resort for those unable to evacuate well, what about prepositioning food, medicine, and water near the Superdome? Especially since it was widely assumed that the city would be underwater.

You want your terrorist evacuation plan? Bush personally appealed to Blanco to issue a mandatory evacuation for the SE LA area. If this had not been done God knows how many more hundreds would have died. Also, where was the National Guard Ms. Blanco?

Shortly before midnight Friday, the Bush administration sent her a proposed legal memorandum asking her to request a federal takeover of the evacuation of New Orleans, a source within the state's emergency operations center said Saturday.

The administration sought unified control over all local police and state National Guard units reporting to the governor. Louisiana officials rejected the request after talks throughout the night, concerned that such a move would be comparable to a federal declaration of martial law.

I'm not saying FEMA and by extension President Bush should not be held accountable. Pres. Bush is at fault only through the negligence of FEMAs since they lead the Federal response. I disagree with those who believe he purposely held back relief efforts.

The overall gist of what I am trying to convey is that I think the local and state governments are JUST AS culpable.

Blogger banzai said...

What part of "I won't point my finger at the president like Mr. Robinson of the Washington Post does but I can't help but ask that question." was unclear?

Didn't I say I wouldn't point my finger as he did? And to hold me accountable for what someone else said that I merely linked to is ludicrous. The sentence that you indicate is no where in my blog here so I presume it was lifted out of the article I linked to. To hold me accountable for it is just as idiotic as my holding the president to blame for the (lack of?) federal response.

You're right however in your assertion that it would be unfeasible to have a plan for every major city in America.

However, a generic plan for natural disasters of this magnitude (regardless of location) which delineates responsibility (National Guard responsible for security, Red Cross for feeding, State FEMA for rescue team coordination, etc.), organization (Federal FEMA in control/command, State FEMA responsible for X, Y and civilian organizations responsible for Z) and a general framework of response isn't, I believe, out of reach.

As the first poster pointed out it can be done and was when the president considered it important to him personally. (that IS finger pointing)

Nowhere in my post did I excuse state and local officials. You're making assumptions and I refuse to look like an ass when you make a mistake. (although that statement alone is sufficient to look like an ass IMO)

And my opinions are colored by my background. In the military the person in command is ultimately responsible for all aspects, performance and events of that unit. Blame (such as it is) falls on them (as does credit when appropriate), not that blame is particularily useful. Cause is another matter entirely.

And if the president had appointed people less for political reasons and more for competance than perhaps this might not have been as bad as it is.


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