The poor response to Hurricane Sandy is more than a national disaster. It is a national disgrace.
Tens of thousands of American citizens were still sitting in cold, dark, wet, ruined houses weeks after the storm passed through. This hurricane was not “unthinkable” as the Governor of New Jersey said. It was anticipated years ago and its impacts detailed by DHS as one of “15 National Planning Scenarios.”
You can read a brief summary of the predictions for a Category 5 storm (Hurricane Sandy was only a Cat 1) at http://www.globalsecurity.org/security/library/report/2004/hsc-planning-scenarios-jul04_10.htm . DHS, FEMA, Emergency Managers, and Federal, State and Local Officials should have been thinking about this, talking about this, planning for this, and exercising their plans for years. Instead they blew off these responsibilities and focused on what they wanted to focus on -- lesser issues they know how to manage -- challenges that let them be in charge and distribute the money without revealing their inability to deal with what the head of FEMA has called a “Maximum of Maximums” event. The press should be all over this. Instead, all the guilty are off the hook. There are several reasons why:
- Press resources were spread thin between the election and the storm. The A Team was on the campaign trail and that is where the producers focused. So national networks depended on local reporters and stations to cover the story – and they focused very locally. Nobody told the story of whole storm and whole disaster as a whole.
- The story was hard to cover. The storm came ashore at night reducing the dramatic pictures - and the viewing audience. It produced thousands of road blocks making travel difficult. And there were few dramatic rescues. It is easy to take a picture of people on a roof. It is hard to capture cold children in a dark, wet house.
- The press really did not want to damage President Obama in a tight election. They harped on the hug between Governor Christy and the President, but touched lightly the bewildered citizens looking for food and warmth.
- The press really did not - and does not - understand this story. They are focused on gas lines, shelters and blanket distribution. They should be focused on response plans and coordination between jurisdictions. They do not know enough to question the proper use of NIMS (National Incident Management System). They fault FEMA and the Red Cross without asking “where are the local officials FEMA and the Red Cross are supposed to coordinate with?” They never heard of the 15 National Scenarios and do not recognize the collapse of DHS’s vaunted "Whole of Community" response. They do not see how political inattention crippled infrastructure over time and made repairing that fragile infrastructure difficult.
- The press has missed the story about the struggle between National Security and Public Safety -- between Emergency Managers and Security Professionals -- for the soul of homeland security. They do not know that the crimped vision of local Emergency Management has won out, so there are no real national standards for measuring local preparedness. The losers in this struggle, as we see on TV, are the citizens.
- The press really does not understand that top leaders (federal, state, and local) had the opportunity to prepare for exactly this problem and threw it away. Here is the question the press should be asking: “National guidance says state and local government should have been ready for an event like Sandy. When is the last time you and your staff exercised your plans for response and recovery on this scale?” We all know the answer. I would like to hear elected officials say it out loud.
- And finally -- much of what Katrina wiped out was in such bad shape that it could hardly be called infrastructure. And most of the people directly impacted moved (to Houston, Dallas, Los Angeles, etc.). You could take time for recovery, because the homes and business were largely abandoned. But the damaged parts of NY and NJ are densely populated with functioning neighborhoods and Critical Infrastructure important to the nation as a whole. The residents want to stay during the rebuilding. How do you recover, while the people stay in place? This is not easy. It requires planning and preparation which federal, state and local leaders, liberal and conservative, did not do.
The press is not calling these leaders to account for these failures. And so the next time we face a terrible but fully anticipated disaster, we can expect more of the same.