“I love it when a plan comes together.”
– Col. John “Hannibal” Smith, The A-Team
In our first major test since the Hurricanes of 2005, America is making the grade and so far, we’re passing. At every level of government (local, state and federal) as well as in the private sector, NGOs and military forces, people have been talking to one another (and not at one another). Disaster preparedness and response plans that have been worked exhaustively have been executed. Nearly 2 million citizens, including our most vulnerable, were evacuated in a fairly orderly fashion. Supplies which had previously been non-existent have been delivered with accuracy and more are en route. Shelters have been calm and become true locations of refuge and civil order remains in place. Leaders, including several who bore the brunt of the nation’s wrath three years ago showed that they were ready for ‘game day’ and have performed admirably and with distinction.
The very places and organizations that showed our nation the painful lessons of disorder and dysfunction three years ago are now the same places and organizations that may become the models for the culture of preparedness that we desperately need to take root in this country.
There is rarely, if ever, an opportunity in the world of emergency management and homeland security for people to take a bow and get a pat on the back. If operating conditions continue to hold as they do this morning, the men and women of DHS, FEMA the States and localities of the Gulf Coast, as well as the private sector, NGOs and military personnel will have shown us all what happens when a plan really does comes together. And they deserve whatever applause and ‘atta-boys’ we can give them.
While we are still in the early days of what remains a dangerous situation in Louisiana and all of the other communities threatened by Gustav’s remnants, we should all feel a sense of pride at what has occurred. DHS, FEMA, as well as the governments, communities and citizens have talked quite forcefully over the past several months about the work they have done since the Hurricanes of 2005. For a lot people, including elected officials, media talking heads and lots of other citizens, this ‘talk’ has been seen as lip service that none of them believed was real or possible. Nothing can silence critics faster than performance and after watching the actions of the past week and the last 72 hours, there are a lot of people who just shut up.
Now I am not someone who believes that all of our problems in disaster preparedness and emergency management have been solved simply because of the successful management of Gustav. Nothing ever works perfectly when you respond to a disaster. There will always be something that could be done better and something to learn from but when you compare this performance to what was done previously, we just landed on the Moon doing a back-flip!
More than anything, what the Gustav performance has proved is the real potential and benefits that come from planning, preparation and partnerships – the hallmarks of success in any enterprise. Our nation was quick to judge, criticize and grade the Katrina performance as a failure, and we were largely right in that assessment. While there are those persons who would like to label Katrina as a ‘Republican’ failure and see their own interests and poll-numbers rise from Gustav missteps (i.e. former DNC Chair, Don Fowler; filmmaker Michael Moore; etc.), their comments are almost as poor as their judgment about who was responsible for the Katrina failures.
We literally have libraries full of reports, books and video footage that can more than document that Katrina was not just a George W. Bush problem; it was not just a DHS/FEMA/Mike Brown problem; it was not just a Louisiana or Mississippi problem; it was not just a US Army Corps of Engineers problem; and it was not just a Republican or Democratic problem either – it was an American problem. We as a citizenry and as a nation were not prepared for Katrina and the results proved that fact conclusively. We have come a long way and still have further to go, but Katrina served as a startling wake-up call for all of our lives.
The painful lessons of three years ago triggered the alarm that we as a nation did not answer immediately after 9/11. While we all did a tremendous amount of work post 9/11 to make our nation safer and more secure, we failed to recognize the one terrorist that lives in every community and strikes without ideology as a driver. Mother Nature makes no distinction in the lives and communities she devastates, and we overlooked her record and our national ability to respond at a very painful cost.
In the three years since that wake up call sounded, Americans of every political stripe went to work to forge plans, relationships, protocols and more. The result was our Gustav performance. This is the performance that we as Americans expect and this past week, every person in DHS, FEMA, the Gulf Coast and across the nation who worked as part of the Gustav effort made us proud.
We are all living in a new and more challenging environment than ever before. As dangerous and difficult as it may be, we are getting smarter and better every day in adapting to our post-9/11 and post-Katrina world. We still have much to learn and we always will, but if we keep doing the things that made this response successful (planning, preparing and partnering), we may just forge The A Team that we all expect and deserve.
Congratulations to all for the great job that everyone has done but like everything else in emergency management and homeland security, there is no time for applause and ‘atta-boys’ –Hanna, Ike and a whole lot more are coming to our neighborhoods.