Every natural disaster has its problems and Hurricane Ike is no different.  While this response was unimaginably better than that to Katrina, we are now starting to see more and more stories coming out about logistical challenges and shortages in getting commodities into the areas impacted by Hurricane Ike.  I’m sure there are shortages and gaps – there always are in a response – but I also have no doubt another part of this story is the media/public official ‘piling on’ FEMA for whatever the issue de jour might be.

This type of reaction is almost Pavlovian in a way.

It goes like this – The disaster occurs; local and state partners call upon FEMA and others to assist; the response ramps up and materials start to come into the affected areas but it’s not perfect and there are not enough items for everyone who needs something so the de facto behavior is find a reporter and a microphone and ‘trash FEMA.’

It’s always easy to find a reporter who will record the fact that some people did not get the water, ice or MREs they needed while hundreds if not thousands of others did.  While there have been a few news stories about those that have received emergency supplies, I’d still like to see some more coverage about how essential supplies are getting to folks (regardless of them having to stand in line to get it).  Unfortunately successes don’t make much news coverage. We truly live in a media centric world immortalized by the classic Don Henley song, ‘Dirty Laundry.’

“Kick em when they’re up
Kick em when they’re down
Kick em when they’re up
Kick em all around.”

As much as I have been a critic of how Logistics has been run at FEMA, I really feel for these people. Their job is thankless.  Regardless of how much they do it will never be enough.  It will always be too little or too late.  It will also be resoundingly criticized.  To take the job that Eric Smith (FEMA’s Logistics leader) and his team have, you have to have the patience of a saint and skin made of Kevlar because there will always be someone taking a shot at you while someone else is chewing on your arm and leg for something else.

The Mayor of Houston and several other elected officials have already started in on FEMA’s Logistics operations and I have no doubt others will join them.  Criticism such as what the Mayor and other officials have offered may be absolutely warranted and justified, but I offer the following words of caution.  As the leaders of their communities it is their responsibility to raise their voices to let FEMA and others know what they need, but how their criticism is offered and relayed can say an awful lot.

I would hope these leaders and others would take a deep breath first, convey their thanks and appreciation for the efforts that are being expended and then share what their needs might be.  When delivered, their tone should be respectful and mindful of the tireless and round the clock efforts that are underway to support their affected communities.

Several of these leaders have exemplified that type of patient and respectful behavior and they continue to operate in such a dignified manner; but with the disaster almost a week old, the traditional ‘Pavlovian’ finger-pointing behavior and chorus of ‘trash FEMA’ seems about to begin.

As someone who has had the fortune of working with some of these good people during disasters and other ‘events,’ I’d like to say to those officials and other arm-chair critics – ‘Just cool it.’  [There are other things I would like to say but I will follow my own advice to ‘cool it.’]

Trashing people, FEMA or DHS does no one any good in the given environment. It only makes things harder.  There is enough anxiety and pressure to go around – pouring fury on it proves nothing.

Does this mean we should refrain from declaring needs and criticism in the midst of what is happening on the Gulf Coast?  Absolutely not, but the tone and delivery of how those needs and criticism are declared should be kept in mind.

While name calling and hysterics by public officials make for lots of media coverage (especially TV – see New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin & Katrina in 2005) they do zilch to make the actual situation any better.

I’m sure in the weeks to come there will be lessons learned and Congressional and media ‘inquests’ that will review what worked and what didn’t with our nation’s Hurricane Ike response.  That’s the way it should be; but for right now, I just have to say God bless Eric Smith, his Logistics team and every other person who is down there from FEMA and the State, Local and private sector response teams trying to make the best happen in the most challenging of circumstances.

My words of support for FEMA and its Logistics team does not mean I am backing off on my earlier criticisms of the need to better engage industry in the entire Logistics operation (as well as other components of disaster response and recovery) but I think if there is anyone who could use a handshake and a pat on the back to ‘keep it up’ it is Eric Smith and his Logistics team.  They are doing everything they can to make life better for people in need and that is a whole lot more than many critics have ever done.

We are fortunate to have Eric, his team and everyone down there serving our nation.  They are not perfect – nor are the rest of us but they are doing a ‘thankless job’ in the most difficult of circumstances and they deserve our appreciation.  They certainly deserve our respect and they’ve earned that in spades.

Rich Cooper blogs primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More