Don’t generalize FEMA’s response to hurricane
September 15, 2005
I just returned home from two weeks in New Orleans as a member of the FEMA-sponsored, Colorado Urban Search And Rescue (USAR) Task Force 1. The task force is comprised of firefighters and citizen members located throughout Colorado, trained and coordinated by FEMA. I deployed as a search team manager, helping to oversee the daily search-and-rescue missions that our team conducted each day.I have tried to bite my tongue while reading all the negative comments made about how poorly things were being handled, how bad FEMA’s response was, how great we are locally at handling emergencies, etc. Most of the comments are being made by folks who weren’t there, based on secondhand reports, so maybe I can offer a different perspective.If you weren’t down there in the immediate aftermath, and I mean the next day, not three or four days later, you have no idea what the challenges were that we had to deal with. I’ve worked with and trained with our local incident management teams. They are very good and our community should be proud of what we can offer, but it took us a few “less than spectacular” performances and a number of years to get that way.I find it hard to believe that we wouldn’t struggle to handle a complete failure of the Ruedi Dam, at night, with all of our radio systems down, no telephone or cell phone systems working, no electricity, while completely cut off from the world beyond Basalt. Oh, and let’s throw a snowstorm in to boot. The loss of things that we take for granted in our planning and response are the things that contributed to many of the problems down in New Orleans in the early phases.Most of the immediate outside rescue response to the hurricane was from FEMA USAR task forces. All 28 teams in the U.S. were activated or alerted by Saturday evening, three days before the storm. The only other time this level of response has occurred was in response to the 9/11 events. Eight of the task forces were prepositioned just outside of the storm track. Others were staged in place until the actual path of destruction was determined, so that resources could go where most needed. Incident Support Teams that coordinate all of the FEMA USAR Teams were up and running and in position prior to the storm hitting land.As soon as the storm cleared the area and the states requested assistance (we cannot formally deploy without that request), the areas of greatest need were determined and all of the teams were dispatched. Just as an aside, these assessments had to be conducted over a three-state area, without any communications with much of the affected areas. Reports that many smaller communities were ignored early on fail to comprehend how hard it was to communicate with or get into areas just to assess their condition. The situation didn’t improve to the level of chaos that we associate with our worst local emergencies until Thursday or Friday.I am not defending everything FEMA did or is doing. I agree that changes need to be made and the appointment of a new director with an emergency services background is a start. To categorically dismiss everything that FEMA or the federal government did in response to this disaster, is an insult to the many FEMA, National Guard, Coast Guard, EPA, etc. front-line responders who quietly and professionally did their jobs, without fanfare and press releases, in the face of overwhelming conditions. Steve Howard, former Basalt fire chief and a current volunteer firefighter, is the training director for the Aspen Skiing Co. He has many years of emergency experience and has been with the FEMA task force since 1997.
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