Having grown up in hurricane country, I have a pretty good idea as to the barriers to disaster relief. My hometown of Pascagoula has seen two “storms of a lifetime” in my lifetime and countless other hurricanes and tornadoes. So though I have something to say, understanding the barriers to rapid relief as I do from first-hand experience, I didn’t want to join in the immediate post-Haiti chorus of blame.
But — here’s a story. In 1992, I was working for the Secretary of the Navy. I was his analyst for intel and special projects. The morning after Hurricane Andrew devastated Homestead, Florida, I walked down to the Navy situation room in the Pentagon and asked the duty captain what was being done to ready Navy and Marine Corps assets for response. The answer — ‘nothing.’
Based on my experience at sea, I had made a critical error in my assumptions. At sea, when a crisis would erupt in his region of operations, a good skipper will begin to move his ship as close to the scene as he can — anticipating orders that he and his crew will receive orders in response to the crisis. That way, once the orders are received, the skipper is already in position to execute them.
So my mistake was in thinking that this kind of anticipation would occur within the halls of power as well. But it doesn’t. Government agencies will not usurp the role of other agencies. In other words, Andrew was a FEMA issue, and CINCLANT needed information from FEMA on what was needed for the response, and was not going to anticipate what ‘might’ be needed..
There’s an even bigger issue — military forces frankly are not designed for disaster relief. They are designed to break things and kill — not to put things back together. Sure — many of the assets that an Army division or a Marine Expeditionary Unit have are useful in disaster relief — but those assets are meant to support those troops on a battlefield, not to relieve the pain and suffering of civilians. A soldier is not a humanitarian relief worker — the modern Army and Marines are innovative and can respond well to disaster relief — but it’s like using a hammer to open a can of beans.
Probably the most effective role that military units play in the immediate aftermath of a disaster is the ability to assess the situation on the ground and establish effective communications. That flow of information enables the other organizations to get the flow of relief going. After Andrew, this lesson, that getting the information flow going again is the most critical first step, should have been learned. Katrina demonstrated that it wasn’t. Why isn’t there a plan yet to get an effective civilian communications grid overlaid on a disaster area? Effective assessment and good communications within 24 hours is technically feasible — why don’t we do it?