Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Disaster Preparedness Begins With Knowing Who's In Charge

If officials in the Capitol are confused about the role of Homeland Security and the role of FEMA, they’re not alone. The same goes here.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, elected officials sought to reassure us that we should not worry, because in Memphis, we have a plan and people in charge. We’ve been assured by photo ops and interviews, but still, we are haunted by the most basic question: Who’s in charge?

Is it Memphis and Shelby County Emergency Management Agency or is the District 11 Department of Homeland Security? Each of the agencies has made noises that it is in charge of making sure the citizens of Memphis survive a disaster like an earthquake along the New Madrid Fault.

Yet, all they have done with any effectiveness is to confuse us more.

For years, EMA has been responsible for the development and implementation of emergency preparedness plans for our city and county. But for more than a decade, there has been gnawing friction between City of Memphis and Shelby County Governments when it’s come to who’s in charge of the agency.

Although it’s a joint city-county agency, in truth, county government has limited authority, accounting for the parade of city firemen and city mayoral allies who have populated the director’s job over the years. Despite grumbling and overt threats to cut EMA funding, county government is essentially helpless to exert the amount of influence over the agency that it would like.

That’s why when the federal government started handing out big checks for its quilt of regional homeland security office across the U.S., Shelby County Government was first in line.

Now, thanks to the largesse of the federal bureaucracy, we have a local homeland security bureaucracy of our own, eight people hired within the past year to make sure we are safe from terrorist threats. Its news releases talk about much-needed security at our port, “our lifeblood,” and extols the importance of the $6 million port security grant. Then, there’s the plan to “have security cameras blanketing the bridges, port, interstates and much of the downtown area.” (Unfortunately, the release doesn’t mention what the point of all this surveillance is supposed to be.)

Following Katrina, the rhetoric of the local Homeland Security office took a decidedly natural disaster bent. In a meeting of his Citizens Corps, Homeland Security Director James Bolden talked about the training that is needed to deal with disasters like Katrina. Meanwhile, local EMA officials caution us to get prepared for emergency situations like an earthquake, flood, or tornado.

While cooperation between city and county over EMA operations has always been fractious, the appointment by Mayor Wharton of Director Bolden as homeland security chief did nothing to mend any fences. After all, Bolden formerly was Memphis Police Department director before he was fired by Mayor Herenton.

If this isn’t enough intrigue to be worthy of “inside the beltway” machinations, there’s still the lingering question about who’s in charge in a disaster. Keeping in mind that the director of the Center for Earthquake Research and Information at the University of Memphis recently said that Memphis, particularly its schools, is unprepared for a natural disaster, it’s a question that we need answered immediately.

“New Orleans pretty much bet the house that the worst-case scenario would not happen,” said director Arch Johnson in The Commercial Appeal. “I hope that Memphis in its disaster planning would not make the same mistake.”

If you are trying to sort all of this out, we advise you to ignore the agencies' websites. Homeland Security is largely a vanity website. You won't be able to find any useful information about what to do in the event of a disaster, but you can find a “suitable for framing” photo of the director. You can look at a slide show of all the elected officials at a recent meeting, and if you would like photographs of the county executives of the six counties in District 11, that’s here, too.

Meanwhile, the EMA website is as cluttered as a Salvation Army rummage sale.

The bureaucrat-speak on the websites defies understanding. Homeland security’s mission is described thusly: “To secure the citizens of Tennessee District 11 by having a strong, coordinated, cooperative approach through a comprehensive communication effort for crisis prevention and to establish preparedness plans to respond efficiently and effectively should a crisis situation occur.” Gesundtheit.

Meanwhile, over at the EMA site, its mission statement says: “To provide the most efficient and effective coordination of resources available in the mitigation of; planning and preparation for; response to and recovery from emergencies and disasters.”

All of this conjures up images of the agencies battling for the microphone at a news conference following a disaster. If they are serious about the coordination that they covet, their first act of coordination should be a shared website that sends a unified message and reliable information about what we are supposed to do in the event of an emergency.

It is absolutely amazing that neither site offers this kind of practical advice for citizens. To its credit, at least the EMA website links to Homeland Security. It’s a favor that is not reciprocated.

Hopefully, behind the scenes, things are more coordinated than they seem. If they are, it would be a positive step to tell us about it.

After all, the demographics between Memphis and New Orleans are troublingly similar – large numbers of people living in poverty, 11-13 percent of the people older than 65, large numbers of people with disabilities, both with about 1,200 houses with two rooms or less, and about 10,000 owner-occupied houses in which the family has no car.

Much has been made of the snarled communications and broken coordination that resulted from the failure of Homeland Security and FEMA to get on the same page to deal with Katrina. At a time when Bush Administration officials are proposing that FEMA should no longer be responsible for disaster preparedness, let’s at least get our signals straight here.

Perhaps, we can give inspiration to what is the most important part of effective disaster preparedness in the first place – meaningful communications and well-defined responsibilities. Now, that would be worth a photo op.


Exhomeless-Guy said... is a disaster related portal I created after the Katrina hurricane (in hopes to help).

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