Now that Kanye West, Howard Dean, and Nancy Pelosi have had their say, it’s time to get serious and fix FEMA before the next big natural disaster or terrorist attack. Mother Nature and OBL aren’t likely to wait around for the congressional blame game to play out. Mrs. Clinton’s idea — to move FEMA out from under the Department of Homeland Security — is an alternative to thinking seriously. If FEMA were properly led, organized, equipped, manned, and trained — and it is none of those things now — it would do a terrific job regardless of whether it was part of DOHS or part of the Consumer Products Safety Commission. No matter where you move it, nothing will be fixed unless and until its structural defects are identified and fixed. Which means the first step is to leave Congress, the mainstream media, and every elected official in Louisiana out of the debate. Right now, it’s TACAMO time: take charge and move out.
We know what the initial failures were, and they’re too numerous to list. FEMA didn’t have the right people trained and on the way to the area before the storm hit. Its leadership, and I use the term advisedly, was as confused and indecisive as the state and locals were negligent. FEMA apparently didn’t know, for hours after it happened, that the levees had broken. Intelligence — real-time information about what was happening throughout the whole affected area — wasn’t available to the people who could do something with it. One reason for that was the clearly foreseeable destruction of the entire local communications network. There was no electrical power, so everything from police radios to cell phones were inoperable. There was no way for people to talk to each other to find and use those first responders who could still do their job. People died because no one had pre-positioned teams with assets to helo in with emergency replacements for the things that were sure to be knocked out of action. And, most of all, FEMA hesitated, again and again, when it had to act.
There’s an answer to this. If you want to manage the relief essential to saving lives in any disaster, you must be governed by the very basic military concept called “C-cubed-I.” It sets the ground rules on how you must be organized, and how you must operate. Command, control, communications, and intelligence are principles that FEMA, and state and local disaster management agencies, have to be reorganized around without delay.
*Command: having the right experts, with the experience, leadership skills and authority to do the job right, at the top of FEMA and throughout its structure.
*Control: coordination of available assets, and the exercise of command over them to deploy relief forces and solve problems in the order they must be solved.
*Communications: the assets and expertise to use networked portable and permanent communications equipment, and to distribute them to state and local officials whose equipment has been rendered useless, to ensure that information and command and control flow instantly to all state and federal levels of command.
*Intelligence: the fact that Washington and state capitals were working in the dark for hours, if not days, is simply unbelievable. There must be people who are on the ground, on the water, and in the air instantly and constantly to gather the information that can be used to direct the disaster relief so that the greatest number of lives that can be saved, are.
To fix FEMA, we need to remove not just Michael Brown but all senior FEMA managers who don’t have the credentials and experience to run disaster relief in accordance with the principles of C-cubed-I. There is a good supply of grumpy old Marine and Army generals, Navy and Coast Guard admirals, and Air Force generals and colonels (I do have one in mind) who could take FEMA by the ear and twist it quickly into the organization that it has to be but isn’t. This can’t wait for the next hurricane or terrorist attack. It should be done forthwith.
LET ME GIVE YOU AN example of how things can be done. On Friday, subbing for Hugh Hewitt on his radio show, I interviewed Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, who was speaking from New Orleans. Gen. Caldwell — by choice, experience, and skill, not by chance — is the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division. He told me that he and his staff had been planning to make a deployment to the disaster area for a day or two, and had gotten orders to deploy to New Orleans at about 10 a.m. on the Saturday after the storm hit. At 4 p.m. that day — six hours later — he and the lead elements of his force of about 5,000 paratroopers were in the air and on the way, to be joined by the rest of the force on the ground in New Orleans before the sun rose the following morning. Caldwell is a TACAMO kinda guy. I’m sure he’d rather slash his wrists than leave his current job, but he’s precisely the kind of guy who should head up FEMA. Anyone who doesn’t have the skills, experience, and mindset of a Bill Caldwell shouldn’t be in the FEMA chain of command. (You can read the transcript of the entire interview here.)
Much of the punditry is ready to throw over the Constitution and have the feds take over state and local government functions whenever a big disaster hits. Please, boys and girls, leave the Constitution alone. State and local governments — at least those outside Louisiana — are capable of action, and they should remain responsible for making decisions on everything from buying assets to protect their people to evacuating people in harm’s way. First responders must be run by the states and municipalities. And when something such as a massive storm or a terrorist attack disables or overwhelms local services, there are obstacles to interstate cooperation.
Those obstacles are akin to those that used to prevent interstate cooperation using National Guard resources. There is an interstate agreement now that enables governors to share National Guard forces at their own discretion. We need another agreement just like it to enable sharing police, fire, ambulance and other first-responders just as easily. (There is one, run by the National Emergency Management Association. It doesn’t work because it’s tied up in lawyers and red tape. It has to be replaced, right bloody now, with a government-to-government agreement.) If I’m sitting in Austin with a few hundred bored rescue crews sitting by their helos sipping Gatorade and munching PowerBars, and you’re in Jefferson Parish up to your waist in water, why shouldn’t you get on the phone and ask me to send my guys to you without standing on ceremony? If Judge Chertoff doesn’t get such an agreement in place before the end of this week, we should say adios, amigo, and get lost. Amateur hour is over.
TAS contributing editor Jed Babbin is the author of Inside the Asylum: Why the UN and Old Europe Are Worse Than You Think (Regnery, 2004).
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