Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Hurricane Sandy, and What I Saw There

As well as other, more general observations on operations.  As always, however, I will "blur" some details in the interest of OPSEC.
So, my employer maintains a roster of folks who have volunteered to travel in event of disaster or emergency, to support municipal, state, and/or national agencies with response and recovery.  I was contacted a couple of days before election day, a week or so after Hurricane Sandy, and asked if I was available.  I said yes, and later that week I found myself on my way east. 
First off, you may have noticed that Hurricane Sandy is now mostly referred to as Superstorm Sandy.  What the heck is a "superstorm", you ask?  Well, in this case, at least, it's a Category 1 hurricane which has been verbally downgraded, demoted, as it were, due to the fact that insurance deductibles go way up for a hurricane...
(Sorry, I lost the cite for that, but predictably it involved Charles Schumer...)
I personally never saw the degree of devastation we all saw after Katrina; that is, no vast swaths of complete destruction, acres of land with empty foundations being the only signs that buildings were ever there.  Katrina, of course, was a Category 3 hurricane when it hit land in Louisiana and along the Gulf coast, so the damage was from high winds as well as rain.  The damage from Hurricane Sandy was almost entirely from flooding, especially since it hit land at high tide during a full moon.

I was told that flood waters in many neighborhoods, as much as a mile inland, reached nine feet deep.  I did see a few houses off their foundations--I posted a photo of one such--but mostly, houses that were uninhabitable were rated so due to damage to the electrical and/or gas systems, or to mold.  Visible damage was pretty much limited to a high water mark at the 8- or 9-foot level.  Neighborhoods were full of cars that had been inspected by insurance inspectors--company, date/time, etc marked on windshield--but I only saw one that was not in the street where it belonged--it looked rather precarious, with it's front wheels balanced on the top bar of that backyard swingset...

Well, for one thing, FEMA is not supposed to be on-site on Day One, nor is it supposed to be passing out food, water, blankets, etc.

FEMA mostly writes checks, and coordinates supporting response from external agencies, i.e., "They need food and water or construction and utility equipment here, so let's see who has it to send and how to get it there."

Especially when local and state elected or appointed officials are so foolish as to deny that there is, or is going to be, a disaster or emergency, ridicule the idea of evacuating, and/or refuse to allow the feds to do their thing--or turn away non-union workers, as happened in New York--it ain't necessarily FEMA's fault...

...but FEMA seems to take the flak, no matter who is at fault.

(Ironic, is it not, that His Imperial Majesty was talking like an expert on the Stafford Act but is a) ignorant about what it actually allows government to do, and b) allowed his bulldog mouth to write checks he could not possibly cash, and seems to have no interest in cashing anyway...?)

One thing I learned is that FEMA only has about 3500 full-time employees nation-wide, so responding to something like Sandy is going to take time.  There are another 7000-odd  members of the "FEMA Reserves" nation-wide, who take even longer to deploy.  (I am not actually sure whether my organization is considered part of the FEMA Reserves...)

Plus, FEMA has some sort of agreement with AmeriCorps under which the young people in that program get constituted as "FEMA Corps" for disaster and emergency response and recovery.  Not sure how many of them there are, but they were definitely "out there" wearing FEMA jackets and caps.
Back to FEMA:  Obviously, no one, especially in such a small agency, "does" disaster full time; there just aren't that many disasters.  Mostly, they write plans, standards, and classes, and conduct training.  Many of them are the administrative staff that any organization needs.

And writing plans, standards, and classes, not to mention shuffling papers to ensure people get paid, etc., does not necessarily prepare one to, say, lead a team of workers, not to mention to lead multiple teams working in, or out of, a Disaster Recovery Center...

...I saw two FEMA employees get "reassigned to other duties" when they proved unsuitable for their assigned tasks.  As a retired Army NCO, I am well aware that technical proficiency does not equate to management ability, nor is management the same thing as leadership; these people had simply been assigned duties they were not suited for, had not been prepared or trained for, and were completely out of their depths. Not their sole fault, and maybe not their fault at all.  Too bad FEMA hadn't thought this out...
My team spent most of our deployment walking the streets of various neighborhoods to inform the inhabitants of how to register for relief or benefits.  Most of the people we talked to--a fraction of the residents of the neighborhoods, most were not home when we were there, or did not want to talk to strangers--had registered.  In some cases, we could not figure out why were were sent to a particular neighborhood, because repairs were obviously under way or complete.  Some neighborhoods were bypassed, we were told because New York--city?  state?--did not want us going there.

One guy I was talking to gave me crap because my "household was not effected by Sandy."  I put my personal and professional lives on hold to come 3000 miles to help you, and you're going to give me grief for it?  Fine, suffer.

Another was yelling at me because my employer kept me on the payroll while I was there; not sure why he thought what I get paid is any of his business, but apparently, he was under the impression that I was getting a 6-figure salary from FEMA.
Apparently, many if not most New Yorkers are loathe to leave their neighborhoods; "their worlds are the two or three blocks around them", we were told.  So when the man on the street asked me where the nearest Disaster Response Center was, and I looked it up on the FEMA app on my Android phone and told him it was at something-or-other park, he was incredulous that I expected him to go two miles away!!!
There was a lot of sitting around while the FEMA people we were supporting tried to figure out what they wanted us to do, and where; evidently, they either got more volunteers than they expected, or got the qwrong skill sets.  Also,  with NYC traffic we had up to a two hour commute from where we were housed (Queens--or was it the Bronx?) to Staten Island or Coney Island; at one point we were redirected three or four times on the way to our assigned area.
Many of the FEMA Reserves and FEMA Corps people were housed on old troop ships at the Brooklyn Naval Yard; at one point, I was told, a message went out to FEMA employees who were housed in hotels telling which ones they were allowed to stay on, and which ones were strictly forbidden; OK, if you're working out of a Doubletree or whatever, then housing there makes sense. The messages regarding such accommodations should not be shared with people sleeping in a 1950's navy "coffin-rack" and sharing a shower with 200 others, though.  Another blow for high morale!!

(I understand that the bunks in the photo at that link would have been an improvement, BTW.)
So how can we fix the problems?  Well, I don't know that abolishing FEMA is the answer, but I'm pretty sure that devolving as much as possible to the state and local level is part of it.  The ironic thing is that FEMA's own doctrine and training emphasizes that "all disasters are local", that the primary responsibility for disaster and emergency response is at the local state level.  Adding Federal agencies just amps up the level of bureaucratic inefficiency to an unbearable level. As many survivors are discovering for themselves.


  • Roger’s Rules » Why Kafka Would Like FEMA
  • Angry New Yorkers say Obama pledge to cut red tape ignored by FEMA | Fox News
  • Michelle Malkin » Sandy victim Obama promised ‘immediate help’ to is still waiting
  • Michelle Malkin » NYT: Big storm requires big government
  • Which links to this New York Times OpEd: A Big Storm Requires Big Government, as if we needed the title to tell us it was statist dreck.  I leave spotting the moondust and unicorn falsehoods as an exercise for the reader.
  •  Or you could just read FEMA: Welfare Masquerading as Disaster Relief - Reason.com  (h/t Insty.)
  • In FEMA's Coils | The Weekly Standard

    Sailorcurt said...

    Off topic:

    Coffin racks from the '50's?

    Those are the same type of racks we had on ships when I retired in 2003.

    They may have been implemented in the '50's, but as far as I know, they're still in common use today.

    Sailors know them well.

    Don't sit up too fast if you wake up in the middle of the night.

    Drang said...

    Well, that boat was built in the 50's. I understand these days they have modern amenities, like privacy curtains...

    NotClauswitz said...

    Palo Alto and New York are not very different, 2-miles to SUNNYVALE!?! They hardly even speak English there.

    NotClauswitz said...

    And NOW I know (remember!) where DW Drang originated, with Bill...