Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


Dealing with natural disasters
Ushio - October 2005

Few can disagree—unless perhaps they are President George Bush himself—that the American federal government´s handling of the natural disaster that befell New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina has been nothing short of a national shame and humiliation. The events there have been a shocking and distressing sight, viewed all around the world on our television screens and through accounts in our newspapers.

The failures to act quickly and decisively were shared at both federal and local level, but the main blame must lie in Washington, for in America the federal government has long been given a special responsibility for dealing with national catastrophes, as well as the necessary resources in terms of money and manpower.

Before we in the rest of the world outside America become too self-righteous in our condemnation of these American failures, however, it would be wise if we were first to recall one important point. It is that governments never seem to respond well and swiftly to natural disasters. Ask yourself: can you remember an occasion when a government was actually praised for how well it responded to a disaster?

Way back in 1985, I can remember the terrible crash of a Japan Air Lines jumbo jet in the mountains in Japan. On that occasion, the Self Defence Forces were criticised for being very slow to get to the site. The particularly disturbing thing at that time was that Japanese newspapers appeared to be able to get their helicopters to the site far more quickly than the SDF could. That has also been a disturbing aspect of Katrina: reporters, from media of all nationalities, have found it easy to get right into the heart of the disaster areas in New Orleans and the rest of Louisiana, but police and army rescuers have taken far longer.

Then, again in Japan, there was the awful Great Hanshin earthquake in Kobe and the surrounding areas in 1995, in which more than 5,000 people lost their lives. Again, the rescue and reconstruction effort was heavily criticised for being slow and inadequate and poorly organised.

The same was true in many places around the Indian Ocean after the tsunami struck on December 26th last year. Governments were slow to react, slow to muster the necessary equipment, manpower and supplies, and slow to reach many of the affected areas. On that occasion, however, the fact that Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand and India are all poor countries probably made most outsiders forgive their governments for their sluggishness.

The same forgiveness is not currently available for the government of the most powerful country in the world, the United States of America. Many people like nothing better than to criticise America—for its arrogance, its insensitivity, sometimes its crass mistakes. But usually they retain a certain respect for the American government: like it or not, it can make things happen.

Quite obviously, after Katrina, that is exactly what it failed to do. But we have to remember the other failures, after other disasters elsewhere, too. This does not excuse America´s federal government. But it ought to mitigate the criticism enough to focus our attention on where the real lessons lie.

There seem to be three main reasons why governments fail so often to deal adequately with disasters. One concerns logistics: it just is very difficult to get large numbers of men, materials and transport vehicles all in place quickly and efficiently. Armies manage it, but they too take time—America´s build-up for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 took about six months. And they have a fairly simple objective—victory—where a rescue effort typically has a range of objectives, including saving lives, securing property, enforcing law and order, providing food and shelter, finding the causes of the disaster, planning reconstruction, and so on.

The second problem concerns the disasters themselves. This is that it is hard to rehearse ways to deal with them because no disaster follows a clear, pre-set pattern, in a clear location. There are huge numbers of variables involved: time of day, time of year, locations, the type of disaster, and so on. Many managers—including myself—have had to grapple with this problem since the atrocities of September 11th forced us to think about preparing plans to deal with the aftermath of a terrorist attack in our own city. But as soon as you begin to think about it, with a pen and paper in hand to write down the circumstances and the plan, you realise how many different sorts of situation you might find yourself in. Then despair sets in, given that to plan properly you would probably need hundreds of plans, not just a few.

The third problem is one of decision-making. The various agencies that typically exist to deal with disasters are divided and do not possess resources directly themselves. They can get hold of money pretty quickly, but for manpower, equipment, materials and know-how they depend on other organisations, such as armies, police, hospitals and charities. That produces confusion, infighting and sometimes caution, especially when a country´s overall system of decision-making is deliberately divided and full of constitutional restraints on action—which is very much the case in America.

All of these problems seem to have occurred in all the big natural disasters in recent years. They have, however, been particularly evident in America after Katrina. What is especially disturbing about that fact is that America has been energised in a "war on terror" since 2001. Its big cities, and certainly its federal government, have supposedly been working on plans to respond to terrorist attacks, to new "9/11s". That, you might think, would make its disaster-response infrastructure well-honed and well rehearsed. As Katrina showed, it isn´t.

Countries whose governments have watched Katrina and started to worry about their own capabilities can probably do little, in advance, about the logistical problems and the variable nature of disasters. What they could usefully focus on, however, is the decision-making structure. The command and control process needs to be crisp, clear and effective: able to look quickly at what has happened and to order up a response, from the various agencies that have duties to help out. Making the command and control process crisp, clear and effective is, however, easier said than done. Just ask President Bush.


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