Category Archives: Disasters

Too Many Disasters?

The Back Story: When the fire crews were pulling out after fighting the Holloway, Ten Mile, and Long Canyon wildland fires in Nevada last August, local residents were invited to take the extra briefing and planning maps of the operations which would otherwise end up as recycled paper.  I picked up three of them.  The Holloway Fire map showed the 461,047 acres burned, the Long Canyon map shows another 36,904 acres burned over. [Inci]

The local community hall had been transformed into a command center complete with a “business office” situated in one corner with account clerks, management, billing, and procurement personnel all crammed around crowded folding tables.  A mapping center was located in the center of the room, capable of creating large maps with updated information showing the extent of the burn, roads and fences,  along detailed locations of ranch buildings, homes, and other edifices.  Heavy equipment rumbled into town by the convoy.

The meeting room became the “check in” site, for crews and equipment coming in from Idaho, Oregon, Montana, and other units from around the country.  The storage room was pressed into service as the meeting room for the coordination between and among the various crews.  Everything from crew camping areas, a portable helicopter port, radio and communications services, to food service was coordinated for some 800+ firefighters in a building designed to handle events for a village of some 200 people.

What the National Interagency Fire Center coordinated was essentially a town within a village, a town the sole purpose of which was to fight a threatening wildfire complex.

Yes, there were local resources available — all three fire fighting vehicles we had were in use; when the Ten Mile fire threatened to turn west toward the town county volunteer fire fighting crews and equipment for structure fires were on hand.  We provided some of the water used; the NIFC keeping very careful records of pumping — for which the local GID was paid.  However, please bear in mind we could have thrown all the crews and trucks we had at the fire complex and still have been totally swamped by the incident.  800 firefighters could have cleaned off our local grocery store shelves in a day.



The News: Why recount this “old news?”  Because in the wake of the disaster on the East Coast caused by Hurricane Sandy there are still those who from the comfort of their think tanks who argue that we’re allocating far too many of our national resources on national disasters.

One argument holds that we have “too many” national disasters.  The central tenet is “… emergency and disaster response should be, as much as possible, pushed down to the state and local level. A national effort should be reserved for truly catastrophic events. Indeed this preference for “local first, national second” can be found in the legislation authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency.”  [NYT]   To wit one might say, yes and what’s your point?  If incidents like wildland fires and hurricanes can be handled at the local level they will be.  However, a half million acre fire or a super storm covering the eastern U.S. from Georgia to Maine, surely are events falling neatly into the “national disaster” categorization.

The argument quickly gets mired in quantitative nit picking.  When is a wildland fire too big to require coordinated management? How much flooding does there have to be before activities of  the Red Cross, the  National Guard and coordination with the Army Corps of Engineers are in order?  How many states must a hurricane pass through before it’s a national problem, or will the devastation of coastal and  central Florida be sufficient to pass the “national disaster” test?

The Heritage Foundation takes the quantification argument a step further.  Look, says the graphic, we are declaring too many events as national disasters — look at the numbers:

Wow, look at all those “new” national emergencies!  Whoa. A bit of history is in order.  Note that after 1993 the number of fires increases in the total. There’s a reason for that, which is explained in the history of the National Interagency Fire Center:

“The Boise Interagency Fire Center (BIFC) was created in 1965 because the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and National Weather Service saw the need to work together to reduce the duplication of services, cut costs, and coordinate national fire planning and operations. The National Park Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs joined BIFC in in the mid 1970s. The US Fish and Wildlife Service later joined in 1979. The Center’s name was changed in 1993 from the Boise Interagency Fire Center to the National Interagency Fire Center to more accurately reflect its national mission. The US Fire Administration-FEMA joined NIFC in 2003.”

Therefore, the more agencies involved in the coordination of forest and wildland fire fighting the more declarations of fire emergencies there will be simply because the number of jurisdictions included — for the sake of not duplicating or squabbling over resources — has been increased.  This explains the fact that fire management events were not included before 1965.

The other bit of mental gymnastics required to make the localization or privatization argument work stems from tightly controlling the definition of a disaster:

“The most efficient role for the federal government is to fill in where states cannot, for example, where the damage is of such a nature that it is not amenable to state or local solutions. Hurricane damage typically is localized, and requires a street-by-street response which the federal government is ill prepared to provide. A large oil spill, by contrast, is not capable of local relief alone, and that is where federal coordination can be most effective.”  [NYT]

Where did that “hurricane damage typically is localized” conception come from?  Hurricane Isaac wandered around Louisiana and Arkansas, Tropical Storm Beryl graced Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina.  [NOAA]  The oft mentioned Katrina involved Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. There was Andrew in 1992 slamming into Louisiana and Florida.  In 2008 Hurricane Ike caused severe damage in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.  In 2004 Ivan was a memorable experience for residents of Florida and Alabama. [WU]

Yes, some street by street responses are in order.  However, let’s not skip a step here.  In the aftermath of major weather events some has to get the infrastructure going.

WalMart, Home Depot, etc. can’t get bottled water and plywood to anyone until the roads are cleared.  You can’t go street by street until you can find the streets.  The city of Hoboken, New Jersey found that it’s local equipment was completely inadequate to get to some 20,000 stranded people, and has requested and received assistance from the National Guard.  [] Purchasing industrial sized high wheeled vehicles isn’t practical for most small cities and towns.  The U.S. Army and National Guard has such equipment, and the situation in Hoboken is precisely why national assets can be usefully applied to local situations.

Yes, local power companies assist each other during weather related outages.  However, what the think tank tinkerers seem to have missed is that the Department of Homeland Security has worked with the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (among others)  to produce the National Response Plan (pdf) and the roles of NGO’s and private corporations are discussed beginning on page 24.

As mentioned in a previous post, the National Interagency Fire Center had pre-positioned resources available to address fire events in northern Nevada based on information from the National Weather Service, the Department of Agriculture, and other agencies which had been monitoring the potential for wildland fires well before the summer of 2012.  This is relevant because some coordination is necessary to put the infrastructure restoration in process for other kinds of weather related disasters — flooding, tropical storms, and hurricanes. Coordinating information between power companies and the NOAA is essential if private sector companies and public utilities are to effectively plan for emergency operations.

The second major theme of the localization/privatization crowd is that the federal government already recognizes the need for locally managed response operations.  Indeed, this is one of the main features of the National Response Plan cited above.  So, what?

If an emergency can be managed at the local level it should be.  However, as demonstrated above major wildland fires, and major tropical storms and hurricanes aren’t local events.   And, even if they are localized to some extent, such as hurricanes affecting only the state of Florida, this doesn’t mean that local resources are sufficient to address the needs of the population. Nor does this mean that local administration and resources aren’t themselves victims of the event.

Secondly, this argument implies that FEMA and other federal resources are superseding rather than coordinating local and state emergency responses.  Wrong again.  Someone must have missed this memo from the Department of Homeland Security last June:

“Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano today announced the final allocations for seven FY 2012 Preparedness Grant programs, totaling more than $1.3 billion to assist states, urban areas, tribal and territorial governments, non-profit agencies, and the private sector in strengthening our nation’s ability to prevent, protect, respond to, and recover from terrorist attacks, major disasters and other emergencies in support of the National Preparedness Goal (NPG). In FY 2012, DHS preparedness grants were reduced by nearly $1 billion from the FY 2011 enacted level and $1.5 billion below the President’s FY 2012 request.”

That’s right — federal dollars to states, urban areas, tribal and territorial governments, non-profits, and the private sector to help them (those local governments and local agents) to help them better handle emergency situations.  Included in those grants were funds for the Emergency Management Performance Grants (EMPG) Program – providing more than $339 million to assist state and local governments in enhancing and sustaining all-hazards emergency management capabilities. [DHS]

Far from discouraging the preparedness of local officials and agencies, the federal government is actively promoting their capacity to handle what they can.

A third problem with the localization argument as presented by opponents of federal activity and those promoting the privatization of emergency services is that the focus is almost exclusively on FEMA.   The first thing out of most of the conservative mouthpieces is that FEMA didn’t perform well in — Hurricane Katrina.   We can take that for granted.  The agency at the time, that would be the Bush Administration, was headed by an unqualified person and bereft of the resources necessary to tackle the job. The conservative argument become circuitous: The agency failed, therefore all federal emergency management must fail, thus proving privatization is preferable.

No. It doesn’t prove that at all. All that’s proven is that FEMA was a mess under the previous conservative administration.  Additionally, to cite FEMA as the all purpose whipping boy is to ignore the other efforts by the Department of Homeland Security to facilitate local responses, assist local communities and utilities with pre-disaster planning, and to coordinate federal and private sector responses to natural and man made disasters.

That FEMA operations will have some glitches is reasonable given that the agency’s most obvious functions are highlighted during times of extreme stress.  However, the privatization crowd would gleefully cite individual instances of mis-applied efforts to argue that the totality of the operations are failures.  The most rarefied academic response proposing privatization sounds like this:

“Put simply, if FEMA continues to centrally plan the economies of disaster areas, it is bound to fail. Economists from Adam Smith to Friedrich Hayek to Milton Friedman have stressed the inherent problems in central planning.” [NYT]

Who is  “centrally planning the economies…?”  In fact, the operations of FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security sound remarkably like the prescription from the privateers: “Government disaster response should focus on: restoring law and order and protecting the life and property of citizens; providing emergency services; and quickly restoring infrastructure to open the channels of trade.” [NYT]  Translation – prevent looting and lawlessness, provide emergency public services, and get the infrastructure up and running.  In what fantasy world does FEMA, or any other coordinating  local or state agency, not attempt to do these things?

The greatest disaster would be one in which we fall prey to the siren song of privateers who would protect the carried interest income of the wealthiest among us while advocating that state and local governments attempt to cope with natural and man made disasters on their own.  Worse still would be the effect of allowing price gouging and rampant local inflation perpetrated by the unscrupulous upon the un-protected during emergency situations.

That would be one disaster too many.

* and we haven’t even touched on the probability that given the advance of climate change the weather will be ever more unpredictable and extreme, but that’s a post for another day.

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Compounding A Disaster

There’s a place for ideology in the spectrum of political thought.  However, it’s NOT in the midst of a disaster zone.   There are people in Middlesex County, NJ who will be waiting for electricity until next Monday; friends called about an hour ago — they are OK, and counting themselves lucky the storm damage didn’t take out more than just the railings on their deck.  There are people around this part of the country who are looking at the brown and blackened remains of range fires which consumed more than a half million acres in the region in August.  We’ve something in common.  Disaster management is not best organized on the local level.   Nothing so well wipes out mythology than wind, water, and fire.

# Myth Number One:  Local government is best able to manage disasters. Wrong.  (1) Local disaster relief assets, including local government operations like the sheriff’s department, police officers, and fire departments are staffed and equipped to handle local emergencies.  A fire such as the Holloway blaze which consumed some 461,000 acres, including vast  acreage  in Humboldt County, Nevada was completely beyond the capacity of local volunteer fire departments to manage.  Nor should we imagine that the law enforcement and public safety officials in Middlesex County, New Jersey are able to cope with all the needs in their country associated with coping with the damage from Hurricane Sandy.

It should also be noted that local disaster management can only be accomplished IF the assets aren’t themselves subject to the disaster.  It doesn’t take too long a junket down memory lane to recall the situations in which the local police and fire departments found themselves during Hurricane Katrina and the related flooding.

On the best days, local disaster management and assets are part of the total response, but the idea that a local sheriff’s department or local firefighting department could “manage” all the communication, logistic, and personnel  involved in a major catastrophe is pure fantasy.  What would we think of a local Emergency Management division telling FEMA officials where to pre-position equipment and supplies?  Surely the decisions are made with local input, but having New Jersey, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, and Rhode Island all “determining” the positioning of assets and supplies is asking for chaos and not coordination in advance of Sandy’s landfall.

(2) States may coordinate some public safety needs but the idea that situations the magnitude of the Holloway Fire or Hurricane Sandy can be addressed by state and local officials is ludicrous.  (a)   Again, consider the potential for mis-allocation of resources if all the states involved in Hurricane Sandy’s path were to position them on their own, and not in coordination with their neighbors.  (b) Consider the problem of determining which state would share what with whom? And, when? (c) Consider the question of how to coordinate disaster management and relief operation if states not immediately involved are not subject to federal management plans?  FEMA can authorize the pre-clearance of power company resources for use in restoring electricity to areas affected by disasters.  Power crews from around the country will be available to the East Coast — compliments of federal coordination. Similarly, fire crews from at least five western states were available to fight the Holloway Fire — and they were ready thanks to planning by the National Interagency Fire Center which does long term forecasts and had already determined that northern Nevada, because of weather, natural vegetation growth, and drought conditions was ripe for major fires.

# Myth Number Two:  Localizing or privatizing emergency management is always better than federal government interference.  Wrong.   The “private is always better” component of the conservative ideology is a lovely ethereal academic argument.  It doesn’t work when the wind hits the beach or the fire touches dry brush.   If capitalism works, and the profit motive is the core of personal incentive toward productivity — then where is the profit in coping with emergency shelters? Firefighting? Distribution of drinking water? Patrolling devastated areas?  Coordinating the restoration of power?

There is a profit to be made if individuals are to be charged for the cost of the emergency management services.  Unthinkable.  Or, there is a profit to be made if the costs of providing these services are billed to state and local governments.  Why pay any amount above the actual cost of the services?

All that is accomplished in a billing for services system is that the taxpayers are called upon to pay not only for the emergency management services provided but also a margin of profit for the companies providing those services.  This seems like a most cynical form of corporate welfare.

And all this is why Governor Romney’s proposal to cut disaster relief is so horribly out of touch:

“We cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids. It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids, knowing full well that we’ll all be dead and gone before it’s paid off. It makes no sense at all.” [BusInsid]

He was talking about disaster relief.  He is touching upon Rep. Eric Cantor’s (R-VA) notion that any disaster relief appropriations should be offset by cuts in other non-defense discretionary spending.  It would be sad if it weren’t so silly.

For a party which continually tries to frame revenue and spending in terms of a family budget this doesn’t pass the laugh test.  According to the conservative ideology, families are supposed to plan and save for exigent circumstances.  However, when a government plans for and appropriates funding for disaster relief that’s somehow wasteful?

There’s nothing immoral about planning for natural disasters and their consequences, but there is something immoral about suggesting that it is not the place of our national government to offer protection and provide the necessities of life to our fellow citizens in times like these.

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Filed under 2012 election, conservatism, Disasters, FEMA, Republicans, Romney

Hurricane Willard: Updated

June 2011

“During a CNN debate at the height of the GOP primary, Mitt Romney was asked, in the context of the Joplin disaster and FEMA’s cash crunch, whether the agency should be shuttered so that states can individually take over responsibility for disaster response.

“Absolutely,” he said. “Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction. And if you can go even further, and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better. Instead of thinking, in the federal budget, what we should cut, we should ask the opposite question, what should we keep?”

There’s video of this:

May 2012

“House Republican appropriators on Tuesday revealed that they have decided to ignore GOP budget guru Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on the controversial issue of disaster relief, spending over the discretionary levels set in the 2013 budget.  Ryan’s Budget Committee, in nonbinding report language attached to the House-passed 2013 budget, called for all disaster relief to “be fully offset within the discretionary levels provided in this resolution.” [The Hill]

October 2012

Ron Bonjean, GOP Strategist: “Most people don’t have a positive impression of FEMA and I think Mitt Romney was right on the button. But I don’t think anybody cares about that right now. I think people care about whether or not their power’s on, whether or not their basement’s going to be flooded. And I think that if the president gets too far in front of this and something goes wrong, people are going to remember, hey, my power’s not out, and the president’s talking about FEMA. I’m not a real big fan of FEMA. That could sway their vote.”

The Romney campaign issued this ‘clarification’ ahead of Sandy’s landfall:

“Gov. Romney wants to ensure states, who are the first responders and are in the best position to aid impacted individuals and communities, have the resources and assistance they need to cope with natural disasters.” [Stir]

Remember the Romney-Ryan budget proposal calls for 20% cuts across the board in non-defense discretionary spending.  Their previously issued statements also call for transforming emergency funds into Block Grants for states.  So, whatever disaster strikes the ‘resources and assistance’ would come from the state — not federal resources.   The state of Louisiana would have had to pick up the bill for Hurricane Katrina from its ‘block grant.’  The state of Missouri would have been responsible for paying all emergency services bills associated with the Joplin/SW area tornadoes.  Western states would have to pay for emergency services during wild land fires from their ‘block grants.’

UPDATE: Oh my, the political winds must be shifting because the Romney campaign is out with yet another clarification:

“Gov. Romney believes that states should be in charge of emergency management in responding to storms and other natural disasters in their jurisdictions,” Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said in a statement. “As the first responders, states are in the best position to aid affected individuals and communities, and to direct resources and assistance to where they are needed most. This includes help from the federal government and FEMA.” [Politico]

Now he doesn’t want to eliminate FEMA, he simply wants the states to take over — with, one should assume, those block grant funds.

Whose Disaster?

No one has quite managed to clarify how the funds for these block grants would be distributed?  Does Florida get more because it is prone to hurricane devastation?  Does the money sent to Florida mean that less could be sent to Connecticut in the wake of  Nor’easters?  Does money sent to Connecticut and Florida mean there is less available for California in the event of an earthquake?  Does money allocated for Florida, Connecticut and California mean less money in the pot for Indiana and Illinois tornado disaster relief? How much money would we need to assist with emergency services during a Minnesota or North Dakota blizzard?

Governor Romney began his 2011 remarks by saying that the federal government should send as much as possible “back to the states,” and sending it back to the private sector would be even better.

When asked directly about disaster relief he said:

“We cannot — we cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids. It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids, knowing full well that we’ll all be dead and gone before it’s paid off. It makes no sense at all.” [Slate]

Yes, “think of the children…” We are thinking of children.  Children made temporarily homeless by fires, floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes, and their parents aren’t thinking of the ‘national debt’ … they are seeking relief.  As immediately as possible, from a government which  pledges in its Constitution  to promote their general welfare.

So, Governor Romney and Rep. Ryan would remove this pledge and replace it with block grants, the rationale for awards thereof remaining unclear, and with the amounts cut by 20%, to be allocated to states which may or may not need emergency funds immediately, and this is supposed to benefit whom?

Answer: The millionaires and billionaires who don’t want their taxes to be increased from 35% to 39.6%?

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Category 5 Stupidity: GOP Response to Disasters

There comes a point at which the formula M=Fd describes what happens to an item being levered, and the Republican Party appears to have applied sufficient ideology force toward federal budgeting for national emergencies to torque common sense off balance.   This is, for those who have been the victims of sensory deprivation for the past month,  hurricane season.  And, there are a few things we know about hurricanes.

We know they produce massive amounts of damage.  The initial estimates for damage caused by Hurricane Irene came in at approximately $4.7 billion. [Forbes]  The calculations included the costs of ruined homes, vehicles, infrastructure, and other properties.  The calculations didn’t incorporate the losses to restaurants, retailers, airlines, and other transportation systems.  While the hurricane wasn’t as serious as some early predictions, it did manage to do a hefty $7 billion worth of damage so far, and given the residual flooding associated with the storm the number could easily increase.  [BostonGlobe]

We know that we can track and predict hurricane activity within a reasonable range of estimation.  Tracking has improved since the days of Isaac’s Storm, and we have the scientific capacity to track hurricane development and trajectory.

So, given these two elements, what are Congressional Republicans recommending?

Cut the Hurricane Hunter Program: Cuts passed by the Republican controlled House of Representative’s Appropriations Committee would reduce the budget for “hurricane hunter” flights from $27 million to $19 million.  [TP] These are the flights that allow the National Hurricane  Service to gather information about barometric pressure and wind speed — yielding more accurate tracking information.   Accuracy does count because it costs about $1 million per coastal mile to evacuate an area, and substantial savings can be had if the evacuations are in the right places.  [GulfLive]

Cut funding for first responders:   Rep. Eric Cantor’s proposal cuts FEMA’s operations by 6%, and the House bill cuts an additional 19% from the Department of Homeland Security’s budget — on top of the 40% reductions already made for equipping and training first responders. [TP]

In February 2011 the House sought to cut 30% or about $126 billion from the budget of the National Weather Service.  [CNBC] Six programs were on the chopping block:  The National Hurricane Center, The Storm Prediction Center, The Aviation Weather Center, The Tsunami Warning Centers, The River Forecast Centers, and local weather forecast stations.  [GL]

Meanwhile, House Republicans insist that NOAA is a waste of money.  [GuardianUK] Some members appear to be disturbed that the collection of weather information and data could be used for global climate change calculations.

Be that as it may, it does appear to be an act of colossal stupidity to call for cuts in first responder training and equipment, in hurricane data gathering, and NOAA satellite operations when Mother Nature has an infinite number of hurricanes in her wind repertoire which she is pleased to unleash regardless of the budgetary priorities of the Republican Party.

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The Politics of Preparedness and Compassion

It was a tragic night for Denning, Arkansas [NWS] yet another long night of suffering for Joplin, Missouri [LAT] and the residents of Tuscaloosa, Alabama are no doubt jolted by new wave of storms. [DailyRec] If their nerves seem a bit raw, that’s to be excused under the circumstances.   What is not to be excused are attempts to play political games with people’s safety.   If the Constitutional prologue “provide for the general welfare” means nothing else, it must mean that our government has a responsibility to do all it can to keep people safe from harm.

In order to keep people as safe as humanly possible a government needs to be watchful.  If we are talking about attempting to extend warning times and locate with as much precision as the technology will bear what kind of weather phenomena is headed in the direction of a vulnerable community, then we are necessarily speaking of weather satellites.   We have two in orbit as of now which were launched back in 1997.  [LEO pdf]  Half of our weather satellites will have outlived their design life in the next eight years. [WaPo]

The weather satellite programs have had problems extending back to the Clinton Administration when cost cutting measures resulted in combined civilian and defense needs in ways that weren’t all that efficacious for either side of the equation.  The situation didn’t improve during the Bush Administration when the programs were continued in tandem in spite of the very different priorities of the civil and military components.  The Obama Administration finally separated the programs and budgets for the weather satellites, and budgeted accordingly. [WaPo]

Now, politics has intervened again.  It seems that not only do the satellites help keep track of weather patterns — some  gather climate data.  Gathering climate data is anathema to  climate change deniers, especially those in thrall to the American Petroleum Institute, the Koch Brothers, and Big Oil.  Little wonder, then, that the House of Representatives voted (H.R. 1) to slash the budget for replacing our aging “fleet” of weather/climate satellites.

The Obama Administration budget called for $700 million to upgrade NOAA’s weather satellite programs.  H.R. 1 eliminated $1.2 billion in total  NOAA funding.  [CProg]

There is no small amount of irony in the fact that Congress balked at eliminating $4 billion dollars per year in Big Oil subsidies, but was only too pleased to cut $1.2 billion from the NOAA appropriations. [roll call 147] H.R. 1689, ending Big Oil subsidies, sits in the House Ways and Means Committee.  Senate Republicans successfully filibustered S. 940 to end the subsidies to the oil giants. [roll call 72]  Senator Dean Heller (R-NV) voted to sustain the filibuster, Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) voted for cloture.

One of the consequences of diminishing the resources of NOAA to gather data which might tend to confirm global climate change, is that those self-same resources might also have been applied toward improving our weather forecasting capabilities.  Surely, the House Republicans and their allies in the U.S. Senate do not intend to allow our satellite system to deteriorate further merely to satisfy the demands of oil industry lobbyists who fear more data might further our understanding of our global climate?  Which do we fear more — That we might find out more precisely how human activities may contribute to climate change? Or, that eventually we’ll see only through a darkened lens a destructive weather system approaching one of our cities and towns?

And, once the terror arrives, how do we meet the needs of the afflicted and suffering?  To say that Representative Eric Cantor’s (R-VA) comments on the expressed need to offset emergency aid for those stricken in Joplin, Missouri with yet more budget cuts,  [Politico] are politically tone deaf would be too little; the comments are more humanely tone deaf.  Even Cantor’s cohort, Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) was moved to offer a mild challenge. [Politico]  However, we probably ought to recall that this isn’t Cantor’s first foray into insensitivity — during the health care reform debate Cantor told a woman with cancer to “find an existing government program, or find a charity…”  [HuffPo]

Unfortunately, the Republicans on Capitol Hill are so narrowly focused on the spending cut side of the revenue/deficit equation that they can’t see that most of the problem could be addressed by simply allowing the Bush Tax Cuts to expire, by phasing out operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and rebuilding the U.S. economy while implementing safeguards to insure as best we can that the Wall Street casino doesn’t run rampant once again.   There must be some point at which preparedness trumps politics and compassion takes precedence over profits.

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>Nevada National Guard: Proxy Measures and Subjective Assessments

>Unfortunately, it has taken a deadly tornado in Kansas to rekindle interest in the depletion of National Guard equipment in the occupation of Iraq; and, with fire season upcoming in Nevada the situation isn’t looking optimal for the Nevada National Guard either. Not that the Governor’s office sees it that way, saying of the 3500 Guard members only 350 are currently deployed, and that the Guard has “retained or replaced most of its equipment used in the war and is not lacking resources.” [KRNV]

Phrases like “retained or replaced most” and “is not lacking resources” seem to require more explication. First, the issue is not about the numbers of Guard members deployed — it’s about the equipment used up, blown up, deteriorated, and otherwise “elsewhere.” Deployment statistics aren’t a helpful guide to analyzing the equipment issues, and could be perceived as a form of red herring argument. Secondly, the assertion that the equipment has been retained or replaced infers that the equipment level was adequate in the first place, and further, that the equipment was what might be needed during a domestic emergency.

We don’t know what’s where, and haven’t from the beginning. The GAO Report issued in October 2005 stated that since 2003 the Army National Guard had left more than 64,000 items valued at more than $1.2 billion dollars overseas to support continuing operations, but that the Army lacked a “full accounting” of the equipment and has not prepared plans to replace it as required under DOD policy.” DOD Directive 1225.6 published on April 7, 2005 required a replacement plan for reserve component equipment transferred to the Army for more than 90 days. However, the Army didn’t track the Guard equipment, or prepare replacement plans because the practice was supposed to be a short term operation. [GAO 05]

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s prediction that the occupation of Iraq would take “six days, six weeks, I doubt six months” was evidently incorporated into the thinking about National Guard equipment replacement practices.

When the Army Materiel Command did start tracking equipment left behind it only counted high demand items like armored Humvees and other “items designated to remain in theater for the duration of the conflict.” [GAO 05] In short, the AMC was only tracking about 45% of the Guard equipment, and was not including such things as cargo trucks, rough terrain fork lifts, and palletized load trucks — which the AMC admitted it did not intend to track. [GAO 05]

Note that the cargo trucks, rough terrain forklifts, and palletized load trucks are just the sort of equipment that might be useful in the aftermath of tornadoes, hurricanes, and other domestic emergencies. These, in fact, are just the sort of items Kansas Governor Sebelius was talking about in the wake of the Greensburg disaster. The GAO had recommended the development of a replacement plan two years before the tornado leveled the small Kansas community.

One of the most highly publicized portions of the October 2005 GAO Report came at the end of the accountability section: “Until the Army develops plans to replace the equipment it has left in Iraq, if it is not returned, including identifying timetables and funding sources, the National Guard will continue to face critical equipment shortages which reduce readiness for future missions.” [GAO 05] Given that the Army was tracking only 45% of the equipment in the first place, one could wonder how it could come to determine how much to replace, and to whom, with any precision. While the GAO was compiling the information for its report and conducting its audit, Katrina had already thundered ashore.

A Pentagon panel said a major delaying factor in the recovery was that the bulk of the Louisiana and Mississippi Guard was deployed in Iraq. [HouChron] Their equipment, including high water vehicles went with them. In an interview with WGNO news on August 1, Lt. Col. Pete Schneider of the Louisiana National Guard thought the state had enough equipment to get by, and if Louisiana were to get hit by a major hurricane the neighboring states of Mississippi, Alabama and Florida “have all agreed to help.” [MM] Problem was — Mississippi and Alabama were having their own problems in Katrina’s wake.

Amid the flotsam in Katrina’s wake were Administration promises of investigations of emergency responses the Administration vehemently denied were delayed in any way. [MM] The Henthorne Report, which didn’t get much play in American papers, did manage to reach the pages of the Independent in Great Britain. “The one thing this disaster has demonstrated [is] the lack of coordinated, in-depth planning and training on all levels of Government, for any/all types of emergency contingencies. 9/11 was an exception because the geographical area was small and contained, but these two hurricanes have clearly demonstrated a national response weakness … Failure to plan, and train properly has plagued US efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq and now that failure has come home to roost in the United States.” [IndUK] A person could reasonably assume that had not the Pentagon been leaking like the levees of New Orleans, this conclusion would not have been seen outside the Bush Administration Defense Department? During the next year these issues were beginning to worry U.S. governors.

All 50 U.S. governors signed a letter in 2006 to President George W. Bush “imploring him to immediately begin reoutfitting their depleted National Guards.” [CT] In March 2006 then Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn said he believed that the Bush Administration “must rethink the role and needs of the National Guard.” [Nevada Appeal] Guinn said, “When they take troops over they take our equipment,” he said. “When the troops come home, the equipment doesn’t.” He thanked the administration for its $20 billion commitment to replace that gear with modern equipment but said both the new equipment and training should be tailored to a different mission. “We want to be able to say the equipment and training we have relates to homeland security,” Guinn said. He said the Nevada guard didn’t need 200 artillerymen after Sept. 11, 2001. It needed more military police to patrol airports and other vulnerable locations. He said they don’t need new attack helicopters: “We want helicopters to help us with forest fires.” “We’re trying to get them to come and look at how we should operate – for homeland security.” He said he hopes the administration and Pentagon will hear those arguments.” [Nevada Appeal] That was 2006, and the GAO burst any delusions that the Administration and the Pentagon had directly addressed the situation about which the governors were complaining.

The governors were correct to be concerned, rather than directly addressing the problems of depleted stocks of equipment, and how “neighborhood” compacts were to solve the issue, the GAO Reported in January 2007 that “such planning has not been completed primarily because there is not formal mechanism for facilitating planning for the Guard’s role in large scale events.” (Like a combination of tornadoes in Kansas and flooding in Missouri?) The finding “…until the bureau’s charter and its civil support regulation are revised to define its role in facilitating state planning for multistate events, such planning for the National Guard’s role in these events may remain incomplete, and the National Guard may not be prepared to respond as efficiently and effectively as possible.” [GAO 07]

And, about the equipment? Worse yet, the report stated that, “DOD does not routinely measure or report to Congress the equipment readiness of nondeployed National Guard forces for domestic mission. …While DOD has recognized the need for greater visibility over the Guard’s domestic capabilities, its process and measures for assessing the Guard’s domestic readiness have not yet been fully defined. Until DOD reaches agreement on a specific approach for measuring readiness for domestic missions and requirements are defined, it will remain unclear whether the Guard is equipped to respond effectively to the consequences of a large scale terrorist attack or natural disaster.” [GAO 07]

At this point it might be appropriate to ask of Capt. April Conway, Nevada National Guard, how the conclusion, “…”We’re not 100 percent, but if something happened, the Nevada National Guard is well-equipped to help deal with the problem,” …”the vast majority of what we’ve taken with us to the desert has been returned or replaced,” [LVRJ] is to be interpreted. The 2007 GAO Report critiques the readiness measures as not providing, “..a rigorous assessment of the extent to which the National Guard’s nondeployed units have the equipment they need to respond to the full range of their domestic missions. While the DOD has begun to collect data on the readiness of nondeployed National Guard units using proxy measures and subjective assessments of military commanders, this effort is not fully mature and faces limitations.” [GAO 07] The DOD took issue with the GAO’s recommendation that the Army should report to Congress about specific plans and funding strategies for resourcing nondeployed Guard units, saying that this is all in the DOD budget Congress receives already. This is a tenuous argument. If the information is already being compiled for the budget, the concurrent resolutions, authorizations, appropriations, reconciliations, and supplementals — why not simply package that segment for the edification of the members of Congress. If the information, as suggested by two GAO reports, is in fragmented, undefined and uncategorized, and untracked condition, then it’s reasonably obvious why the DOD isn’t enthusiastic about producing the report.

According to one estimate the National Guard now has only 56% of its required equipment, the lowest level in nearly 6 years, and a Pentagon request for $22 billion for the Army National Guard for the next five years would only increase Guard equipment levels to 76%. [CT] How, then, even if we accept that our Guard units are fully equipped, do we conclude that those of our neighbors are as well?

Until the Department of Defense acts on the recommendations of the GAO reports on the tracking and auditing of nondeployed Guard unit equipment, and on the tracking and auditing of deployed unit equipment, and on the planning for the use of whatever equipment might be where-ever — then perhaps we will just have to take Captain Conway’s word for it that Nevada’s National Guard units have all the equipment they need for the tasks they might be assigned. In short, we may have to rely on what the GAO called the “proxy measures and subjective assessments.”

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