Storm signal: Be prepared

Hurricane Katrina has sent a flood of messages across America. The most disturbing one is that our government is not prepared for disaster or large-scale acts of terrorism.

Hurricane Katrina has sent a flood of messages across America. The most disturbing one is that our government is not prepared for disaster or large-scale acts of terrorism.

The Bush administration was both slow to recognize the scope of the threat and not able to mount a response quickly. Its tightly structured team does a very good job of sticking to a game plan, but, as Gen. Dwight Eisenhower once said, “No plan of battle ever survives first contact with the enemy.”

In the case of Katrina, the White House was not able to change plans fast enough to show it really cared, or to be effective until four or five days into the crisis. That is an eternity in the information age.

Whether the slow response was due to incomplete plans and poor management at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the sluggish bureaucracy of an unwieldy Department of Homeland Security (DHS) or an inept response on the state and local level, it is clear the Bush administration is getting most of the blame in the short run.

You contrast television images of conference tables full of men in suits against the heartbreaking images of homeless, hungry, helpless refugees and the emotionalism of the tragedy will win every time. President Bush missed his megaphone-on-the-mountain-of-rubble moment while schmoozing Republican contributors in California.

Another important message from this tragedy is that reports of the death of TV news have been greatly exaggerated. All the major broadcast and cable networks registered sharp increases in audience during Katrina coverage, and there is evidence that it may continue as the scope of this human tragedy spreads across America. With thousands of refugees arriving in towns such as Salt Lake City, Phoenix and Los Angeles, there is plenty of compelling video for local stations for days to come.

Broadcast stations did not just report on this storm; they made it a mission. Within a day, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) had provided virtually every radio and television station in America with a public-service announcement urging help for the victims. Ten thousand free battery-operated radios were distributed, and the NAB opened the bidding for on-air donations with a million-dollar check. Telethons sprung up in local markets and on MSNBC (where the president and his administration were shellacked by outspoken music and movie personalities).

And network television news got its bite back as the days dragged on and help didn’t arrive. At first, the natural timidity of the networks let the pictures do the talking. But by the third and fourth day, on-camera personalities were raising questions about the lack of official response, and last Sunday’s talk shows turned into a feeding frenzy as hosts grilled DHS and FEMA officials.

Another powerful message was of a nation pulling together. Beginning with surrounding states and spreading to the northwest, state and local governments opened their doors to the homeless. Corporations, led by the homespun and crafty CEO of Wal-Mart, wrote huge checks and showed FEMA how to load trucks and deliver supplies while military helicopters sat on the ground mired in red tape. Hotels opened their rooms, cruise ships anchored offshore with free beds and individual Americans invited total strangers into their homes.

There are hundreds of stories of grassroots communication in action. The ham-radio operator in Oklahoma who picked up a call for help and passed it to another operator in Utah who forwarded the information to a ham in Texas who was able to communicate with a police department in Louisiana to lead officers to a family in trouble. The Internet is hosting an amazing number of sites where families can search for loved ones.

This ad hoc communication network combined with traditional broadcast channels was able not only to get out news about what was happening, even news FEMA and DHS didn’t seem to have, but also to help save lives, connect families and begin raising $100 million for assistance.

But the most disturbing, eye-opening message of Katrina may be that Americans have to be ready to take care of themselves when disaster strikes. We need extra batteries for cell phones, in hopes that relay towers still stand. We need hand-cranked or battery-operated radios. We need stashes of food and medical supplies. And we need plans to get loved ones together and moved to someplace safe.

The Department of Homeland Security has been telling us to be prepared for years. But until Katrina, no one knew that the reason we needed to be ready is that it was not.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants GC Strategic Advocacy.