Michael Brown: FEMA, the media and disaster victims — Why the cavalry is never fast enough

Michael Brown: FEMA, the media and disaster victims — Why the cavalry is never fast enough
© Getty Images

Imagine two lines starting in opposite corners and moving toward each other at a 45 degree angle. One line represents the beginning of a federal and state response to a disaster. The other line represents the frustration level of people impacted by the disaster.

As the response phase begins and moves along a crescendo to full response, people are simultaneously growing in frustration because they lack power, water, food, shelter. The key is to have the response move faster than the frustration level.

But what causes a response to move slower than the increase in individuals’ frustrations? 

Let’s look at Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

ADVERTISEMENT

Hurricane Maria damaged or destroyed virtually all of the infrastructure, including the power grid, water treatment plants, ice plants, ports, docks, runways, air traffic control systems. Every system you need to respond to the disaster has been damaged or destroyed.

 

What does FEMA, the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security do to initiate the response in such a situation?

Only after the storm has passed and it’s safe to move in, does the response actually start. The first item on the responders’ list is to assess the damage to the ports, docks, electrical grid, runways and air traffic control. Once that assessment is done, any repairs must be made to that infrastructure so it’s functional.

You can’t move a ship into a port until it’s repaired and safe. While repairing the port you must be repairing the dock, because a port is useless if you can’t offload the cargo onto the port. You must repair the runway because you can’t land a cargo plane, even under visual flight rules, unless the runway is safe. You can’t start repairing the electrical grid until you’ve first assessed the damage to it and then start offloading the necessary replacement equipment at the ports and airports.

Chinook helicopters can’t land or drop pallets of supplies and materials until you have secured an area and made certain it is safe for the Chinooks to hover over the landing zone. And you must first secure and repair the LZ’s before either Chinooks or Blackhawk helicopters can move supplies and personnel into the area of operations.

Everything described above takes time. Whether we like it or not, the reality is it takes time to do all of the assessments and repairs before you can actually start airlifting or offloading material, supplies, equipment and personnel.

Remember that line representing the response time, it continues to move along that 45 degree angle at the same time that peoples’ frustrations are moving along the opposite and equal line representing their frustration. The longer it takes to do the damage assessments and repairs, the close the two lines come to meeting each other where the response is in full swing and peoples’ frustrations are at a fever pitch.

FEMA, DHS and DoD start those assessments as soon as it is safe to do so. But while they’re waiting to move in to start assessments and repairs, people are suffering. That’s the nature of any disaster, which is why citizens must always be prepared to survive on their own for at least 72 hours until help can get directly to individuals.

It’s not a matter of government moving fast or slow, it’s a matter of fact that assessments and repairs take time. On an island like Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands, that time is expanded because of the limited accessibility — you only have ports and runways. It’s not like there’s a giant interstate highway leading directly in San Juan or St. Thomas.

The media must learn and recognize these two intersecting timelines are a fact of life. Because the frustration line may reach its peak and intersect with the response line long before the media would like, that does not mean the response line is not moving as rapidly as possible. But the visuals presented by the frustration line are much more compelling than the assessment and repair line. The media naturally gravitates to those gripping stories of peoples’ frustrations and anger. That is not a fair representation of everything taking place in a disaster zone.

What is taking place in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands?

More than 10,000 federal personnel are deployed and working on the islands today. That does not include those support personnel on the mainland that work to support the mission of those in the area of operations. Five Urban Search and Rescue Teams have now covered more than 90 percent of Puerto Rico finding survivors and getting them to safety.

Medical facilities continue to be assessed for damage and almost 70 percent of those assessments have been completed to-date. Additionally, 250 medical stations for low priority patients have been deployed and two Disaster Medical Assistance Teams (DMAT’s) caches have been put on the island. FEMA has delivered fuel to 19 hospitals with another 29 hospitals scheduled to receive fuel in order to have continuous power. And just as in Hurricane Katrina, the USNS Comfort is steaming toward Puerto Rico. 

And while more resources are always “in the pipeline” it’s important for the media to note of what has been supplied to-date. More 1.3 million meals and 2.68 million liters of water have arrived in San Juan. Five barges carrying an additional 3.2 million meals and 3.2 million liters of water and other commodities are arriving as this is written, with more expected between now and October 5th

The National Guard has a fuel distribution system in place that has supported more than 530 gas stations. An additional shipment of 100 fuel distribution trucks with 275,000 gallons of diesel and 75,000 gallons of gasoline is also being shipped by barge and will arrive in San Juan by October 2nd.

All of these resources are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of federal resources being deployed into an area devastated by Hurricane Irma and Maria. While those two opposite lines will eventually converge and meet, it is important to keep in perspective the massive airlift and boat lift of supplies and materials making its way to the islands.

Americans should know that despite media protestations to the contrary, their government is working effectively, efficiently, methodically to respond to disasters. Everyone always wants response to a disaster to be faster. FEMA always wants response to move faster. But the physical aspects of disasters inherently limit how fast that response can be.

People rightfully become frustrated when they’re hungry, hot, thirsty, tired and have had their homes and property destroyed. That is a natural reaction whether it’s a single house fire or an island-wide natural disaster or localized manmade disaster. But everyone has to keep that frustration in perspective. The cavalry is on its way. 

And all Americans — media included — must learn the cavalry has to clear a path to its intended destination. And that takes time. We must and should be empathetic to disaster victims. We must likewise recognize that assisting them and helping them get back to normal, takes time.

Michael Brown is the former under secretary of Homeland Security and director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President George W. Bush from 2001-2005. He is the author of “Deadly Indifference – The Perfect [Political] Storm.” Follow him on Twitter at @michaelbrownusa.