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Coping with calamity

Print edition : Oct 07, 2005

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Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown who was removed from his role managing Hurricane Katrina.-BRIAN SNYDER/REUTERS

Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown who was removed from his role managing Hurricane Katrina.-BRIAN SNYDER/REUTERS

The United States' response to Hurricane Katrina and the lessons for disaster management in India.

THE horrific devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the southern coast of the United States was beamed across the world in vivid detail by television news channels, and reported as graphically in the press. For many of us here in India the sheer scale of the destruction and the obliteration of a huge metropolis, was, at first, difficult to comprehend. When we began to do so to some extent, the reality was appalling: Water coming up the first floors in many parts of the city, people clinging on to rooftops and mattresses to stay alive, no drinking water, no food, no power. And above all, no help.

That was the crux of it. The misery was terrible enough, but the truly appalling nature of the tragedy lay not in the torment of the victims, but in the fact that nothing was done for days on end. This is the truly frightening aspect of the tragedy. Now, large scale relief efforts are gradually being organised, the enormity of the failure of the authorities to react to this huge natural disaster is the most important, and the facet of all. Writing in The New York Times, the columnist Paul Krugman outlined the reasons for this administrative paralysis. "It was," he wrote, "a consequence of ideological hostility to the very idea of using government to serve the public good."

In the U.S. they have a government body called the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This was set up by President Jimmy Carter, bringing under one roof a number of separate agencies all dealing with one aspect or the other of disasters. This agency pooled the expertise available in forecasting, warning systems and coping with disasters, including man-made disasters. With the years it grew into a professional body, developing its own skills. As one account of the agency says: "The new agency was faced with many unusual challenges in its first few years that emphasised how complex emergency management can be. Early disasters and emergencies included the contamination of Love Canal, the Cuban refugee crisis and the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. Later, the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989 and Hurricane Andrew in 1992 focussed major national attention on FEMA. In 1993, President Clinton nominated James L. Witt as the new FEMA director. Witt became the first agency director with experience as a state emergency manager. He initiated sweeping reforms that streamlined disaster relief and recovery operations, insisted on a new emphasis regarding preparedness and mitigation, and focussed agency employees on customer service. The end of the Cold War also allowed Witt to redirect more of FEMA's limited resources from civil defence into disaster relief, recovery and mitigation programmes."

Krugman recounts bitterly how this agency was systematically marginalised by President Bush's administration. It began, he says, with the appointment of Joseph Allbaugh as the Director of FEMA, whose most important qualification was that he was a close political confidant of the President. The earlier Directors, John Macy and Allbaugh's immediate predecessor, James L. Witt, had been professionals. Their interest had clearly been to strengthen the Agency. Allbaugh's priorities seem to have been different. He attributed more importance to the political agenda of Bush, which included cutting down on government expenditure, and tried, consequently, to cut back many of FEMA's preparedness programmes.

Matters got even worse when Allbaugh was succeeded by Michael Brown, who had been brought in by Allbaugh as Deputy Director of FEMA. Brown's only qualification for appointment to FEMA seems to have been the fact that he was Allbaugh's college roommate. At the time The Boston Herald reported that he was forced out of his previous job, which was overseeing horse-shows. "The raw cronyism of that appointment [Brown as Director of FEMA]", Krugman writes, "showed the contempt the administration felt for the agency; one can only imagine the effects on staff morale."

It is no surprise, therefore, that FEMA as an agency was less than effective in handling the Hurricane Katrina crisis. There has been widespread anger at the way in which it has functioned, and there have been demands that Michael Brown be removed. Doubtless President Bush will consider all this when he sets up his inquiry commission, which is to go into the handling of the disaster.

My main concern in dealing with this at some length has been to set out what can happen in a superpower state; in spite of their resources, and in spite of having at hand professionals skilled in disaster management in a unique organisation like FEMA, the state failed its citizens. This must have a very stark and urgent lesson for us in India; it underscores the paramount urgency of ensuring that, to the extent possible, the government of this country, acting in concert with State governments, does not downplay its role in disaster relief.

We have had two disasters of our own in recent times - the tsunami that hit the Andaman & Nicobar Islands and southern States of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and the floods in Mumbai. There was considerable anger in the months after the tsunami at the manner in which relief was provided, particularly in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, and much more focused rage at the paralysis that affected the government after the deluge in Mumbai. But we are, tragically, a people used to misery and deprivation; the victims stoically endured the ordeals they had to undergo, and accepted whatever relief they were given. That, however, is no excuse for not ensuring that there is an effective agency in the country to cope with disasters.

We would do well to look at the importance of having a body like FEMA. It was set up at the express request of the Governors of the states, that is, states that guard their autonomy fiercely. The decision was not imposed on them by the federal government. Our own readiness to combat a natural disaster is not just unknown to the people; it is, in all likelihood, unknown to the Central and State governments. No one, I am certain, has a comprehensive picture of just what is available and where, should disaster strike. There is no single agency that can assume full authority when there is a disaster somewhere in the country, and marshal all available resources to cope with it.

It is time we gave this high priority in the management of the country. A disaster may occur at any time, anywhere. It could be an earthquake, a landslide, a huge fire, or something like the tsunami. Instead of then concerning ourselves with whether it is a State matter or a Central matter, we need to have a central agency, which would swing into action and take charge of the situation. It will clearly need to work very closely indeed with the State governments and with Central agencies such as the defence forces and others. But it must be there and train continuously in normal times. It is neither a luxury, nor a waste of money. When disaster strikes, an agency of this kind, trained and well equipped, with the power to obtain resources from all agencies, Central and State, will be the one factor that can prevent a calamity from becoming a horrific disaster of the kind that has overtaken New Orleans.

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