Everyone Responsible for Being Ready for a Disaster Like Katrina

I have a generator. I have no cans of gasoline stored . . .

September 7, 2005
Sarah Overstreet
New-Leader, Springfield, MO

I'm slackjawed, as is most of the world, at how a disaster such as Katrina could destroy a national cultural treasure and completely knock the stuffing out of its residents.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has come under fire for planning to use the Superdome in such a catastrophe but not getting it ready for people to stay in: no stockpiled meals, no method of water purification, no chemical toilets or medicines on hand. There was no plan to have medical personnel to respond, nor was there an area in which to treat patients.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco has been castigated for not summoning the National Guard when she could have. President Bush is being seen as a deer caught in headlights rather than a leader.

I'm good with that. What good is governing if you can't lead and protect? Yet readiness is a shared responsibility: I play a part in this, too, and I'm no more prepared for a calamity than the people of New Orleans.
I have a generator. I have no cans of gasoline stored so I can run it when the neighborhood gas station is blown to cinders.

Disaster plan? Mine consists of knowing where my home's 'fraidy hole is if a tornado's on its way.

That was the observation of emergency management coordinators in the area: Not only are governments not adequately prepared for disasters, neither are citizens.

"We have been telling people, you have to learn to be self-sufficient for the first three days ... because it can take that long to get resources in there," says Kermit Hargis, Polk County Emergency Management Director. "How many residents in Greene County have disaster kits and a disaster plan?"

And alas, emergency management services are rooted away from the money trough, Hargis says. "... Federal, state and local governments don't take emergency management seriously. Emergency management is the least funded agency in our counties and cities, and I think you'll see that's what happened in New Orleans."

None of the emergency administrators I talked with are as disparaging of the federal government as critics quoted in the media. "Seven days is not a long time to get things organized," says Larry Woods, assistant director of Greene County Emergency Management. "A lot of it is kind of feeling your way through it, hour by hour and day by day."

And American communities often have inadequate disaster plans, says Chris Berndt, emergency management coordinator for Taney County. "If something would happen in Springfield, our plans call for using larger resources — Kansas City, St. Louis. What if something happened to them?"

Carl Sparks, emergency management director in Branson — which has sent a two-man team of professional firefighters to New Orleans at the request of the Federal Energy Management Agency — illustrated how difficult it can be to aid another community quickly. "It does take awhile to mobilize, get them in position for a 30-day deployment away from their families. ... Then we had to make arrangements for airfare and car rentals. The process took from Wednesday to Friday."

I'm sure things look a lot different from the perspective of someone who actually does the work and mobilizes the people who do it. But most American communities are simply ill-prepared for Katrinas.

And, Hargis notes, emergency management personnel aren't utilized as they should be. "Many of us have close to 3,000 hours of training, and none of us have been called up to help. This is what we do every day."

Contact News-Leader columnist Sarah Overstreet at soverstreet@News-Leader.com.