Fat Steve's Blatherings

Friday, September 30, 2005

After Katrina, What?


        The messed up response to Katrina shows the need to improve relief efforts.  What should we do?

  • Communications clearly broke down during the relief effort.  Austin Bay suggests we tie all emergency responders into the military communications network.

  • I have a technology to suggest too: Hy-Rail®.

  • On the human side, I suggest we send federal observers in during disasters, giving Washington eyes on the ground.  This story shows why that's important.

  • A lot of people, Mickey Kaus for example have suggested giving Washington total control during disasters.  Others, like Bay and Glenn Reynolds, are against that idea.  I'm not sure.  Your thoughts?

  • Regardless of what we decide, we need to make it clear who's in charge of doing what, and holding those in charge responsible for their acts.

At Length:

        Austin Bay has a good suggestion: making it possible for all military and emergency forces to tie into the same communications network for disaster relief.

        While we're on the subject of technofixes, let me mention Hy-Rail®.  Hy-rails are attachments for road vehicles that can be lowered onto railroad tracks.  When lowered, the vehicle can take off down a railroad track without falling off to either side.  When raised, the vehicle can drive on roads without damaging them.  If the five hundred or more school and city busses in New Orleans had had such wheel guides, NOLA could have moved about thirty-five thousand people out of the city at a time, and been back in for another load in maybe six hours (no traffic jams to worry about, after all).  Such things would also be useful for emergency vehicles bringing people and relief supplies in.

        In addition to Bay's communications net idea, another thing we should probably do is let FEMA send in armed observers/law enforcement people, possibly making them locally deputized (we could make this a condition of a state requesting emergency aid).  This would give the federal government eyes and ears on the ground, and speed response.  I'd also support requiring the governor to state rules of engagement (the observers are/are not to shoot people to prevent looting, for instance).  This Wall Street Journal story illustrates why that could be important.  (If the link ever fails, it's also here.)  The state and local authorities could have access to the observers reporters, and request them to check on things, but they would not have any authority over the observers.  If Mayor Negin and the former NOLA police chief were deliberately spreading false stories, as has been suggested, such observers would have cleared things up.

        But should we go farther, and enable the President to shoulder aside governors, then send in the military to handle law enforcement and rescue, while ordering around the National Guard and the state and local cops?  I can see arguments on both sides.  Leave your thoughts in comments, if you have a strong opinion.  Bay, by the way, is against that.

        This whole issue of who does what needs a lot more thought.  At the least, if every governor is going to remain in charge, then we need to make that clear.  FEMA's response to a request for disaster aid should then be an immediate inquiry into exactly what the state wants the feds doing and not doing.  At the same time, we should have the Feds get very publicly hardnosed with state governors.  'Well, Gov. X can't or won't keep order, and won't let us send in troops to stop looting and ensure the safety of rescue workers, so we're not doing much of anything till the situation stabilizes.  I'm not going to get federal employees killed because the of the Governor's failings.'

        I'm not as big a believer in federalism as, say, Prof. Reynolds, but I do think responsibility has to be commensurate with authority, and the lines of each need to be clearly drawn.

        Hat tip to Glenn Reynolds for both stories.



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