Editor’s Note: Kansas Governor Kathleen Sibelius says that the war in Iraq has severely hurt her state’s National Guard ability to deal with an F-5 tornado that destroyed Greensburg. Gov. Sibelius said because the Department of Defense has shipped personnel and equipment to Iraq, the state doesn’t have half the tractor-trailer trucks it needs to move heavy equipment, and only about 30 of 170 medium tactical vehicles. The state’s military resources were about 40 per cent of necessary levels, according to Major General Tod Bunting, the state’s adjutant general. Lieutenant General Stephen Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, admitted, “We are woefully under equipped in the Army National Guard across the nation”.
In September 2003, two years before Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, and slightly more than three and a half years before an F-5 tornado destroyed Greensburg, in An Ill Wind and National Policy, Rosemary and Walter Brasch predicted that the war in Iraq would leave Americans vulnerable to recovery efforts should there be major natural disasters.
Rosemary Brasch, at the time, was a Red Cross national disaster family services specialist; Walter Brasch, a syndicated columnist and university journalism professor, had worked in emergency management for several years. His book, Unacceptable: The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina, details the causes and problems leading to the devastation and recovery in New Orleans.
An ill wind and American policy
America has already spent more than US$80 billion in the past year on its “war on terrorism”, and the President has asked Congress for another US$87 billion, most of it to rebuild Iraq. The appropriated budget for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), dwindling each year, is US$1.8 billion.
Even more critical, many of the most experienced senior emergency management specialists are leaving the agency often replaced by political appointees with minimal disaster training.
Within hours, the 400-mile wide Isabel, a Category 3-4 hurricane packing winds of 100-140 miles per hour, will hit between North Carolina and New Jersey. Its victims will have to be content with leftovers. Our nation’s disaster preparedness doesn’t meet the needs that any sizeable disaster might bring. FEMA is severely under funded. Red Cross disaster funds are negligible. With thousands of National Guard soldiers deployed - now up to a year each - most east coast states don’t have the manpower or resources they need for a sustained recovery program.
Because of limited access and egress from coastal areas and stick construction of thousands of houses, valued at US$300,000 and more, the physical damage can be significant says Frank Lepore of the National Hurricane Center. Pennsylvania and the northeast corridor expect heavy rains with probable flooding. The hurricane may cause a large loss of life, says Lepore.
Residents along the coastal areas hoping to cover their doors and windows in preparation for the storm are paying as much as 30-35 percent more for plywood than six months ago. It’s not greed by the lumber yards, but supply.
The federal government “bought most of our plywood to send to Iraq for rebuilding there,” says Aaron Johnson of 84 Lumber in Raleigh, N.C. The scarcity of plywood is felt throughout the east coast. Complicating the problem, because of heavy rainfall in the summer, “most mills aren’t open,” says Mark Schneider, of Hugh’s Lumber Co., Charleston, S.C.
FEMA’s disaster relief fund, prior to an emergency allocation this past summer, was “at a dangerously low level”, resulting in significant cut-backs on service, according to the National Emergency Management Association. The hurricane season isn’t over until December. To understand what it could be like, it’s necessary to look at the past - and then realise how much less prepared the nation is to handle the equivalent disaster.
Hurricane Andrew, a Category 4 storm, hit the Florida coast in 1992 with the fury of a massive air attack. Neighbourhoods were levelled; schools, churches, stores and factories were destroyed; the people were without shelter, food, water, gas, electricity and jobs. It wasn’t just for hours or days, but weeks, months, and in some cases, years.
Andrew cost an estimated US$25 billion, according to the Red Cross, including insurance payouts of about US$15 billion. Several companies went into bankruptcy, and the Red Cross, at the scene before the hurricane hit, was still working with its victims 10 years later.