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How FEMA helped in NO

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  • How FEMA helped in NO

    September 17, 2005
    Going (Down) by the Book

    When President Bush spoke from Jackson Square on Thursday night, across the Mississippi River a few men sitting next to a trailer watched him on a television powered by a generator. They listened respectfully, but they were not exactly dazzled.

    "Intentions and results are two different things," said one of them, Wayne Savoy, who knows something about results from his work at this makeshift command post of the Acadian Ambulance company. During the flood, it was a lonely island of competence.

    The city's communications system was wiped out, but Acadian dispatchers kept working, thanks to a backup power system and a portable antenna rushed here the day after the hurricane. As stranded patients wondered what had happened to the city's medics and ambulances, Acadian medics filled in at the Superdome and evacuated thousands from six hospitals.

    While Louisiana officials debated how to accept outside help, Acadian was directing rescues by helicopters from the military and other states. When the Federal Emergency Management Agency's paperwork slowed the evacuation of patients from the airport, Acadian's frustrated medics waited with empty helicopters.

    The company sent in outside doctors and nurses to the airport, where patients were dying and medical care was in short supply. FEMA rejected the help because the doctors and nurses weren't certified members of a National Disaster Medical Team.

    President Bush has promised to find out what went wrong and make sure the government has a better plan for the next disaster. But plans can do only so much. As the Acadian workers demonstrated, coping with a disaster requires the ability to improvise and break the rules - talents notably absent in most bureaucrats.

    After Sept. 11, federal officials vowed to make sure that cities' communications systems would survive a disaster. Improving them was a priority of the new Homeland Security Department. But when a predictable disaster struck New Orleans, city officials couldn't talk to their rescue workers on the street and had a hard time even calling leaders in the state capital.

    No government planners expected the only working radio network in New Orleans to be run by a private company, but Acadian had the flexibility to take on the job. It also had better equipment than city agencies - its chief executive, Richard Zuschlag, is a fanatic for state-of-the-art gear and backup systems.

    When the phone system failed, his medics were ready with satellite phones. When the hurricane winds knocked over both of the company's antennas in the New Orleans area, Acadian quickly located a mobile antenna and communications trailer owned by Iberia, a rural parish west of New Orleans. The sheriff, fortunately, didn't ask FEMA for permission to move it to Acadian's command post, across the river from the city.

    Thanks to their network, Acadian's dispatchers quickly learned before anyone else how bad the flooding was throughout New Orleans. Mr. Zuschlag tried alerting city and state officials, as Gardiner Harris reported in The New York Times. But the city and state communications systems were so bad that nothing got done.

    So Acadian directed the evacuation of hospitals and dispatched help to local officials. Its medics improvised as they went along. Trees and light posts were cut down so helicopters could land. Medics commandeered three tractor-trailers to move patients out of a hospital. They packed newborns in cardboard boxes to squeeze more of them into the helicopter.

    But when they tried to speed the evacuation of hundreds of patients at the New Orleans airport, the medics were no match for FEMA officials determined to get clearance from their supervisors in Baton Rouge.

    "At one point I had 10 helicopters on the ground waiting to go," said Marc Creswell, an Acadian medic, "but FEMA kept stonewalling us with paperwork. Meanwhile, every 30 or 40 minutes someone was dying."

    Mr. Creswell said he had ferried in more than a dozen doctors and nurses to help at the airport, but they weren't allowed to work because they weren't certified. This was explained with a line Mr. Bush might keep in mind as he contemplates expanding Washington's role in the next disaster.
    "When the doctors asked why they couldn't help these critically ill people lying there unattended," Mr. Creswell recalled, "the FEMA people kept saying, 'You're not federalized.' "

    FEMA, since 2001 has bocome a joke. Now whether that is due to the political dumbells Bush appointed to HEAD this agency or not, you must decide. In any case rebuilding NO with federal 'oversight and help' might end up making Boston's Big Dig be remembered as an efficiently run, cost effective operation ... in comparison. [img]style_emoticons/<#EMO_DIR#>/blink.gif[/img]
    Norman Chad, syndicated columnist: “Sports radio, reflecting our sinking culture, spends entire days advising managers and coaches, berating managers and coaches, firing managers and coaches and searching the countryside for better middle relievers. If they just redirected their energy toward, say, crosswalk-signal maintenance, America would be 2 percent more livable.”

    "The best argument against democracy," someone (Churchill?) said, "is a five minute conversation with the average voter."