First Lessons From Katrina
Paris–Like television viewers around the world, Europeans were in turn appalled by the catastrophic damage Hurricane Katrina wreaked on the U.S. Gulf Coast, incredulous at the curiously relaxed response of all levels of American government, and appalled that victims were left for days to fend for themselves.
It was only several days later that scenes shown on TV screens became more recognizable to Europeans, as military helicopters, vehicles and uniforms finally showed up. This is, after all, the norm in Europe, where the armed forces are routinely deployed in civil emergencies. The absence of military assets in Katrina’s immediate aftermath was all the more notable to European viewers.
Of course, Europe has not faced anything nearly as destructive as Katrina in living memory, so it is in no position to give lessons. It also is true that rescue operations are easier to plan and carry out in countries where strong central governments have the authority to act when they decide to, without having to consult local governments or parliament. Europeans expect government intervention in emergencies, and they pay up front for it, however much they may grumble about the high taxes that pay for the system. One result is that, in times of need, help is readily available. When late August floods cut off the mountain village of Engelberg, Switzerland, for example, military helicopters turned up within hours, ferrying food in and tourists out. Over a three-week period, 2,700 soldiers were deployed (for a total of 30,000 man-days) to help the local population, while military helicopters logged a total of 420 flight hours, transporting 9,400 people and more than 330 metric tons of supplies.
Again, the scope and seriousness of that flooding in Switzerland was not even remotely comparable to Katrina. However, in proportion, the Swiss government’s response was both effective and fast, and the 9,400 Swiss evacuated by helicopter is not a hugely larger number than the 20,000 people waiting to be rescued in New Orleans’ Superdome.
Switzerland, like most European countries, has a civil protection department (in this case, the Federal Office for Protection of the Population) that can call on military assets in time of need. Other European countries have taken things further, and France’s Sé£µrité ƒivile, Italy’s Protezione Civile and Germany’s Bundesamt f??rungsschutz und Katastrophenhilfe (BBK), to name but three, are autonomous agencies that mostly operate their own assets, including helicopters, in support of the civil population.
In France, an area just twice as large as the one hit by Katrina, the Securité ƒivile alone maintains seven regional headquarters, three rapid deployment units, four logistical centers, 22 helicopter bases with 45 helicopters, and one fixed-wing base. In addition, emergency administrations throughout Europe also can call upon police, fire department and military helicopters as necessary.
Even Italy, not famous for its bureaucratic efficiency, has given its Protezione Civile direct access to 18 dedicated helicopters just for firefighting missions. Additional aircraft are available for other roles.
This is a major difference with the U.S, where the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, was conspicuous by its absence during Katrina, and where it became painfully clear that there is no intermediate echelon between local governments and Washington to provide and coordinate emergency services.
A second difference is legal. In Europe, even in federally-obsessed Switzerland, national emergency services intervene as required, without having to wait for an OK from local governments that may or may not still be functioning. Europeans were stunned to learn that U.S. military forces cannot be deployed on U.S. territory unless requested by state governors. Is this system, born in the 18th Century, still valid today?
This looks like a certain recipe for disaster, as a major emergency is no time for state and federal governments to be bickering over the finer points of constitutional law, or other bureaucratic niceties. Once such obstacles were resolved, military helicopters deployed throughout the disaster zone, rescuing the most distressed victims, bringing in sorely needed supplies, even repairing flood defenses. This is as it should be. Too bad that bureaucracy held them up so long.
This is not the only instance of rigid adherence to silly rules when lives are at stake. As widely reported, two Navy helicopter pilots and their crews who flew more than 100 victims to safety returned from New Orleans Aug. 30 only to be scolded for having diverted from their assignment of delivering food and water. Apparently, this affair did not go beyond a simple reprimand, but it illustrates another trap: the very real risk of compounding the damage by blind and stubborn adherence to procedures and rules.
In fact, the Katrina episode illustrates a common failing of governments worldwide: although they spend billions of dollars each year on military equipment, they don’t waste much time looking at how that equipment, especially helicopters, can be used to help the population in time of need. This is a failing that must be fixed urgently.