US&R in Haiti: Wishing vs. Planning

SC-TF1 US&R working in St. Tammany Parish, LA after Katrina.

SC-TF1 US&R working in St. Tammany Parish, LA after Katrina.

I’m sure everyone out there continues to keep an eye on Haiti.  I’m not easily shocked, yet even I have been amazed at some of the scenes from down there.  Every time I see another bit of news, I want to go hug my children and remind myself how fortunate we are.

When friends and family see the situation there, not knowing how US&R deployments really work, I get asked if SC-TF1 is going.  Each time, I have taken that opportunity to explain the workings (and separation) between the USAID/DART assets and domestic response (FEMA US&R and State US&R assets) and how “task forces just aren’t sent to international disasters through FEMA”.  Of course, by saying “never”, something I NEVER thought I’d see in all of my years working in this business is occurring: the cooperation and coordination of FEMA with EMAC for the possibility (note I said, “possibility”, not “probability”) of State US&R Task Forces being deployed along with FEMA-sanctioned assets to an international disaster.

But all that being said, in watching the events unfolding, I continue to try to get my head around the response and it frankly has been a challenge.  With any disaster, there needs to be an attack plan, but in most cases, these plans hinge on some basic tenets of organization, none of these which seem to apply in Haiti.  Having been hit by several prior disasters recently, the country was already in extremis and the current situation obviously doesn’t improve things.

I have already heard from my sources that the teams that are there are working under heavy force protection.  Any of us that thought operating in New Orleans post-Katrina was sketchy, one look at the situation in Haiti makes us understand that at least we had the force of law SOMEWHERE on our side.  Reports have indicated that aside from the overwhelming number of missions and dangerous conditions, another part of the reason that engaging missions is problematic is because there simply isn’t any way to get the equipment from the airport to the disaster: roads were bad to begin with, there’s only one active runway at the airport, and there’s no machinery to off-load equipment and supplies.  Once the materials do happen to get onto the ground, no matter what conventions you try to apply for allocating the resources, there isn’t any guarantee the locals will comply with it anyway.

So for this disaster, there are other “sub-disasters” that make it much more dire, and even the media isn’t astute enough to understand it.  This situation is going to get MUCH worse before it gets better, because there’s no way to effectively get the help to where it needs to go, and if it did get there, there’s no guarantee that it will be applied to the right area anyway (unless you count “at gunpoint” as an effective means of allocating resources).

While equipment and supplies are arriving, we could just send everything we have to the area, but without the people who know how to work it, the equipment is useless.  While one friend of mine said to this, “If you gave me a concrete cutting saw, I could probably figure it out”; I mentioned to him that if you didn’t know water was an important part in making the saw blade cut more effectively, failing to do something as simple as that might mean the difference between extricating someone with one blade or a half-dozen blades.  It occurs to me that there are nuances of working with our US&R tools that are completely lost on the uninitiated.  I said this the other day: “It’s the definition between an organized US&R resource and ‘mobs with shovels’”.

My point is, after all this rambling, is that this is very much a teachable moment for everyone, just as I hoped Katrina and other disaster have been.  Even for some of my non-emergency service readers out there, there is an extremely important lesson to be learned: Every community must understand its vulnerabilities and the potential for disaster, and plan accordingly.

The caveat to this is, that despite the presence of a written plan, you can have every contingency covered and discussed, if you don’t understand and practice the plan, it isn’t worth the paper it is written on (Anybody remember Katrina?).

It is imperative that elected officials along with those of us who serve the public safety sector of our respective communities (AND the citizens living in those communities) understand what likely scenarios can occur, know where the vulnerable populations exist, and understand what resources are needed.

For responders: If those resources aren’t readily available, it is then incumbent upon us all to know where to get those resources, how to legally obtain and use them, and even more important, when and how to call them.

For the elected officials: It requires insistence on development of these plans as well as FUNDING to support the plans.

For non-responder citizens: Maybe you should understand that you have a part in this as well, to insure you are prepared to go it alone for at least 72 hours and maybe have some ability to rely on your own preparedness and not look to government for the total solution.  Try checking out the recommendations here at the FEMA website.

So without too much further delay, maybe this is a moment for all of you (elected officials, responders, and citizens) to dig out your volumes of plans and look through them and begin to understand not only what is in them, but at least what your part in that plan will be if, God forbid, you have to utilize them.   While we here in the United States are subject to the same disasters as other nations, at least here, there is the force of law to keep this type of situation from getting out of hand (note the sarcasm).  My suggestion: have a plan, support it, practice it, and if things go badly, USE IT.

Stay safe and let’s keep the responders as well as the citizens of Haiti in our prayers.


  • truck6alpha says:

    By the way: Chris Naum has written an EXCELLENT blog on the history of US&R that I wanted to recommend:

    Please check it out and let him know I sent you.

  • Unfortunately, Haiti was a disaster before the earthquake. Every society has a disaster threshold, a point where an event overwhelms it’s ability to cope. Haiti was at that threshold before, now it’s way past.

    As usual, the local government was not prepared and this is the result. The only real airport in the country is turning out to be a choke point as there is method to off load material and personnel and no real place to store the material before some form of orderly distribution can occur.

    This is the problem: the country did not have an effective method to distribute food and water in good times, let alone bad.

    Local government was weak at best and now likely doesn’t functionally exist.

    on and on and on…….

    The screaming media, as usual, is going to blame us, the president, George Bush or Bozo the clown and will continue to ignore the root causes of the problems in theatre.

    Meanwhile the people suffer and valuable assets are waiting at airports across the country because no aircraft or space in Haiti is available.

    Thanks for the post

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