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Hurricane Isabel and Homeland Security

by ROSEMARY And WALT BRASCH

America has already spent more than $80 billion in the past year on its war on terrorism, and the president has asked Congress for another $87 billion, most of it to rebuild Iraq. The appropriated budget for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), dwindling each year, is $1.8 billion.

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 underfunded. Red Cross disaster funds are negligible. With thousands of National Guard companies deployed–now up to a year each -most east coast states don’t have the manpower or resources it needs for a sustained recovery program.

Because of limited access and egress from the coastal areas, and stick construction of thousands of houses valued at $300,000 and more, the physical damage can be significant, says Frank Lepore of the National Hurricane Center. Heavy rains are expected into Pennsylvania and the northeast corridor, with probable flooding. The hurricane has the potential to 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, 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. Hurricane Andrew, a Category 4 storm, hit the Florida coast in 1992 with the fury of what might be best described as a massive air attack. Neighborhoods were leveled; schools, churches, stores, and factories were destroyed; the people were left without shelter, food, water, gas, electricity–and jobs. It wasn’t just for hours or days, but weeks, months, and in some cases, years.

The cost for Andrew is estimated at $25 billion, according to the Red Cross; insurance payouts were about $15 billion of that; several companies went into bankruptcy. The Red Cross, at the scene before the hurricane hit, was still working with its victims 10 years later.

Following Andrew in 1992, social service agencies–along with FEMA and the National Guard–fed, clothed, and sheltered the victims. The Guard from several states evacuated victims and policed against looters; it provided tents, water, and food; military trucks hauled debris, cleared by Guardsmen. They carried workers and materials to rebuild Florida. Social service agencies provided emergency food, clothing, and shelter–often as far as 100 miles away from the destruction, since utilities were non-existent in the hurricane areas. Although FEMA was slow to react under the Bush I administration, it eventually provided significant assistance, then was reorganized under the Clinton administration to provide a more efficient response.

The Pennsylvania National Guard has adequate manpower, according to Lt. Col. Chris Cleaver, with only 3,000 of its 20,000 member force currently deployed. However, most Guard units in other states have manpower and equipment shortages because of overseas deployment. Most state Guard units should be able to handle the immediate evacuation and recovery. However, long term recovery will probably be a problem.

Because of deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Guantanamo Bay, the South Carolina National Guard is short-handed, according to Lt. Col. Pete Brooks. That state’s Guard is operating with less than 75 percent strength. Most of the Guard’s trucks, bulldozers, and heavy equipment are in Iraq, according to Brooks.

Because of current overseas deployment, with others on active alert, the North Carolina National Guard is at half-strength,
according to Senior Airman Lyndsey Leffel, the Guard’s public affairs specialist. Senior officers in New Jersey and Virginia agreeSenior officers in New Jersey, Virginia, and North Carolina National Guards agree their manpower and equipment can handle the initial problems. It’s long-term recovery that may drain their states resources.

Governors can request assistance from other states Guard units. But, with a wide-spread destruction expected, states will have to hire private companies. The cost to to do the work the National Guard could do could be several hundred million dollars.

The Red Cross disaster relief fund is in a very precarious situation, according to Kelly Donaghy, Red Cross spokesman. We like to have at least $56 million on hand, she says. We have almost nothing. The Red Cross estimates it would need at least $100 million for recovery from Isabel. Funds donated to the Red Cross for the 9/11 Fund may not be spent on anything but 9/11 victims. All social service agencies which normally would be involved with disaster relief have had to do with less as unemployment and a declining economy under the current administration, combined with the largest national deficit in more than a decade, has affected charitable contributions.

When a substantial minority of Americans opposed sending several hundred thousand soldiers to Iraq, and argued that the costs of war would haunt us for decades, they were branded unpatriotic. When they argued that the Department of Homeland Security was more of a public relations ploy than any serious attempt to coordinate homeland security, they were branded traitors.

Iraq, as we now know, even under a ruthless thug, didn’t harbor the terrorists the President claimed, it had no weapons of mass destruction, and it posed no imminent threat to the security of the American people. But, a Category 3 hurricane does pose an imminent threat, as do forest fires, blizzards, and floods. The Department of Homeland Security, instead of concentrating its resources upon a disaster that can kill several thousand Americans and leave several hundred thousand injured and homeless, is still trying to figure out why it can’t stop people with box cutters from boarding airplanes in America.

While we can’t put natural disasters into the same category as an al-Qaeda attack, they both encompass a fear of imminent danger. Death and destruction by a Category 3/4 hurricane is more imminent than an attack by Iraq ever was–and could leave more death and destruction than 9/11. Neither our home nor our land is secure.

Rosemary R. Brasch, a Red Cross family services specialist for national disasters, has worked several hurricanes along the East Coast. Walter M. Brasch, an author and professor of journalism, is active in emergency management. You may contact the Brasches at brasch@bloomu.edu.

 

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