Myanmar or New Orleans? Let’s learn the RIGHT lessons from Katrina (edited: 17 May 08)

It didn’t take long before I saw the (incorrect) drawing of a connection between the Burmese government’s refusal to allow relief to enter Myanmar, and the US response to Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast region. (Note, it was far more than New Orleans.) I knew it was coming. In fact, when I heard Laura Bush plead for the Burmese government to allow the international community in, I knew it was coming. In today’s era of knee-jerk hatred of Bush, the minute one speaks, all rational thought goes out the window.

For instance, one blogger, in response to the various news stories, asks “ Surely I’m not the only one who sees the irony in this.”

Again, the regular reader of this blog may remember, I wrote at the time of the relief operations following Katrina, about the barriers that hindered the relief effort. While many chose to cast FEMA and specifically, President Bush, as evil characters, they have unfortunately confused politics with reality–and unfortunately this actually hinders real progress.

First, let me state that there were some political barriers to getting relief into the city of New Orleans. Alas, the politicians that hindered the operations were the Mayor of the city, and the Governor of New Orleans. I will leave it to my brother to add the specifics. Of course these were rather insignificant barriers, compared to some of the others.

The most important barrier to providing relief operations was the storm itself. People seem to forget that our usual “quick response” forces (the Air Force) couldn’t get into the airport for a few days because the runway was still under water. I hope it comes as no surprise that you can’t land cargo planes in water. Additionally, the storm blocked and destroyed the major roads used to move into the city. So even if resupply could have made it to the airport, there was no way to move it from the ramp, to downtown. Trucks from outside the area couldn’t move in either until the roads were cleared. Finally, ports were also damaged, so ships could not quickly move in. Once the physical barriers were removed, there were other problems.

Not all barriers to success were physical. There were problems with FEMA, and other disaster response organizations. Bureaucracy does at times get in the way. There were points of confusion centered around command and control. The local authorities did not want to relinquish their control, despite the fact that the operation was regional not local.

So, to get to the point of this post, we need to learn the important lessons from Katrina. The lesson is not that President Bush was a bad President, or that he willfully chose to withhold relief (as the comparison to the Myanmar tragedy would imply.) The true lessons are in how to plan for, and execute, relief operations. If we don’t learn those lessons then we will never leave the realm of political name-calling–condemning thousands more Americans when the next tragedy strikes.