Retorts: Disaster prep needn’t be disaster

THE TEXAS NATIONAL GUARD and the Texas State Guard have been called out to assist in disaster relief as Hurricane Harvey hit the state (U.S. Army photo by 1LT Zachary West).

Oh, that’ll never happen. Or, it won’t happen again.

The nation’s attention has been focused this week on the agony of Texas and Louisiana as those states are lashed by Hurricane – now Tropical Storm – Harvey.

As of Wednesday morning, 18 deaths have been reported and over 50 inches of rain – a new record for the continental U.S. – has fallen. Many are injured, homeless or displaced. The largest refinery in the U.S. is offline, and the eventual cost of this natural disaster will run well into the billions.

By all accounts, so far, the response to Harvey is better than it was to Hurricane Katrina in 2008, when the New Orleans area was hammered both by vicious winds and an inept government response on the local, state and federal levels.

However, even now, with plenty of object lessons to learn from, we as a people tend to put more emphasis on after-the-fact cleanup and much less on prevention and preparation in advance.

Money is a big part of it. Billions are lavished on defense, but emergency management is a somewhat of a poor relative. The proposed 2018 federal budget includes many cuts in that field, most particularly $667 million in grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assist state and local governments in dealing with natural disasters and the like.

Perhaps the Harvey situation will lead to a mitigation of those reductions, but another issue remains. If we can’t find the money to do all the planning and preparation that we need, what can be done? Plenty.

California – like 22 other states and Puerto Rico – has a state defense force. An SDF is a state-only version of the National Guard. It is comprised of prior-service military and non-priors who have skills useful to the organization.

The Golden State’s SDF is the California State Military Reserve. This is a budget operation: soldiers in the CSMR are unpaid unless called to active duty, in which case they are paid at the same rate as their National Guard counterparts. Over the past 20 years, SDF soldiers have been called up to respond to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, to Katrina, and now the entire Texas State Guard (as well as the Texas National Guard) has been called to duty.

All the training and preparation done by SDF units are free and don’t cost the taxpayers a dime. Many such soldiers even buy their own uniforms and equipment. Most states appropriate only pennies for their SDFs, and more than half the states – including Florida, which is Hurricane Central – don’t even have such an organization.

The local analogy – without military status or weapons – is the Community Emergency Response Team, or CERT. Most cities in Orange County have CERTs, but – like SDFs – are starved not only for funds and equipment, but also for recognition.

There is a tendency among professional military and public safety establishments to put little credence in the value of such citizen volunteers, and certainly there are many sophisticated functions for which you want an intensely-trained expert to perform.

But there are many jobs that a properly-nurtured corps of citizens can do ably if government is willing to embrace the idea with a greater degree of seriousness. The “Cajun Navy” worked wonders in Katrina, and other volunteer efforts are saving lives even as we speak. Imagine what could be accomplished with more foresight.

Despite all the professional resources which are brought to bear, each such disaster carries with it the lament “we are overwhelmed.”

Maybe if more open-minded thinking was applied to the problem of disaster preparation and relief, we wouldn’t be overwhelmed. Maybe we could have more first responders and fewer victims. But, nah … that will never happen. So far.

Jim Tortolano’s Retorts appears each Wednesday. He served in the California State Military Reserve from 2006 to 2013, attached to the 40th Infantry Division Support Brigade.

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