14 September 2005

Everything that's wrong with FEMA in a nutshell...

There was an absolutely unreal story on NPR today about the disaster medical center that operated out of Louis Armstrong International Airport during the evacuation stage following Katrina. A number of physicians complained about difficulties in obtaining needed supplies. Apparently, FEMA officials were not sending in supplies unless the requisition forms were properly filled out and sent to the Baton Rouge headquarters. The lack of a working fax at the airport did not, apparently, enter into the equation.

NPR had part of an interview with Col. H. James Young, the FEMA official in charge of the airport, on Morning Edition today. What he had to say indicates some major problems in that organization (not that this is news at this point, of course). The audio from that segment is available online. The transcription below is my own.
Supplies showed up. We had what we needed to do what we needed to do... These doctors, they work in these ERs, in these big hospitals or wherever it might be, and they may not have certain procedures they need to go through. They can say, "I want this right now," and they have it. Well, this is the federal government, and it has procedures that we go through."

It really needs to be heard to be believed. This man - this very model of the modern inept bureaucrat - really sounds like he thinks that the problem is the expectations that the doctors have, not anything wrong with the system. Heaven forbid that the federal government give doctors, during an emergency, what they want in the shortest amount of time possible.

I'd like to suggest something a bit radical here. Maybe, just maybe, we should make sure that the people running things at FEMA understand that there's a time and a place for paperwork. In the middle of a massive medical crisis isn't it. That's when you put people who are not merely intelligent and qualified, but also creative and flexible thinkers in charge. That's when you let them improvise, to do what they need to do to get the job done now. Write down the expenses. Keep track of what is going where, as much as you can. But get the stuff there now, and do the triplicate BS later.
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