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Monday, August 28th, 2023

Baton Rouge, Louisiana


If you live in Louisiana, we know all about a dysfunctional response to natural disasters. Remember Katrina? Are we witnessing another lackadaisical and debilitated response to the wildfire tragedy on the island of Maui in the Hawaiian Islands?  So far, news reports cite some 2000 businesses and homes destroyed with over 1000 residents who still remain uncounted for.

There’s a Coast Guard station on Maui, and 12 military bases throughout the Hawaiian Islands. Yet the military response to this tragedy has been summed up as “underwhelming.”  The Washington Post reported numerous comments of locals, saying: “Where are the uniforms? Where is the military?  Waterman Mel Thoman, known as @wedgemel on Instagram, posted a video that expressed his bewilderment.  “My question is, where is the military? Where are the helicopters? Why are it the locals having to do everything?”

And then there is FEMA. The Federal Emergency Management Agency was authorized by the President to undertake a major federal disaster team effort on the day of the fire, August 9th.  But the first disaster team did not even open its first center on Maui until a week later on Aug. 15th.  A week went by, the fires continued to rage, and FEMA was nowhere to be found.

FEMA apparently just doesn’t get it. Back in 2005 when Katrina hit the greater New Orleans area, my brother-in-law was serving as sheriff in Plaquemine Parish. He told me that the Canadian mounted police made it down to Plaquemines before the first federal officials showed up. FEMA back then was headed by a former cattle show organizer.  One can only wonder if improvements for better responses have found their way to the nation’s supposedly top disaster relief agency.

President Biden did go to Maui, but he’s being accused of not being “tuned in” as to just how damaging the fires were. While petting a local dog the President joked about the boots the canine was wearing. “You guys catch the boots out here?” Biden appeared to ask the press watching him. He smiled and said, “That’s some hot ground, man.” 

We here in the Bayou State have not forgotten the childish effort of one upmanship between then Governor Kathleen Blanco and President George Bush during Katrina. Blanco dithered for several days after Bush told her the federal government was willing to take over a full response.  She finally agreed, but only after continuing damage was inflicted on Louisianians within the disaster area due to her delay. As Governor Edwin Edwards later, told me, “I would’ve given it to the president in a New York second. Then the pressure would be on him to respond and give the state much more help.”

And just as New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagan back in 2005 failed miserably to prepare for the oncoming storm, local officials in Maui were far from the top of their game. The head of Maui’s emergency management agency failed to sound a statewide warning system by saying he was worried their alarms would have sent many residents inland “into the fire.”

But state Sen. Angus McKelvey ““ who lost his own home in the fires ““ blasted agency head’s response as insulting. “I’ve heard the line that “˜people would have panicked and ran up to the mountains because it’s a tsunami siren.’ “¦ It’s insulting to think that people would be that clueless, that they wouldn’t know that sirens blasting was because of the fire,” McKelvey told CNN on Thursday. “These are not tsunami sirens. They’re disaster sirens.”

Even as this column is being written, some two weeks after the blazes began, there are still hundreds of locals sleeping on golf courses, beaches and in cars. A much more robust response needs to be in the planning on both state and federal level.  When hurricanes have a potential to hit land, there is generally a several day window to prepare.  But our country is witnessing an uptick in weather related disasters that give very little if any warning. Brush, fires, earthquakes, tornadoes, and flooding require much more advanced planning. Public officials just can’t wait until the worst happens.

We live in a different weather-related world today.  Leadership has been weak following Katrina and is apparently feeble in Maui. One would have thought that we would have learned a lesson or two in the last 18 years. Apparently not.

Peace and Justice

Jim Brown

Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers throughout the nation and on websites worldwide. You can read all his past columns and see continuing updates at http://www.jimbrownla.com. You can also listen to his regular podcast at www.datelinelouisiana.com.




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