Taking steps toward real recovery and preparedness

A pilot must know what is happening in the entire aircraft at any given moment.

As the people of the Gulf Coast continue to pick up the wreckage and destruction left by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, it is important that we ask ourselves what we can do to better respond to disasters, both natural and man-made, that have the potential to wreak havoc on our country.

President George W. Bush, last week, gave his idea for a solution: Ease up on restrictions, allowing the military to operate domestically by removing the restrictions imposed by Posse Commitatus. He argues that the military is highly mobile and organized, and thus, in the best position to engage in disaster relief. Personally, the idea of giving the military greater sway over domestic matters doesn’t sit very well with me. Even if I were comfortable with removing those restrictions, I would have to question the wisdom of using the military for relief. Iraq and Afghanistan have shown us that this isn’t something the military is particularly good at. Moreover, is it wise to delegate more responsibilities to an institution which fewer and fewer Americans are willing to join, and which is already stretched to its limits?

Perhaps the most important question: Is there a better way? One such possibility would be to create a kind of Emergency Relief Corps, which would be kind of an expanded Peace Corps or Americorps with an emphasis on disaster relief. Recruits could be trained in fire fighting, emergency care, reconstruction techniques, disease prevention and a host of other skills needed to respond to disasters. They would be equipped with helicopters, ambulances, amphibious vehicles and other tools they would need to respond quickly and efficiently. In the event of a disaster, that overwhelms the local government, there would be a trained force of people on standby that can be called upon to work on relief, cleanup and reconstruction.

Such a program would, (cost prohibitively), have to be significantly smaller than a branch of the armed services, probably around 20,000 to 40,000 people . But given the more specialized training and strategic placement of its human resources, it would likely get more done in terms of actually relieving disasters.

One problem Bush supporters may raise with this is that it doesn’t appear to adequately deal with problems like looting and violence that may arise in the event of a disaster. The primary reason, however, looting took place in New Orleans, is that there was no organized response to the disaster. People were told to go to the Superdome and help would arrive.

When two days went by and there was still nothing, people became angry, resentful and desperate; and some of them went over the edge. It should be noted, however, that even in New Orleans, the early reports of massive violence were greatly exaggerated, and that having a mobile force trained in disaster relief who can reach people quickly and efficiently and who take the time to coordinate and plan with local authorities can mitigate many of the problems faced in New Orleans. 

Some may also say that despite Katrina, Rita and even Sept. 11, the United States doesn’t suffer all that many disasters, and you may end up with a large group of people only prepared in the abstract, without any real experience. To this, I say that as part of their training, enlistees would have to spend a year or so abroad working on relief projects and responding to disasters in other parts of the world for those who need them. This would serve as important “on-the-job” training and prepare them for any domestic disasters they may need to respond to in their second or third years of the program, (or however long it’s decided to be). In an effort to maintain their neutrality as much as possible, this group should work with United Nations relief efforts, or it should be stipulated that they won’t be sent to war zones unless both sides agree that their help is needed. Domestically, the group would work not only on relief projects, but also on disaster prevention (for example: repairing levees, creating evacuation plans, placing personnel and resources strategically, etc.) so that communities would be better prepared for such disasters before they hit.

Introducing this kind of program would not only be much more sensible in terms of actually helping us respond to disasters domestically, it also would go a long way to repair the image of the U.S. internationally. Recruiting people to serve in something like this also would likely be easier than in the armed forces, at a time when many people are concerned not only about being shot in Iraq, but the morality of military conduct itself.

The plan listed here is only one possible idea, and with Bush in the White House, (or even “insert-your-favorite-jelly-spined-Democrat’s-name-here”), its chances of happening are up there with pigs learning how to fly. Still, I think it’s important that people upset with the direction this country is heading, (as

I have been for all too long), start to think about the direction we would like to see it headed in. How can we show people that we can build a better world? Once we can answer that question for ourselves, the real reconstruction can begin.

Nathan Mittelstaedt is a University student. Please send comments to [email protected]