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Anticipating Emergencies

IKE LEGGETT for Montgomery County Executive
4401 Dustin Road – Burtonsville, Maryland 20866
September 22, 2005

By Ike Leggett
Written for the September 2005 inaugural issue of

My heart is saddened by the Hurricane Katrina disaster that has hit especially hard in my native Louisiana. While waiting with concern to hear about the safety of relatives and friends, I mourn the losses sustained by New Orleans, a place so integral to my life and the soul of Louisiana. But as a lifelong government leader and educator, the human suffering that was clearly avoidable especially haunts me.

I believe that it is the duty of local, state and federal governments to help the most vulnerable to protect and recover their lives; this takes thorough planning for and educating those least able to help themselves. In areas likely to be flooded, the poor were unprepared to get out safely despite the dire consequences of not evacuating.

Along the Louisiana and Mississippi coastline we are witnessing many of the death-causing errors that humans made. Regulations allowed mobile homes to be sold and inhabited that could not withstand high winds or were sited in flood plains. Funding was insufficient to shore up the levees, even when experts said they would likely be breeched by a heavy hurricane, and the barrier islands were allowed to erode. Then unreasonable assumptions about how to evacuate the disaster area left the poor with few reasonable options. To add insult to injury, these vulnerable people received instructions to check their websites when they had no computers. They were told to leave the city, but many had no cars or money for gas and no ability to pay for hotel rooms.

Besides the sickening general devastation of the Gulf coast, it has been wrenching to watch starving persons hanging onto their rooftops, women in labor unable to reach delivery rooms, and debris on the roads preventing trucks from delivering water to the thirsty. These harsh scenes are the results of inadequate planning.

Some leaders in Washington claim that rebuilding New Orleans is not worthwhile. That inappropriate reaction has been discouraging to those who have fled from a vital city, the heritage of which is grander than the sum of its bricks and mortar. Such statements could also embolden those thinking about attacking our country. For the sake of our citizens and for our culture we must rebuild. America should demonstrate to the world that we are well equipped to meet the challenges of marshalling resources both for fighting terrorism abroad and for repairing our damaged coast at home.

Federal, state and local governments should refine and rehearse their operational plans to ensure feasibility. Our leaders must obtain public support and the necessary tax dollars to deal with low-probability, but deadly events such as Katrina. They must go beyond focusing unduly on the problems-of-the-day to assure that long-term public safety is a priority, even when it is not the popular or easy thing to do. Our leaders will have to overcome public inertia and resistance to providing the necessary investment for future emergencies.

Then we have to better educate the public about the range of resources and coordination needed for emergency communications in several languages, for food, health care, transportation equipment, family placement, financial arrangements, and debris removal as well as reconstruction. Further, building community cohesion would help to discourage much of the unlawful behavior that occurred in New Orleans such as arson and sniping at law enforcement officers, who have heroically stuck to their jobs despite the dangers.

I believe that Montgomery County is better prepared than most communities to respond to various emergencies. While we have not yet faced an obstacle as monumental as the Gulf coast-type of disaster, we have had our share of ice storms, downed power lines and severe wind damage, even some flooding, with adverse ramifications for our entire region. However, we have to be ready to deal not only with natural disasters, but due to our proximity to the nation’s capital, also with acts of terrorism that we hope never to see.

Bright spots amid the coastal tragedy have been evident. Non-profits, individual entertainers and large businesses have put on fundraising drives and collections of goods, and I hope that everyone else will help in some way. We have all heard heartwarming stories of the many people who have aided their neighbors or who have opened their homes to those who now have none. People have come from all over the nation to help, and many nations have offered support. I am particularly pleased that members of the Montgomery County Urban Search and Rescue team, our firefighters and others of good will have been able to help save lives of people trapped in flooded homes. This outpouring of support reflects the core values of a nation that prides itself in helping those truly in need.

Overcoming Katrina will be a long-term project. Improving emergency response will require the active attention of our community and nation for years to come.

A former County Council President, Ike Leggett is a candidate for Montgomery County Executive.