The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, September 12, 2005

Jerry Pournelle article on Katrina

here is a sane and intelligent essay on Katrina from a responsible spokesman for the Right...


The User's Column September 2005

Column 302

Jerry Pournelle

Copyright 2005 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

Caption: a collage of things that appear in this month’s column.

As I write this, the rescue efforts in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast are in full swing. One unsung effort was by the United States Navy. My son Lt. Commander Phillip Pournelle is Executive Officer of the HSV2 Swift, a ship which is herself worth a section in this column. Swift was about to set out from Texas to Virginia when she was ordered to take part in the rescue operations. For reports from the scene by Phil, see my web site at .

There are many lessons to be learned from Katrina. One should be obvious, although it doesn’t appear to be: the primary responsibility for disaster management remains at the individual, local, and state levels. The Federal government can and should respond, and in some cases – see Phil’s reports about his crew – does so heroically. By the nature of our federal system, though, they can only assist and manage. Most of the effort will have to be made by local citizens working through local and state organizations – and that effort will be effective to the extent that those organizations have personnel, training, and equipment.

I have lived through several California earthquakes. In one of them I was an Assistant Scoutmaster and our Boy Scout troop of considerable assistance to local Civil Defense authorities. We still had Civil Defense in these United States in those days. We needed, and were grateful for, Federal assistance in the days that followed; but it was our problem first and foremost, and it was up to us to get the city functioning again. All our efforts were directed toward supporting people in their homes, not moving them to displaced persons camps. We thought of them as property owners and citizens who wanted to rebuild, not as nuisances.

Much of California is built in an earthquake zone. Much of New Orleans  and its suburbs are built on a flood plain. In both cases we can doubt the wisdom of locating cities in such danger spots. In both cases we, as individual citizens of the United States, and as citizens of our local cities, have chosen to stay here for reasons that seem best to us. That’s the nature of self government of a free people. And in both cases, I would think, we understand that while we may be grateful for any help from the people who have chosen not to live in such danger zones, we can hardly call on them to be the primary responders when the inevitable happens.

California has wisely chosen to build a network of volunteer and professional organizations, issue identification cards, pay some of their expenses, and provide them with equipment under the condition that they be part of a state organization with a clear chain of command and channels of communication. Those organizations are called up in times of fire, flood, storm, and earthquake. Most of the members are volunteers – not paid and often not even reimbursed for out of pocket expenses. This is not a perfect system, and in my judgment remains inferior to the old Civil Defense organizations that were superseded by FEMA in the 1970’s; but it’s a system that is a lot better than many states have, and clearly a lot better than anything in place in New Orleans in August, 2005.

The first lesson from Katrina should be that every state ought to build and train disaster response organizations at least as well as California has, and make certain that everyone understands that the primary responsibility for emergency preparedness and management is local and state, not federal. All the organizations should understand the chain of command, have the ability to communicate with their members, and designated persons within them should have the ability to communicate with other organizations including local professional services like Police and Fire Departments. The communications capabilities need to be tested at intervals, and designed to operate when the power grid is out. This is all elementary – but a majority of the states do not have even that much. They should look to it now. Hurricanes and earthquakes are not the only natural disasters. Tornados are more common some places than others but there is no place entirely free of them. Blizzards are rare in parts of the country, but I recall a late spring in Memphis, Tennessee when an ice storm destroyed all power lines and made the streets unusable for nearly a week; I ice skated to high school down Central Avenue. Every part of the country faces one or several potential disasters.

The second lesson, in my judgment, is that we ought to think seriously of returning to the old Civil Defense networks, organization, and name. Civil Defense is by its nature a paramilitary operation, and requires training and discipline. You need volunteers to build non-bureaucratic organizations. If you make use of volunteers, they ought to be rewarded, even if only with titles that bear no authority except in emergencies. It is easy to make fun of Kentucky and Tennessee Colonels, but when I was a lad those were honorable titles, often earned by dedicated public service. Leave that: my point is that Civil Defense implies something entirely different from “Federal Emergency Management Administration.” It implies that the local organizations are more important than a Federal bureaucracy which, since its main activity when there is no emergency is compliance with a host of regulations issued by dozens of government departments, will be shot through with lawyers and quite often headed by lawyers (as both FEMA and DHS were when Katrina struck).

There is much to be learned from Katrina. One is that our Armed Services are among the most efficient and dedicated organizations the world has ever seen. Another is that other nations do have some gratitude for the United States: Bangladesh, beset by its own woes and desperately poor, raised money for relief of Katrina victims. The effect was mostly symbolic, but it was significant to the donors; and we ought to be grateful for that, as well as to our neighbors Canada and Mexico. Mostly, though, we need to relearn lessons we seem to have forgotten: in a republic of free citizens, the primary responsibilities remain with citizens, local governments, and the states. In that order.

Maintaining Communications

The Internet as we know it consists largely of a number of Cisco routers interconnected in various nodes. Most of those are physically located in basements, largely because the rents are lower. One reaction to Katrina ought to be a quick study of just what parts of the Internet backbone are vulnerable to what kind of disaster, with a view to remedies.

Of course much of this was done in the original design. The Internet has great redundancy; it was, in original concept, designed to withstand at least a partial nuclear attack on the United States and still function as a means for military communications. Most Internet users aren’t aware of its origins in ARPA (later DARPA) and various Pentagon 3-star generals, but some of us can remember when that was the case. To this day we say “the Internet sees censorship as damage and routes around it,” but many saying that have no idea of what kind of damage it was designed to route around.

The backbone itself is fairly durable, but there are local nodes that are vulnerable to fire, flooding, and power outages; and finally, the last few hundred feet, from utility pole to homes and shops, is vulnerable. Some of those vulnerabilities are easily seen and remedied, and they ought to be.

Much of the local vulnerability is being overcome through widespread deployment of wireless nodes. Some cities are making wireless free within the city. In other places private competition is forcing many kinds of establishments – coffee shops, book stores, copy and printing shops, shipping centers, etc. – to provide low cost or even free wireless. Readers may remember that nearly a year ago we reviewed D-Link equipment ( that could take any broadband Internet connection and turn that into a wireless hot spot complete with ticket receipts and automatic control of timed access. It’s getting a lot easier to provide wireless, and as that grows, so will the robustness of the Internet.

Voice Over IP in New Orleans

Communications are arguably the single most important public service requirement in a disaster. Amateur radio has traditionally been helpful in disasters, but for actual control of emergency service workers like fire and police it is important that the crisis control center be able to reach the dispatchers, and that the usual emergency service communications networks continue to work.

In New Orleans both those communications broke down, largely due to lack of electric power. When the power grid shut down the City crisis control center communications depended on emergency generators, and those had insufficient fuel to run for more than a few hours. Within a day or so the city officials had no communications whatever. Their telephone systems were gone, and so were their radios.

An ingenious office worker discovered a working broadband Internet connection in the crisis center. He was able to connect to that, then use a Vonage VOIP system to connect to the rest of the world. For more than a day the only way the Mayor of New Orleans had for communicating (other than when CNN or Fox News teams with remotes could briefly reach him) was that Vonage VOIP. Moreover, not long after the VOIP system was set up, the telephone rang; it was the President of the United States calling from Air Force One.

The Internet was designed to be robust and durable. A bit of planning can make it more so – but finding and fixing elementary weaknesses has to be done in advance of the disaster.

I realize this is all trivial – but I also see that much of it was not done. The only way such identification and quick fixing will be accomplished is to appoint people to identify the weaknesses, and have them report to people with channels of communication to those with the authority to fix them. Once again this sounds trivial, but trivial or not, it has to be done, and there are very many places where it has not been done.

The usual reasons such disaster planning is not done is that it costs money to hire people, and most cities have managed to get into a situation in which they don’t have enough money to meet present crises, much less to plan for future problems. Having been Executive Assistant to the Mayor of Los Angeles I have my own ideas on how cities get into such a mess, but leave that: my point is that volunteers can make a first cut at identifying problems, and in most cities there are suitable volunteers eager to serve. All that’s needed is to give them commissions and titles, and appoint a city administrator to schedule an afternoon a month to meet with them. It is astonishing how much a team of retired teachers, engineers, and military people can accomplish in a few weeks, at trivial costs.

Using volunteers in local government has a long and honorable tradition in these United States, and for most of the life of this republic was part and parcel of the self government of a free people. What we have done, we can aspire to…

Some Random Observations

I asked my staff and associates for suggestions on what we might be doing to improve the survivability of communications in general and the Internet in particular. These were worth recording.

Dan Spisak: “A data center is a critical piece of infrastructure to maintain in a disaster and is also one of the few places most likely to survive a major disaster and have self sufficient power generation and stored supplies to ride out major events. They are also crucial in helping bring other telecommunications infrastructure up (think City Hall data lines for example). Email is an important conduit for communications.

    “When you need to keep your tech running, especially portable communication and data processing gear, i.e. cellphones and laptops, keep in mind the few places with backup power generation won't have an outlet available just because you need it. Alternative means for charging small batteries are a must. In such circumstance muscle and solar power become very valuable.

   “ Freeplay is good source for this kind of gear. We've talked to them at CES and I imagine current events are going to get them a lot of new business.

Many major cities have data centers, although some, like New Orleans, haven’t thought through the problems of being without the power grid for several days. Some smaller cities haven’t any such centers at all. If your town doesn’t, this might be a useful topic to raise with public officials.

Coleman also makes hand-cranked flashlights and radios, and we have those easily available in the Chaos Manor earthquake readiness kits. If you don’t, you might think about them. Even if you can’t get your town or city officials interested in emergency preparedness, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be. Here endeth the lesson; long time readers will remember that I was once an editor of SURVIVE magazine and colonel of a survival company… 

No comments: