1. The White House Press Office. I’ve never been a public affairs officer. I haven’t even pretended to be on at the behest of our wealthy uncle. Still, in my bones I know that setting up my principle with over a dozen phone interviews with a journalist who hates his living guts is probably not going to end well even if my guy is the most articulate bastard to ever give on the record remarks. You can make what you will of the president’s recorded statements, but whatever staff puke from the press office decided an interview series with Bob Woodward was a good idea gives staff officers a bad name… and that’s saying something.
2. Questions. Look, if there’s a point of contact listed and it’s not me, there’s really absolutely nothing I’m going to be able to tell you about whatever topic is on your mind. Maybe you should just go ahead and read to the end of the message and send your question to the person who’s actually running that program. You still might not get a good answer but it will be miles better than anything I’ll send you… and even if it wasn’t, going direct to that person would have kept you from making me take the time to drop you back in the proper lane. We all win, when you read the goddamned memo.
3. Risk. People, as a group, do a really shitty job of assessing risk. The way we respond to natural disasters like fires, floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes seem to bear that out. For as long as I can remember, summer in the west has been “fire season.” It’s also “hurricane season” along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. In the long history of humanity, fire has scorched the western sections of the North American continent. Water has always run downhill, occasionally turning normally babbling brooks in the valley bottom into torrential rivers sweeping all before them. Every time a fire or a flood or a hurricane hit, we collectively look around shocked that such a thing could happen. Except none of us should be shocked at all. We built our communities in dry areas historically prone to fire, or we built them along the coasts or in bucolic valleys that are prone to flooding. We built there because the scenery was nice or because there were local jobs – but almost never because the area represented a relatively low risk to life, health, and safety. As soon as the smoke clears or the water recedes, we’ll go right back to building up the same areas and then being “surprised” the next time the worst happens… because we do an amazingly shity job of assessing risk.
Once upon a time a natural disaster couldn’t happen anywhere in the country and escape my notice. A wildfire in Southern California or a Missouri River flood were the high sign that the overtime spigot was about to be cranked wide open. Of course I’ve been out of that game for a while now… and while I don’t miss the late night calls to pack up and be ready to fly away on short notice, I definitely miss the OT.
More than that, I think I might actually miss what’s going on around me. Through a combination of watching Mad Men on demand and running some random sitcoms as background noise last night, listening to commercial-free online radio through AppleTV, and not checking in with the news sites before bed, I didn’t even know that the entire state of Oklahoma had apparently been wiped off the map until I cranked on Channel 13 for my morning dose of local news. That’s a tough confession to make for a guy who prides himself on having a pretty good grip on what’s happening in the world.
I’m not going to get drug into a philosophical discussion about it, but for good or ill, it seems that I’ve more or less stopped paying attention to the news. Maybe I just lost interest. Maybe I’ll come back around at some point, but just now, I’m surprisingly ok with being in the dark about things. Then again, maybe I’ve only got so much bandwidth to deal with news and current events and I’m just prioritizing what makes it through to my frontal lobe… apparently even my subconscious wants the world to stay off my proverbial lawn.
I haven’t chased a hurricane since Dean in 2007, but there’s something about seeing the storm warnings go up that still gets in my head. It’s a twitchy feeling that I should pack a bag, clear my schedule, and track down an overtime request form.
Emergency managers usually get a bad name for being unprepared, unresponsive, or just plain out of their depth in planning how to respond to something like a hurricane or an earthquake. The truth is that even though I’m sitting here looking at a forecast track that is eerily similar to Katrina’s, Isaac will behave completely differently. Even when they hit the same place, no two natural disasters are exactly the same… and no amount of pre-planning will overcome the natural tendency of large groups of people to do exactly the wrong thing in an emergency (like staying in a city that’s only kept dry when the levees work and the pumps keep running).
I could tell you stories of horrifyingly bad judgment from everyone from FEMA Administrators, to state governors, to local elected leaders, to average schleps on the ground working under the misguided assumption that they were doing the right things. When you have a bird’s eye view of the event, it’s surprisingly easy to see where things are going wrong. It’s incredibly frustrating and harder than hell to get them going in the right direction, though. In all likelihood I’ll never work another day in emergency management, but after a five year absence, I can honestly say that I’d do it again in a heartbeat if the circumstances every presented themselves.
For now I suppose I’ll follow along on TV like everyone else and just be glad it’s not me on the hook to find millions of gallons of water, tons of ice, and wheels to put under all of it.
So you guys may have seen that the media are making a big stink about the impending hurricane of doom that will be sure to devastate the East Coast over the weekend. Judging from the current models and from watching these things semi-professionally for the better part of the last ten years, I’m more inclined to think that eastern Maryland will end up getting a little soggy on Sunday and maybe have a few branches blown around if things “get bad.” That said, there’s always the off chance that this thing doglegs left and shoves a wall of water directly up the Chesapeake. That would fall directly in the category of Situation Other than Good. With the track edging east with every model run, that unhappy outcome seems less and less likely.
What seems more likely at this point is that the regional weather personalities and newscasters are going to whip the local indigenous population into frenzy by close of business Friday regardless of what the reality looks like. What this means is that every idiot with a pickup truck, a car, or a moped is going to come out of the woodwork and descend on Walmart, Costco, and every grocery store within driving distance and buy six gallons of milk, two dozen eggs, five loaves of Wonder bread, and a metric ton of toilet paper. I ordinarily don’t begrudge anyone their pre-apocalyptic stockpile, except in this case their panic is going to conflict with my normal grocery shopping schedule.
In the event that this was an actual emergency, I’d be the first to institute the no harm, no foul rule, but in the case of purely fictitious disaster, I’m less inclined to give stupid people the benefit of the doubt. My inclination at the moment is to go ahead and make due this weekend by drawing down my own fairly impressive stockpile. Sadly, like Christmas shopping on the day after Thanksgiving, I just don’t know if I can stay away from the spectacle of so many asshats gathered in so few places. I know I shouldn’t, but I might not be able to keep myself from going to watch the spectacle first hand.
One of the really problematic parts of what I do, is that it requires spending a fair amount of your life thinking about all the worst things that can happen… famine, pestilence, earthquake, plague; basically the worst parts of the Bible. After a while you start looking at everything around you and playing a giant game of “what if.” From a purely academic point of view, it’s great fun to match wits against the worst that God and nature can throw against us. From an individual point of view, it’s the kind of thing that leads to ulcers. Finding that delicate balance between academic interest and outright obsession has never been one of my talents. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go to Costco and stock up on bottled water and beef jerky.