There is a famous headline: Come Hell and High Water.


It was the headline of the Grand Forks newspaper, that put out an edition at a time when the sandbags were topped and most of the town was under water, and then downtown caught fire.

Luckily the town evacuated and many found shelter at the local Air Force Base.

Our small town was 150 miles away, and other towns in Minnesota had flooded. But there were families in the local motels, or staying with friends or family.

Our hospital had received several “recovering” patients, since hospitals in both Grand Forks and Fargo started emptying their beds several days earlier when the possibility of flooding of their areas of town was considered a possibility.

The churches collected clothing, canned goods and other items  for the local evacuees, and then took supplies to the flooded areas. Later, the church groups and a lot of unemployed/under employed youth went out and volunteered to help in the cleanup.

Similarly, one of the little covered stories of Hurricane Katrina was the huge outpouring of rescuers and local responders.

Popular Mechanics has an extensive report on the extent and details of the local response:

REALITY: Bumbling by top disaster-management officials fueled a perception of general inaction, one that was compounded by impassioned news anchors. In fact, the response to Hurricane Katrina was by far the largest–and fastest-rescue effort in U.S. history, with nearly 100,000 emergency personnel arriving on the scene within three days of the storm’s landfall.

The inability of the networks and big city newspapers to report good things happening at the local level is an ongoing problem, but the real worry is that pressure from the media and clueless politicians would lead to a government emphasis on “don’t worry. Big Brother will take care of you”, and as a result those of us on the front line would be ignored or neglected.

So I was happy to read that a recent conference on biosecurity is stressing coordination and training and support of the local responders.

Essentially what their report says is: It is the local community who are the first responders, and they are the ones who do a lot of the basic rescue and medical care. So the federal or state authorities need to not just lecture these people, but go in and ask them what is needed in training and supplies and help for disaster planning.

The problem of incompetence at the local level was highlighted in the failure of the local community to arrange evacuation of the most vulnerable people in New Orleans.

One example: Hospitals have mandated disaters plans. But having a plan sitting on your shelf is one thing, actually planning for a disaster is another thing. The dirty little secret is that too many patients in New Orleans were kept in the local hospitals, and that these hospital’s engineers failed to identify the problem of having generators in the basement in areas prone to flooding.

A second problem was failure of the city of New Orleans to liason with the Black community’s institutions to analyze what would be needed for their evacuation, and how this would be done.
Therefore the report notes the importance of helping local officials to work with grass roots community resources to work with their most vulnerable population:

Deliberate outreach—through trusted intermediaries, to groups who are typically absent from the policymaking table—will be necessary to include the perspectives of the poor, the working class, the less educated, recent immigrants, and people of color. Institutionalized resources to interface with civic groups are a measure of good government.

Undoubtably, there will be more exploitation of the next disaster, along with more finger pointing (especially if it is an election year).

But for those on the front line of responding to disasters, it’s nice to know others are not busy fingerpointing but trying to solve problems so the next time we will be better prepared.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. Her website is FInest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket.

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