The Pilot's Lounge #92: Hey, FEMA! GA Is An Asset ... Use Us

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So many pilots want to help in the hurricane relief -- but the national agency charged with coordinating relief doesn't seem to realize the power of volunteer pilots. AVweb's Rick Durden has some tough words for political appointees and some suggestions for frontline organizers.

The Pilot's Lounge

All of us in the Pilot's Lounge at the virtual airport were affected by Hurricane Katrina in some fashion. As I write this, one visitor is still looking for a cousin who lived in New Orleans but did not own a car and was unable to evacuate. Stan, in Mississippi, is repairing damage to his home and reports that the hangar where his airplane lives took a hit but that his airplane was undamaged. Doc Walt in Baton Rouge has a house full of displaced folks. Old Hack, our resident stone-face and tightwad, wrote out a check for $200 to the Red Cross. I know, because he did it sitting right here in the lounge while making sure the rest of us made a contribution. Then he had the audacity to bum an envelope and stamp from the president of the FBO so he could mail his check.

As I write this, Hurricane Rita is about two days from landfall; it just hit Category 5 and I'm dreading what's going to happen to my countrymen and women over the next week.

Katrina Relief

After Katrina had pulverized the Gulf Coast, a number of the denizens of the Lounge tried to volunteer their airplanes to be of some help with either the rescue effort or providing food and water to those who were cut off in New Orleans and numerous small communities in Louisiana and Mississippi. We saw horrific damage and scenes of trapped and hungry people and we wanted to help. We learned of the people at the New Orleans Convention Center; inside the Super Dome; in small towns in the bayous that had relied on one bridge to get in and out that had lost the bridge; and of communities that were cut off because the highways were impassible due to debris and flooding. We knew that our airplanes could help.

We heard that food and water were running short and we watched, frustrated, as the tax-funded agency tasked to provide help -- the Federal Emergency Management Agency (now part of the Department of Homeland Security) -- couldn't seem to get its act together. They weren't getting food and water to people who needed it, nor evacuating people who had managed to get to high ground, even though in some cases that high ground was a small airport or a stretch of highway long enough for a general aviation airplane to use. We watched as supplies were flown by crews working incredible numbers of hours in high-dollar helicopters that were in too-short supply. Friends made phone calls to anyone they could reach offering their airplanes to help the supply and rescue effort. We looked at each other and kept asking why in the world weren't GA airplanes being used to help in the immediate aftermath? Why weren't they being used to fly in MREs and water to places where GA airplanes could safely land? Why weren't they being used to evacuate those who needed medical assistance?

They Don't Want Us?

For the first few, critical days, pilots trying to volunteer their airplanes and expertise generally got the run-around. FEMA didn't seem to have a clue as to what a general aviation airplane was or any idea as to its capabilities. Initially, help that was offered was turned down flat or ignored. I learned of pilots who had flown to the area in their airplanes to help in any way they could, only to be told to get lost or to "Wait here and we'll get back to you." Either that or they got mired in red tape that seemed impenetrable. A few got through, but it was haphazard in the extreme. Some who loaded up their airplanes with food and water and headed for the coast found that the TFRs that were thrown up hastily prevented providing assistance to one area, yet they could fly into other airports in areas that needed the aid as badly because, inexplicably, there was no TFR over that spot.

It was only after about four days that many of the public-benefit flying organizations were able to cut through the nonsense and start doing what they do well: use volunteered general aviation airplanes to help those in need. The various volunteer medical-transport groups were flying some of the refugees/evacuees to where they could get medical treatment, a much-needed service when FEMA was swamped with getting the healthy refugees transported to where they could be temporarily housed. The volunteer efforts were never organized in any overall fashion: Some areas got a lot of help, some areas went begging. For a more detailed account of the general aviation efforts, check out AVweb's coverage.

Overall, there was chaos for much of the first week. We'll never have any way of knowing how many people died because the agency tasked with responding to natural disasters that don't respect state lines simply didn't do what we had been paying our tax dollars to equip it to do. Dr. Chuck, one of the regulars here, who spent a portion of his life as a firefighter before going to medical school and getting into emergency medicine, made a pretty telling comment: Any man or woman who had been a volunteer firefighter for five years would have known how to martial assets and respond where needed better than the political appointee in charge of FEMA. (Well, he did use stronger language.)

Looking Forward

The intent of this column is to look to the future and make suggestions; however, to do so, I've got to lay a little groundwork. In the wake of Katrina there is already a lot of political spin in the air because things just plain didn't go well. Once again, someone forgot history: Appointing a political buddy to run an organization critical to public safety because he had the right ideological credentials instead of any competence or experience isn't the smartest thing to do. History is replete with the horrific side-effects of political appointments into positions that require technical competence.

For instance, the 8,000- to 12,000-person death toll of the worst natural disaster in our country's history -- the 1900 Galveston hurricane -- was due in part because the U.S. Weather Bureau was then headed by a political hack who refused to allow the Bureau to receive any hurricane reports or forecasts from Cuba. In that last year of the 19th Century, the Cuban weather professionals just happened to be the best in the world at hurricane analysis and forecasting. They gave nearly three days warning that the hurricane that had just brushed their island was magnitudes larger than the Weather Bureau thought and was going to hit the Texas coast. The political appointee running the Weather Bureau, operating without the benefit of the reports of the damage to Cuba that he had institutionally suppressed, announced it was small, would turn straight north, weaken and pass along Florida without causing significant damage.

There was a lot of political dodging and weaving after that mess as well.

No matter what political party is in charge and appoints its ideologically pure incompetents to public-safety agencies, what doesn't change within those agencies is that there is invariably a core of dedicated professionals who are competent and know who else in the organization is competent and professional, and are determined to do well no matter who is at the top. And those pros establish informal lines of communication that avoid the political claptrap that oozes down from above so that they can do their level best to get the job done effectively and efficiently despite the internal obstacles established by whatever yahoo is officially in charge. After their organization is called upon to perform and does so, be it well or ill, those professionals hold their own post-mortem. Theirs is the one that usually matters. It is safe to predict that in the wake of Katrina, Congress will hold public hearings and discover nothing but some preordained conclusions and recommendations that will be printed and left to gather dust on a shelf after the next political appointee holds them to his breast and pledges compliance. Fortunately, that probably won't matter, because the pros below the radar at FEMA will figure out what happened, and they'll probably get it right.

The Real Knowledge Base

I suspect that in about three to six months the FEMA pros -- the dedicated middle and top managers -- will meet informally and hash out the situation, openly and fairly, and they will come up with procedures to use available resources that, if followed, will probably work pretty well in the future. They will pass those procedures around among themselves, and when the next big one hits, those who haven't been forced out by the politics by then will do what they know how to do well. Hopefully, in spite of the bumbling politicos above them, they will get the job done.

So I want to talk directly to you, the dedicated men and women at FEMA who are willing to keep going, to continue trying to do your job in spite of the politics. I know you will get together on someone's patio, or in a conference room after working hours or in a quiet bar, with those stacks of documents, floppy disks and photos and start that honest, realistic post-mortem. As you draw up plans that will work, I'd like you to include the powerful asset of general aviation and the hundreds of pilots who volunteer their time and airplanes to help their fellow Americans.

All over this country you have a significant resource that can help you do your job and that I suspect you know little about. It is called general aviation. As a definition, general aviation involves all of aviation that is not airline or military. And believe me, it's an asset. I know that for the last several years the publicity about general aviation and the paranoid utterances of your parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, make "little airplanes" and their pilots out to be a horrible threat to mom, apple pie, Chevrolet and all that we hold dear to the American way of life.

We aren't.

If you noticed after Katrina, if you weren't too completely overwhelmed, we little airplane people turned out in droves and volunteered to help out. A lot of us were eventually able to do so, at no cost to the government. That's not a bad deal.

I wrote about public-benefit flying by volunteer pilots last June. You might want to take a look at it to get some background on that resource because it can help you more than you can believe next time something bad happens somewhere in this country. Because of the generosity of a heck of a lot of pilots, there are dozens of organizations that match people with a need to travel for medical procedures and who are too poor to afford to do so, with pilots who donate their time and airplanes to transport those folks for no cost. There are also organizations that match volunteer pilots with organizations doing environmental or conservation work to help protect land and wildlife from depredation. What that means for FEMA is that there are pilots and airplanes out there who can do a great deal to help people in need following a natural disaster, or, heaven forbid, another terrorist attack. You've got a massive resource across this land, waiting for you to do your thing, which is to point that resource in the appropriate direction and coordinate the support we general aviation pilots can provide.

Hurricane Katrina caused an immediate need for medical supplies, food and water to be taken to people who were cut off, and to evacuate those who needed locally unavailable medical care. While New Orleans has gotten most of the publicity there were scores of smaller cities and towns in at least two states that desperately needed supplies and had small airports or areas suitable for operating an airplane. (Why any community does not have an airport is beyond my understanding; especially in areas that are subject to hurricanes or earthquakes that can isolate the community from the rest of the world. Maybe some of those will come to their senses and build airports -- OK, I won't hold my breath.) Had they been allowed in the first few days, general aviation airplanes could have flown in critically needed supplies, and taken out people needing medical attention.

Smaller Can Be Better

No, we general aviation pilots do not fly large airplanes, but there are quite a few of us. We are not a massive airlift; we are an asset, a resource, which gets help to people when larger assets are tied up elsewhere. That is especially important when a lot of smaller communities have been hit. It's a simple but compelling concept: big airplanes to big airports and cities; small airplanes to smaller airports and communities. A few little airplanes can fly in enough MREs and water to supply a small community while the larger military aircraft are going where the demand is greater. You are using the very dedicated volunteer pilots of Civil Air Patrol in this fashion right now. But it is just a drop in the bucket. Its assets are limited and its insatiable demand for internal paperwork has caused its bureaucracy to become so enormous that the amount of flying its volunteers can do is restricted and that bureaucracy has severely limited the number of pilots who will volunteer for it. Nevertheless, the CAP is a very good example, on a small scale, of what volunteer pilots can do for you.

The conservation aviation groups, such as LightHawk and Southwings, can provide what they do best: reconnaissance flights over areas to gather information regarding conditions and provide that information to the persons who are making decisions regarding post-disaster public health and safety. You need to know such things as where the oil slicks are or what has happened to rail cars with hazardous materials -- little airplanes are ideal for the purpose. My own example comes from a LightHawk flight I made in the wake of the 1993 flood of the Mississippi River. I carried observers at about 700 feet above the river from Keokuk, Iowa, to St. Louis, Mo., looking for the large storage tanks of anhydrous ammonia used for farm fertilizer that had floated off their concrete stands when the flood waters surged in. It was easy to spot them from the air and get their locations passed along to those who had the equipment to safely corral the tanks before something unpleasant happened. There was a TFR in place over the flooded area; however, the folks running it back then were easy to deal with and I got a clearance to enter, along with a transponder code, after two telephone calls.

When you professionals at FEMA add general aviation to your list of available assets, also make sure you talk to your compatriots at Homeland Security. They are the ones who create the TFRs to help keep out the lookie-loos, but that have become so inflexible they actually hamper effective relief efforts. You've got to get those overzealous TFR issuers to talk with the folks who were doing the same thing 15 years ago to learn how it should be done, so that the correct airplanes get where they are needed without stupid delays because of bureaucracy or paranoia.

Centralized Coordination

I'm talking to you, the professionals at FEMA, the ones who are going to take the long, hard look at the situation in the next several months, informally, among yourselves, outside of the politics. You've got one heck of an asset in the public-benefit flyers of general aviation. Yes, I'll admit right off that we tend to be a bunch of individualists and therefore there are dozens of organizations that perform public benefit flying out there, and if you try to talk to each one, you'll go nuts. You need one organization to contact. One that can act as a clearinghouse for the groups of volunteer pilots, that knows who is where and how to reach each separate volunteer organization. Fortunately, even that exists. It's the Air Care Alliance, the umbrella organization that supports the public-benefit flying groups. Give a call to Rol Murrow, the extremely sharp head of the ACA, about how pilots who volunteer can help you. It will only cost you some time, time you take to learn about a free resource that is out there among your fellow citizens.

Hey, FEMA, we want to help you do the very important tasks you perform. Now the ball is in your court. Do your asset-organization thing and set up a simple, streamlined system that will allow general aviation pilots to fly our airplanes because we want to give something back to our country. And you know what? You won't have to put out a no-bid contract or anything. We'll do it for free.

See you next month.

Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out the rest of his columns.