Viewpoint for Sunday — December 18, 2005

• A department of emergency response

A department of emergency response

By Richard McSheehy

The past twelve months have been a time of enormous catastrophes worldwide. The United States was devastated by hurricanes. More than 1,300 people died in hurricane Katrina, and damage estimates are more than $100 billion. The Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004 killed more than 300,000 people. The 2005 earthquake in Kashmir resulted in almost 100,000 deaths and more than 3.5 million people in Kashmir and Pakistan now face winter without adequate shelter.

The response of the U.S. government to each of these disasters has been, to say the least, inadequate. I believe there are two fundamental reasons why our government’s response has been so wanting.

First, it seems that our government does not really care much about the well-being of its own citizens or the citizens of the world. I think the record speaks for itself in this regard. Consider the following: our government’s initial pledge of aid for the victims of the tsunami was for a pathetic $15 million. It was only after Jan Egeland, the U.N. undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief, called the U.S. donation “stingy” that the U.S. government decided to do more. What about the aid we gave to Pakistan after the recent earthquake? We sent a few helicopters over from Afghanistan to help out. That’s about it. Meanwhile, millions are now facing death in the snow and cold of the Himalayas. I would guess that most of us remember the U.S. federal government’s response to hurricane Katrina. The people of New Orleans who were depending on help from their government were left to fend for themselves for days and days after the storm was over. People died waiting to be rescued.

The second reason the U.S. response to these disasters was so unsatisfactory is simple. We just don’t have the capability. How can this be? Aren’t we the last remaining superpower in the world? Yes, indeed. We have enough nuclear ammunition to kill everyone on the planet ten times over. We have the very best stealth bombers, the best nuclear submarines, the best tanks, the best bunker busting bombs, the best army, navy, and air force in the world. But what ability do we have to help ourselves or anybody else in dire need?

Precious little it seems. When disasters like Katrina occur we call upon our military to help, like sending in the 82nd Airborne to help prevent looting in New Orleans. But using the military and its resources to perform aid missions is like asking a doctor to perform surgery with a chainsaw.

It was very clear from Katrina that the only government organization that performed the aid mission well was the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard is part of the Department of Homeland Security, but its mission of rescue and assistance in disaster can be traced back to its predecessor, the U.S. Life-Saving Service. The extraordinary performance of the U.S. Coast Guard during Katrina points out what is almost completely missing from our government — capability and a sense of service to the people. Federal managers, i.e. FEMA, are not the solution to disasters, as Katrina well demonstrated. America’s military and National Guard are also not the solution, because they are neither equipped nor trained to act effectively in aid missions. Furthermore, as we all witnessed, there are several legal issues related to the military operating on U.S. soil. The solution is to create a new department with major search, rescue, and aid capability with highly trained people who can and will respond anywhere, anytime — a Department of Emergency Response.

This department would have a significant budget to develop new technologies for search and rescue, mobile medicine, disaster logistics, earthquake prediction, volcano studies, tsunami warning, reconstruction technology and so on. Its mission would be to help all of us build better lives and save us in times of disaster. Some might object that the country can’t afford another department and another mission. I think it is more a matter of restructuring priorities. A Department of Emergency Response would help us in our times of need and it would also help us to gain friends and support around the world. The United States would once again be a good neighbor to the world by offering such a capability and that, more than anything the Department of Defense could ever do, will prevent the next war and keep us all safe in the future.

In 1961, President Eisenhower warned our nation of the influence of the military-industrial complex. In his farewell address to the nation he said, “This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.”

Because of the influence of the military-industrial complex our government has lost its true sense of purpose — service to the people. Serving the people includes rescuing them in time of need, helping to rebuild communities, and providing assistance when and where it is needed. That is why the founding fathers of the United States wrote in the Declaration of Independence that the people have the right to institute a government with principles and powers that is “most likely to effect their safety and happiness.” Our present government does not seem to have either the principles or the powers to effect our safety and happiness. It is time our government considered the creation of a Department of Emergency Response. It is time for our government to perform its true role — to secure life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

  • Richard McSheehy is a Kalaheo resident.

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