Monday, May 30, 2011

What Will Get Corrected When Mood Plunges Again (Part 2)

Sunrise in Joplin on May 23rd, somewhere near 20th and Connecticut (I think...)

I had planned for this post to be about the failed prophecy by Harold Camping that the world begin its end on May 21st, discuss some reasons why his claim went viral and received so much mainstream attention (socionomic reasons, noting the timing of his previous calls in 1988 and 1994, his own significant holdings and advertising campaign, etc.) but that got overtaken by events, as they say, and I want to touch on another aspect of modern society that could get corrected in a big way

I spent that weekend suited up and deployed as part of Missouri Task Force One. MOTF-1 is an Urban Search and Rescue team.  I am a hazardous materials and rescue specialist for the task force and we were participating in a national level exercise simulating a response to a massive earthquake in the New Madrid Seismic Zone.  I spent the evening of the 21st, when the world was supposed to be ending sitting on the tarmac of the Spirit of St. Louis Airport (where our base had been established) eating MREs with a bunch of twenty-somethings made up of firefighters, emergency medical techs and the occasional odd engineer or other specialist like myself thrown in.  We had flown in on a C-130 and flew out on the 22nd the same way.

A few hours after getting back (and without washing the clothes in my grab and go bag) my phone goes off and the task force got deployed to Joplin to help with search and rescue after the tornado.  After a quick emails to my boss, I was off again, this time in a van.  We hit Joplin around 2:30 a.m. on Monday morning and got to work.

I have never seen such devastation.  If you caught the news accounts of it, you probably saw more than I did.  Suffice it to say it was unlike anything I've ever seen.

However, this post is not about the suffering in Joplin, which is quite real, or what little part I was able to play to help mitigate it.  As we swept through a vast area that looked like the aftermath of a massive bombing campaign, it struck me just how much of this response was a product of the great era of positive mood and the wealth that flourished during that era.

MOTF-1 is unusual for a USAR team in that we are an all-volunteer force.  Deployments in-state, like that to Joplin, mean we must take vacation or time without pay or otherwise work it out.  Federal deployments (where we go down to the Gulf Coast, for instance, to help out with a hurricane) do pay a stipend, but that also depends on the feds having the money to pay that stipend.  The expense to assemble, deploy and support a USAR team in the field can be substantial (I don't have any public figures for the Joplin deployment at the moment).  This expense is on top of the already-incurred expense of training a large team in urban search and rescue techniques, maintaining the large caches of equipment, warehousing everything, buying gas and food, etc.  It is like supporting a small brigade at the end of the day.

And we were not the only specialized teams in the field.  "Strike Teams" from fire departments in St. Louis and Kansas City were also on hand, along with small teams from large numbers of fire departments all over Western Missouri.  Each of these teams has vast numbers of hours and money poured into them on a yearly basis just to support the equipment and training, not to mention the cost to deploy them in the field.

Then you have the logistics involved in coordinating the response and working out the plan to somehow demolish the vast miles of damaged structures and then rebuild.

This was on top of having wrapped up the National Level Exercise that weekend - having deployed our trucks, flown a portion of the team on Air Guard C-130s, conducting exercises in the St. Louis metro area and then getting home.

I just kept thinking - what happens when mood turns and the money dries up?  Fire Departments are going to be prime targets for cost cutting in the coming era of austerity and anger.  Many departments have racked up excellent pension plans (well, excellent on paper) and salary structures.  The rising anger and turn towards fiscal austerity is going to ravage those plans.  The fire departments themselves have hugely expensive equipment and trucks to maintain and preventive maintenance is always a place where the budget knife cuts deep.  A lot of equipment is purchased with federal matching money.  What happens when that money is not there?

If you are reading this blog then you know where I am going with this.  What will the response look like when a massive tornado hits a city in 2014?  Or a hurricane storms ashore in South Florida in 2015?  What equipment or personnel will be available to be sent across a state or across the country to help out?

One thing I must note, the outpouring of support and the number of volunteers wanting to help was very impressive.  That part of the American Spirit will remain intact, I think, but the core group of professionals or trained part-timers (like me) could very well shrink dramatically in the coming years, as well as the resources to coordinate teams in the field and the logistics of cleaning things up, counting the bodies, helping the wounded, etc.

This brings us back to preparedness and finding a way to have local networks of people available to be mutually supportive during a crisis.  After seeing the scale of the devastation in Joplin, I have a bad feeling that the natural disasters in the years to come may wind up being far more deadly and have longer term impacts that what we are used to today as we will have fewer resources to throw at them and more anger and suspicion to overcome.

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