“Is This Our Hurricane Katrina Moment ? “
January 12, 2010

I wrote on Politics.ie  20th November 2009 “Is this Our Hurricane Katrina Moment?”

Hurricane Katrina, not Iraq, finished off the Bush Presidency. Such a profound and visible failure to look after citizens in an emergency inevitably ended its credibility. Will the current flooding, not Nama or the cuts, prove the be the Fianna Fail Government’s Hurricane Katrina moment ? Gormley, Cowen and Co. met for the first time in Ireland’s new National Emergency Co-ordination Headquarters yesterday. I hope that the meeting kicked off a well oiled and integrated emergency reaction by the Garda, Army, Local Authorities, Communications services, Social Services and so on.  But events in Cork are worrying.

Cork County Council was unavailable to the press yesterday while large areas in its control were under water and its website was off line.  Its headquarters was flooded and 700 staff were marooned in the upper floors of the building. Surely some kind of emergency number and liaison with the Press (mobile phone contact?) could have been set up ? There are unanswered questions over how the release of water by the ESB from the Inishcarra dam was handled and on how much notice was given. No one seemed to have information on emergency water supplies and RTE reported that stocks of water were being stripped out of supermarkets.

A lot of money and time has been spent in the last few years on Major Emergency Planning. Every Local Authority and hospital has a plan. http://www.independent.ie/national-news/dont-panic-we-have-a-cunning-plan-1348200.html

However, many hundreds of thousands of euro of damage have been done to stock and personal posessions that could have been moved above flood level if advantage had been taken of the six or more hours warning that a flood was on the way.   Raised insurance costs next year are likely to kill off still more businesses.

This is the Cork City Emergency Plan – there is a full time Emergency Officer to support the City and County liaison group.  But come the day of need there were no functioning system in place.    http://www.corkcorp.ie/ourservices/c…on_website.pdf

Flood has been followed by snow and ice.  Again the Government looks indifferent and incompetent.  Again, thousands of people are without a proper water supply.  People are cold, and some have been trapped in their homes since before Christmas.  There have been thousands of fractured bones and some deaths.    The mismanagement of the road system has been devastating for industry and business.  There is plainly no proper protocol or system for bringing in the army and army reserve for emergency operations. But the only moment of real concern I’ve detected in the face of a Government Minister was at the idea of Noel Dempsey’s Sun holiday destination being revealed.   The Minister himself, with fatal choice of words, told us that he was “entitled” to his undisturbed holiday.  No matter how hard I look, I can’t see any signs of anyone in the Government understanding of what “public  service” means.

Part of the chaos we’ve seen may result from Noel Dempsey’s costly Local Government reorganisation in the early 2000s.  The City and County-level Major Emergency Plans, involving the local authorities and emergency services, were originally co-ordinated by the City and County Engineers, and they were in most cases the persons nominated to lead an integrated response to emergencies.   Dempsey abolished the role of County Engineer,  and created instead a raft of generalist senior management posts, which means that there is no one person in any local authority with the operational experience and authority to instruct co-ordinated emergency action by the roads, environment and water services sections.

Instead of competent and co-ordinated use of resources, public and voluntary, we’ve seen diffuse, unfocused efforts on the ground, with a defensive veneer  of ministerial activism in front of the cameras.  Rarely have politicians looked less attractive.  We are now well into our second month of looking at images of old people and families surrounded in water and snow drifts, left unassisted without water supplies or heating and listening to smug “entitled” politicians telling us it’s not their responsibility.

Yes, politically speaking, I do think this will prove to be a Hurricane Katrina moment for Fianna Fail.   While the economy can be argued over, mysticised or misunderstood, a broken leg on a slippery path, and old person made homeless by floods or a closed school without a water supply is  something we all fully understand.  The clear conclusion is that Fianna Fail – so clever at vote management but so bad at other things – doesn’t give a damn about you or your family.

Equally of concern to me is that there is no evidence that any party on the left has seen that the need to step in and give practical help to the people who need it.  It has been left to individuals and to community organisations, including the CDOs  (Community Development Organisations) currently being closed down as part of the budget cuts.  When government fails the people,  the people’s own organisations must step in.

C. Flower    Tuesday 12.12010

Post Script

Things don’t seem to have got much better from the water point of view, with tens of thousands in Dublin and other parts of the country still without water in their homes and some factories closed.  But the horrific impact of the earthquake on Port au Prince, Haiti,  14th January, with a city bigger than Dublin devastated, is overwhelming in comparison even with what happened to New Orleans and for the moment puts our troubles in the happeny place.