VERMONT -- It didn't take long for the United States to go from being the world's only military superpower to looking like a third-world nation that gets international aid offers from countries such as Cuba, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. As storm-ravished victims of Hurricane Katrina languished for days without food, water, medical care or adequate shelter, the government's slow and meager initial response revealed its appalling inability to handle a disaster of this magnitude. Americans across the country watched with anger, frustration and horror as hurricane victims died, not as a direct result of nature's fury, but from bureaucratic bungling. Critics were quick to charge that relief efforts were further hampered by the absence of nearly a third of Louisiana's National Guardsmen, who are now stationed in Iraq.
It may be months, if not years, before there are satisfactory answers to the most pressing question: How was this allowed to happen? But Americans must also ask themselves two other important questions: What would I do in that situation? And, could it happen here?
Few Vermonters have given those questions as much thought as has Toby Dusha, emergency management planner with the Chittenden Regional Planning Commission. "I classify myself as a professional pessimist, so I'm always thinking that the sky is falling," says Dusha. "I eat and breathe bad things."
Dusha's job, created 16 months ago by a grant from the Department of Homeland Security, is to predict, plan and prepare for all the likely disaster scenarios that could befall Chittenden County. They range from naturally occurring weather emergencies such as floods and ice storms to human-caused events such as plane crashes, hazardous-materials spills and terrorist attacks.
Dusha, who's been in the emergency-planning profession for nearly 30 years, generally expresses confidence in the ability of Vermont's emergency-response agencies to handle a localized disaster. This despite the fact that about 1200 Vermont soldiers and airmen are currently serving overseas, while another 125 or so have been sent to the Gulf states, including some who work as police officers and firefighters in their civilian lives. In total, the current deployments represent about 38 percent of Vermont National Guard personnel.
But Dusha admits there are other weak links in the chain that could seriously hamper the capabilities of emergency responders if this region were to suffer a major calamity.
"One of the unique things in Vermont is that, with the lack of county government, there is no regional coordination," says Dusha. "Either the towns fend for themselves or the state provides assistance. There is no regional or countywide coordination."
In fact, Chittenden is one of the only counties in Vermont that employs a full-time emergency planner -- most emergency planning is done at the state level, in the Office of Emergency Management. Vermont law provides for neither the organizational structure nor the legal authority to develop countywide systems of coordination.
According to Dusha, that's not a problem under normal circumstances -- say, a major fire that requires mutual aid among several neighboring fire departments. However, if a situation were to escalate, as it did in Hurricane Katrina, Dusha says that Vermont could easily find itself facing many of the same difficulties as responders did in the Gulf states, from communications failures to a complete breakdown of the transportation system.
For example, Vermont law does not mandate that in the case of a disaster all emergency-response agencies use a unified incident-command system, or ICS. Basically, a unified ICS is a method of coordinating the efforts of various agencies and jurisdictions, so that everyone works off the same page, speaks the same language and knows who's in charge. A centralized ICS structure addresses everything from coordinating medical services to communicating with the media to handling the finances of the response. While Vermont has developed a strategy for implementing the unified-command model, Dusha says, it hasn't been implemented in all jurisdictions yet.
Clearly, Vermont has geographic and demographic advantages that work in its favor. For example, the state doesn't have the population density of a city like New Orleans, nor is it as vulnerable to flooding. However, Duncan Higgins, deputy director of the Vermont Office of Emergency Management, points out that 11 of the last 12 nationally declared disasters in Vermont were floods. In fact, a flood disaster has occurred in virtually every county in the state.
Of course, many Vermonters are prepared for being isolated and self-sufficient for long periods of time, thanks to long winters and the remoteness of many towns. But others in the population, particularly those who have moved to Chittenden County from more urban areas, would be caught wholly off-guard by a major disaster.
And it doesn't necessarily take a major hurricane to cripple an emergency-response system. Burlington Deputy Police Chief Walt Decker recalls how the ice storm of January 1998, a relatively localized event, caused multiple systems to collapse. "We had power failures. We had the inability of rescue personnel to respond to the scene. We couldn't put gas in our police cars because the pumps were all down," Decker remembers. "Police officers were going out into the department parking lot and coming back to file injury reports because they slipped on the ice getting to their patrol cars." In some places, entire city blocks were inaccessible to fire engines and ambulances because ice-covered power lines blocked the streets.
In that storm, the Vermont National Guard was activated in at least three counties. However, as Decker recalls, the 500 or so guardsmen who were sent to Burlington couldn't get on the ground for three or four days, and when they did, they lacked some essential tools, such as chainsaws, to help with the relief effort.
Finally, emergency planners recommend that all Vermonters take some simple precautions to prepare for the worst. For example, they recommend putting together emergency supplies including bottled water, non-perishable foods, extra medicines, flashlights, spare batteries and pet supplies. They also suggest getting a battery-powered weather-alert radio for keeping on top of developing situations. And they recommend that families develop an emergency plan so that everyone knows what to do, where to meet and who to contact in case they get separated. Visit the American Red Cross website at http://www.redcross.org for other recommendations.