My adventure in disaster response
Updated: Sep 9
A confession from the disaster response implausible deniability industrial complex
To say that I was horrified at the news coming out of Maui would be an understatement. Not just the stories of people trying to make it through the other end of a firestorm.
Not just the tales of choosing between hypothermia and drowning or asphyxiation and immolation.
Not just the accounts of people trying to flee on the only road out of town with the wall of fire moving faster than a car stuck in evacuation traffic.
Not just the realization that every city is vulnerable to something. And not even the realization that I have absolutely no idea how I would have acted. (The closest I’ve ever been to disaster was the early morning offshore earthquake in Saipan. I bolted out of bed and ran to a sliding glass door, and as the adrenalin began to outweigh my grogginess thought to myself, “I don’t remember what you’re supposed to do in an earthquake, but I’m pretty sure standing in front of a glass wall isn’t it.”)
And I’m not just horrified about the bureaucratic indifference to the physical conditions that created the fire, or the callousness of those same bureaucrats.
The officials perhaps hired through, let’s just say, “the aloha spirit,” who may or may not have been qualified to manage an on-the-ground response to a disaster. Or the non-sounding of the sirens. Or even the electrical wires. All of this has been widely reported; lawsuits have already started.
As Paula Dobbyn reported in Honolulu’s Civil Beat, attempting to recover can be a disaster in itself. The Aug. 18 headline “Maui Fire Survivors Seeking Federal Assistance Face Bureaucratic Nightmare,” speaks for itself: documents needed to apply for assistance from a wildfire don’t exist because they were destroyed in a wildfire. People not in the same household can’t apply for benefits with the same address, despite Hawaii’s well-known astronomical cost of living.
In other words, if a fire is bearing down on you, be sure to grab your social security card and lease agreement.
If I were a betting man, which I’m not, because my predictions tend not to come true, I would bet that next, we’ll see the implausible-deniability-defense.
As in, “We had no idea this could happen.” Even though it’s your job to prepare for it.
This is opposed to the plausible-deniability-defense, or “I had no idea what you were doing when I told you to do it,” popular among American presidents.
I first came across this defense decades ago in the less-than-hallowed Halls of Congress during the collapse of Enron and its enabler, Arthur Andersen. Despite the highest of Ivy League academic credentials and being in the upper ranks of the most prestigious consulting firms, people whose job it was to know a company’s financial health had no idea it was in a death spiral.
We’ve seen it in more corporate collapses and disasters of every sort, from Hurricane Katrina to student loans in the U.S. More than one island leader has indulged in the “I’m morally outraged that you didn’t stop me while I was scamming people” defense. Think casinos and money laundering. Not just in the islands.
It should be implausible for people to not realize the very purpose of their job was occurring, and that they watched it.
But I have a confession to make.
I’m part of the problem.
Or at least I wanted to be part of the problem.
In fact, I tried to be part of the problem.
I suppose it began when I started college and harbored college-aged fantasies of being an anthropologist who investigated mass casualties and war crimes.
That was one of the reasons I found myself on the tarmac in Chuuk, in the arrival rather than transit line. This was on the heels of Typhoon Maysak, which at the time was an unprecedented storm. An early Spring Category 5.
Sounds quaint now, less than a decade later; category 5 storms are almost common now.
Then came the response. The national government didn’t communicate with the state. The state didn’t communicate with people on the ground.
Then came this thing called the International Community. The International Organization for Migration. UNICEF. USAID.
And then came the response on the ground.
The expectation is that those affected would passively entrust others to document their damage.
The colorful houses whose only air circulation came from small casement windows that opened four inches at the bottom. On a tropical island.
The houses are not being released for occupancy because the electrical wiring was not approved. In a village with no electricity.
The denial of benefits because too many people lived in the same place and USAID had already issued a supply voucher. The entrustment of village elders to approve benefits because islanders can’t hold grudges.
And miles away the response administrators patted themselves on the back, proud of the good work they were doing with the knowledge that the locals may or may not be the most trustworthy of people.
My role was to help people through this process, but I admittedly felt helpless. Even without a typhoon, Chuuk is a bit of a disaster.
Will we see this defense? Maybe. I wouldn’t be surprised, but then again, I won’t make any predictions. There will no doubt be testimony before Congress.
And just so you know, in an earthquake, get under a solid table or a reinforced interior doorway.
Gabriel McCoard is an attorney who previously worked in Palau and Chuuk State. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.