Saturday, September 10, 2005

Hang Up On The Navy

One lesson from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina bears repeating: don't expect the government to save you from your own folly, or its own. They might not even be there to pick up the phone:

An apparent breakdown in communications between federal emergency officials and the crew of Canadian navy ships en route to help victims of Hurricane Katrina left sailors scrambling to buy $1-million in relief supplies in Halifax stores rather than dipping into stockpiles of emergency gear.

Navy supply officers went on a shopping spree for everything from chainsaws to diaper cream in the four days before a Canadian task force sailed for the disaster area this week.

Navy personnel told the National Post that repeated calls to Public Security and Emergency Preparedness Canada went unanswered over the long weekend, meaning government supplies could not be accessed before the ship's departure.

When supply officers called emergency officials in Ottawa, the officials were not available, said a senior officer who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"We were calling them all weekend," the officer said. "All we got was voice mail ... [and] they never called back."

Another lesson: the government will use even the most implausible excuse to blame you for its failures.

Officials in Ottawa, however, said the sailors must simply have been calling the wrong number.

"We have a government operations centre manned 24/7 -- and if someone had called that number we would have coordinated that effort, we would have been in a position to do so," said Lia Quickert, a spokeswoman for Anne McLellan, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness. "I can't explain the alleged disconnect."

Emergency Preparedness and Defence officials were working and available all weekend in Ottawa, officials said.

Does anyone really believe that the navy was calling the wrong number, or if they were, that they couldn't have tracked down somebody at NDHQ who had the right one?

This strange episode illustrates the continuing problem with Canada's armed forces: it's expected to do everything without proper funding and support from the government. And yet, it improvises solutions on the spot to carry out its duty, without argument or complaint.

The can-do, take-charge spirit of the navy stands in sharp contrast to the pedestrian public service mentality. Apparently disaster is only supposed to strike from 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, statutory holidays excepted.

I shudder to think that this might have been the response to a domestic disaster.

Source: National Post

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