The public response to the Grenfell Tower inferno has been astonishing, but the coordination of relief efforts on the ground has been worryingly inconsistent. America learned important lessons after Hurricane Katrina. We now need to learn some of those same lessons.
Three days after the awful fire which destroyed Grenfell Tower, made hundreds of families homeless and resulted in a death toll which may creep up to three figures, there are alarming signs that some of the problems with coordination and delivery of disaster relief efforts that I previously worried about on this blog have still not been resolved.
The Daily Telegraph’s live blog gives a stark account:
A number of residents left homeless by the Grenfell Tower fire have not even been given a toothbrush despite the volume of items donated following the tragedy, a pastor has claimed.
Derrick Wilson, from the Tabernacle Christian Centre, one of the many which collected donations after Wednesday’s disaster, said he had heard harrowing stories of people still without aid.
Mr Wilson criticised a lack of co-ordination from the council and said his team had been forced to deliver items directly to those affected.
He said that volunteers found around 60 residents, evacuated from the block to accommodation in Earl’s Court, who still had nothing.
The 53-year-old said: “We have just heard some harrowing stories because of the lack of co-ordination.
“We sent out people to find out where these residents are and at Earl’s Court we just found out a number of residents had not received even a toothbrush. They are very angry but they are not really saying much.”
He added: “Some of them, they haven’t received anything, they haven’t got any money.
“They are only being given bed, breakfast and dinner – nothing in between. So what we are doing now is setting up everything from here.”
Mr Wilson said: “There is just confusion, the council doesn’t know what they are doing. We are afraid that these things would be taken away and just dumped, stored…”
This was worrying on Day 1, alarming on Day 2 and is now frankly inexcusable on Day 3. It is rapidly becoming evident that there is no carefully thought-out master plan for how to respond to the aftermath of an incident of mass destruction, that critical phase when the immediate crisis is brought under control but the people affected by it are most in need of assistance.
Three days after the disaster, survivors are being sheltered in a dispersed assortment of churches, mosques and community centres, and the bountiful aid so generously provided by members of the public is clearly not reaching everybody in need. Rather than hearing harrowing stories about the fire, we are now also hearing “harrowing” stories about the impact on survivors of the uncoordinated emergency relief response. Something isn’t working properly.
Hammersmith & Fulham councillor Joe Carlebach, who went to assist with the relief efforts as a volunteer, gives an even more concerning account over at Conservative Home:
There were a small group of young volunteers with mega phones doing their best to organise huge numbers of volunteers to sort and box mountains of food, drink, clothes, toiletries, and toys. What they lacked in management and organisational experience they made up for with dedication, commitment and raw emotion.
I set to work helping form human chains (and being part of the chain myself) for the sorted goods to be moved quickly to the road side waiting for transport for. I met a great variety of people, not just from London but all over the country. They all came with one thing in mind – to do what ever they could to help.
I talked to members of a mosque from North London, a businessman who owned a chauffeur business in Sutton, a prison officer, a Sainsbury’s check out assistant, a taxi driver form Ealing… I could go on, but I think the theme is clear.
There was a significant amount of confusion around where the sorted goods should go to be stored and what transport there was available to help move it. I made several calls to local businesses in an attempt to get trucks and vans to come to site and collect the aid and many, including Olympia Plc, responded quickly and sent several vans (at short notice) to help.
Whilst there was an overwhelming feeling of goodwill for the emergency services, and a wonderful spirit of community pervasive throughout the area where I worked, there was also a growing feeling of anger. At this point it was not directed at the cause of the fire or even at who was responsible, though I dare say that will come in time. It was focused on: where was the help that many had been expecting with the relief effort?
Where were the soldiers to help with the transport of aid? Why were families left on their own to undertake the heartbreaking task of searching the hospitals for missing loved ones? If ever there was a time for a show of force by the authorities, this would be it.
Yes. Where was/is the coordination, the people who bring real organisational skills and have experience in disaster relief to situations such as this? And why did nobody consider calling in the Army Reserve, as other countries frequently do to assist with the logistical aspect? Just because the Grenfell Tower disaster took place in an urban rather than a rural setting does not mean that logistics and transport will take care of themselves. It’s great that proactive councillor from a neighbouring borough had the foresight to call local businesses to request support, but why was this not already being done?
It also has to be said that the visit of many politicians to the site with no tangible results in terms of assistance did not help. It seemed they came to look, not to assist. These are not my words but those of many I spoke to.
Yes. I wrote about this the other day. While senior politicians mucking in to actually help with the recovery process might not make any great physical difference in the grand scheme of things, the visual is powerful and the image projected is one of a political class who actually care rather than one which is alternately terrified of the people and eager to use their suffering as the backdrop for a round of cynical, party political point-scoring.
The examples I gave:
Consider US Vice President Mike Pence and Missouri Governor Eric Greitens actively mucking in and helping to sweep up damage caused by vandalism at a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis. Or consider Governor Greg Abbott of Texas, who despite suffering third degree burns from an accident while on vacation still managed to leave the hospital and travel to Dallas to show solidarity and leadership after five city police officers were shot and killed in an ambush.
Do such gestures make an actual practical difference to disaster responses? Not really. But they are highly symbolic and can make a huge psychological difference. Pictures speak volumes, as any leader worth their salt knows.
Turning up and pitching in to help out is basic Leadership 101 in the United States. Apparently our more aloof senior politicians in Britain have not yet received the message.
The Huffington Post then gives this account of Theresa May’s latest cringeworthy television interview, this time with BBC Newsnight:
After fleeing Kensington, she struggled in a BBC Newsnight interview that was meant to focus on the £5 million aid package for the fire’s victims.
After May described what victims had told her, Emily Maitlis said people needed to hear her say: “Something has gone badly wrong. It is our fault. We acknowledge that and accept responsibility.”
“Something awful has happened,” May began. “This is an absolutely awful fire that has taken place.”
Maitlis interrupted to ask whether she would admit she misread the public mood by not going to visit the victims until now.
May answered that she had worked to “ensure the emergency services have the support they need”.
Maitlis told the prime minister: “But that’s three days on prime minister. This is Friday evening. They needed those things in place on Wednesday.”
The presenter described the support efforts for people made homeless by the fire as “chaos”, adding: “No one was in charge.”
May’s answer focussed on the £5 million: “What I have done today is ensured that, we, as a Government, are putting that funding in place for people in the area.”
Ignoring Maitlis’ questions about how victims would get the money, May said: “This has been absolutely terrifying experience for people.”
Again, put aside the mounting evidence of Theresa May’s robotic ineptitude and inability to command the situation – I have written extensively about the prime minister’s inexcusable failures of leadership, here and here.
No, what’s most concerning here is interviewer Emily Maitlis’ assertion that three days on from the fire, there is still a lag in getting the emergency services and aid volunteers the support that they need. Nor does there seem to be any kind of mechanism in place for disbursing the £5million aid package announced by the government, or a clear idea of how the money will be targeted to do the most good.
Instead, it seems as though the government is willing to make sweeping general pledges but then throw the ball to others when it comes to delivering on them:
All sensible measures, but it is one thing to draw up a list of promises in Downing Street and quite another to translate that list into tangible action on the ground. And it is still far from clear how these pledges will be delivered, or who will deliver them.
As I made clear in my previous pieces, to point out these various failures is in no way an attack on those goodhearted people who are freely giving of their time, money and resources to help the survivors and the bereaved, and do as much as possible to reduce their suffering. With the exception of the prime minister, the failure is systemic, not personal.
The community spirit and public generosity on display since the awful fire took place have been gratifying to witness. But it is not enough to praise the London spirit and take satisfaction in a job well done. In some cases and in some aspects the job is not being done well, not due to lack of effort but due to lack of advance planning for disasters and an uncoordinated response.
I wrote the other day about how much more organised and proactive aid efforts often tend to be in America, which may be counter-intuitive to many readers who have recently heard lots of smug, politically motivated comparisons of Theresa May’s ineptitude with former President George W. Bush’s failure to get to grips with Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
But since that awful failure of the federal government, improvements and changes have been made. When I witnessed disaster recovery efforts up close, in response to a huge deadly tornado in the Mid-West, they were a well-oiled machine:
I happened to be living in the American Mid-West when a huge tornado ripped through the town of Joplin, Missouri back in May 2011, killing 158 people and levelling entire neighbourhoods. Driving into town a few days later, it looked for all the world as though an atomic bomb had gone off. Whole blocks of houses were reduced to matchsticks. Big box retail stores had been blasted away so that only their steel frames remained standing. Even big, solid buildings like churches and a concrete-constructed hospital were damaged beyond the point of repair.
And yet within almost no time, there was real organised and disciplined aid on the ground, delivering help and comfort to people who needed it. Charities like the American Red Cross and Samaritan’s Purse sent convoys of trucks with aid and facilities such as washing machines and tumble driers so that people suddenly made homeless could do their laundry. Medical trucks administered tetanus shots to people, like me, who mucked in to assist with some of the repairs. The insurance companies sent mobile offices on the back of trucks to process damage claims. Churches organised the making and delivering of meals to those who needed them. And crucially, mobile command centres helped to coordinate the response, so that the appropriate help reached people who needed it while avoiding duplication of effort wherever possible. Honestly, the response was a sight to see and something I’m not likely to ever forget.
We need to learn some of those lessons and apply some of this best practice here in Britain. The disaster relief aspect in particular is certainly not a party political issue, but it is a vitally important issue in terms of social cohesion and even national security. We need to get this stuff right, and we need to make sure that better plans are in place to deal with future incidents, especially if – God forbid – there is a larger scale humanitarian disaster, perhaps resulting from a terrorist attack.
The problem seems to be the failure of any one involved party to take ultimate ownership of the relief effort. National government is partially paralysed following the indecisive general election, and in any case is led by a prime minister whose leadership skills seem to have gone entirely AWOL. Furthermore, Westminster seems to have no grand plan or desire to lead the effort, preferring instead to pledge a sum of cash and leave it for others to work out how best to put it to use.
Local government is similarly ineffective, as numerous eyewitness accounts have now now shown. And the slower Kensington & Chelsea council are to respond, the angrier people get (as we saw with today’s storming of the town hall by protesters), which then makes the council even more defensive and prone to error, a negative spiral which is now already well underway.
That leaves the charities, community organisations and private individuals who have borne the brunt of the effort and gone above and beyond the call of duty, but who do not necessarily have the organisational expertise to coordinate a disaster relief effort on this scale. Very specific skillsets are needed to manage a situation such as this, including logistical knowledge, communications expertise, public health guidance as well as legal, housing and insurance advice.
Charities can only hope to coordinate all of these tasks adequately if they know that they are explicitly expected to do so upfront and given the resources to do their work. Local government would seem to be a much more natural fit for these responsibilities, but government is so centralised in Britain that local authorities would struggle to maintain any kind of readiness given their reliance on (squeezed) funding from central government and inability to raise taxes of their own. And even if the funding was there, it seems increasingly evident that there are no longer any real civil contingency plans to speak of. Perhaps they were all considered obsolete and scrapped when the Cold War came to a close and history “ended”.
The net result is that Britain’s current civil contingency plans for a medium-sized disaster like the Grenfell Tower inferno seems to be “make it up as we go along” mixed with “muddle through and hope for the best”. This isn’t really good enough, but neither is it likely to change so long as ultimate responsibility for coordinating disaster response efforts falls down the gaps between national government, local authorities and the charity sector.
As the official public inquiry into the fire grinds on and answers are sought as to how such a grievous lapse in fire safety could have been tolerated, we should also spend some time conducting a post-mortem investigation of the disaster recovery effort. It is likely to show an amazing outpouring of financial and tangible assistance which sadly were not put to their best immediate use because nobody in Britain plans for the nightmare scenario anymore, and nobody is ultimately responsible for standing ready to execute against the plan even if one existed.
Yes, there are lots of lessons to be learned from this scandalous fire and its aftermath. And they are far too important to become fodder for some party political blame game.
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