Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Lessons learned from Interstate 78 fiasco

What can we learn from an independent investigation of Pennsylvania's inept handling of the Valentine's Day storm? Here's a few lessons: Government doesn't work. Bigger government doesn't mean better government. And $6 billion doesn't buy you competence.

Hundreds of motorists were stranded, some for almost a day, without food, water, medicine or heat on one of Pennsylvania's busiest highways during a winter storm in February.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, which spends $6 billion a year, couldn't figure out how to clear the snow and ice from Interstate 78. The Pennsylvania State Police didn't close off the road so more trucks and cars wouldn't get stranded. The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency failed to respond and neglected to inform the governor about the disaster until 8 p.m. on the second day of the storm.

That pretty much sums up the findings of the $130,000 independent evaluation of the Interstate 78 fiasco released Tuesday.

The state's response to the disaster revealed "a remarkable lack of awareness and understanding" — even among senior officials — of the state's emergency management system, according to the Associated Press' account of the findings of James Lee Witt Associates. Witt is the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but not the guy running FEMA during Katrina.

Everything that could go wrong with the state's storm response did, Witt concluded. He cited staffing deficiencies, incompetent supervisors, inferior technology and poor communication on the part of PennDOT, PEMA, the state police and the Pennsylvania National Guard.

In case you were wondering, Gov. Edward G. Rendell is in charge of all those agencies.

After releasing the report at a noon press conference in the state Capitol, Rendell said he instructed the heads of those agencies to begin implementing Witt's recommendation that emergency planning be given a higher priority. (They better get get moving. Only nine more months until winter comes back.)

According to the Associated Press, Witt's report showed:
  • The PennDOT district in Berks County did not have enough operators to man its available snow plows for more than one 12-hour period and was in violation of recommended staffing levels. Also, the entire Berks County management team had been in place for less than a month since the former team retired in January.
  • Although the storm was anticipated and nonessential state employees were given the day off at 6 a.m., PEMA did not raise the activation level of the state emergency operations center — a step that brings in liaisons with other state agencies — until nearly 14 hours later.
  • Neither Rendell nor state police Commissioner Jeffrey Miller was promptly alerted to the seriousness of the problems on Interstates 78, 80 and 81. The governor learned about it from stranded people who called his office early on the evening of Feb. 14. Miller heard about it a few hours earlier from a fellow Cabinet member who had been stranded for three hours.
  • PennDOT does not subscribe to a contracted weather-forecasting service, causing disparities in the information available to its district managers that hindered the department's overall response to the storm.
  • A sophisticated technology network designed to enhance PennDOT's awareness of road and traffic conditions was not functioning at the time of the storm.
In other words, despite billions of dollars spent every year, government is ripe with inefficiencies, incompetence and waste.

Welcome to the real world, governor.

Rendell is a creature of government. He believes government is the solution to all our problems. Rendell believes bigger government is always the answer. But in the real world, government usually causes or exacerbates most problems.

As President Ronald Reagan was fond of saying, "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.' "

The Interstate 78 fiasco is living proof of that.

The Pennsylvania Legislature should keep this in mind as it prepares to review Rendell's mammoth $27.3 billion general fund budget for the 2007-08 fiscal year starting July 1.

Rendell has presided over the biggest increase in state spending in Pennsylvania history. What do we have to show for all the billions Rendell has spent since 2003?

We have a transportation department that can't plow our highways, a state police that can't staff its barracks and an emergency response office that can't respond to an emergency.

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