Category Archives: Disaster planning

Constructive Criticism in a Crisis

by James C. Sherlock

Steve Haner and I have expressed the exact same three-phase reaction to state government missteps in the COVID-19 crisis. At first we gave the Governor slack because we knew he was unprepared and is supported by bureaucracies similarly unprepared for the new realities and that both needed time to adjust.

Then, when some of the Virginia bureaucracies important to this crisis showed inescapable evidence of a lack of nimbleness that rose to a level of incompetence, we called them out. Someone has to, or Governor, unschooled in the machinery of crisis response, will not get a sufficiently clear picture to seek alternative advice. Certainly, no one who works for him is likely to tell him.

That is the reason that I listed a “bill of particulars” the other day about major missteps in his April 1 press conference. He needs better advice. A follow-up article was about official malfeasance. He needs to fire the culprit.

Third, we recommended how the problems can be addressed. I recommended  the Governor seek support from MITRE to bridge the unpreparedness of his government advisors. The advice was for now, not for the post-crisis review. We want and need him to succeed.

What happens to government bureaucracies in a crisis?

Government bureaucracies often succeed at their basic day-to-day missions, but in many cases it is best not to look closer if you don’t have strong stomach. Continue reading

Thank God for Medicaid Expansion

By Peter Galuszka

For years after the Affordable Care Act, “Obamacare,” made millions of federal dollars available for states to expand Medicaid health coverage, Virginia Republicans steadfastly blocked Virginia from using the money.

Led by former House Speaker Bill Howell and Sen. Tommy Norment, the GOP claimed that expanding Medicaid to nearly 400,000 people would be too expensive and would blow out state funding.

This skinflint approach was finally put to rest after Democrat Ralph Northam became governor in 2018, foreshadowing a Democratic sweep of the General Assembly in elections last year.

Thank God the Democrats prevailed.

Virginia’s formerly robust economy has been shattered by the COVID 19 pandemic. Last week, some 110,000 Virginians filed for unemployment support. It was 46,277 the week before.

Who covers them is an open question but many would qualify for Medicaid. Expansion has boosted lower-income Virginians so that they may be able to better ride out the pandemic. Continue reading

Is Aubrey Layne Serious about a $2B “Hit” to Virginia’s Biennial General Fund from COVID-19?

By DJ Rippert

Penny Layne. Aubrey Layne is Virginia’s Secretary of Finance under the Northam Administration. Previously, Layne served as Secretary of Transportation under the McAuliffe regime. Prior to his time in government Layne held a number of executive positions in private enterprise including the presidency of Great Atlantic Properties. Layne is listed by Wikipedia as being a Republican. If true, he must have shown considerable competence and talent to be appointed to senior positions in two consecutive Democratic administrations.

Five days ago, during a Q&A with Richmond Times-Dispatch Magazine Layne effectively made an astonishing prediction. He was asked about the economic fallout from the COVID-19 epidemic in Virginia. The interviewer noted that COVID-19 would trim $2 billion from the state’s $48 billion General Fund budget within the $135 billion biennial budget. Here’s the question, “When the state budget was passed earlier this month, it was based on a full-throttled economy. Now the state is forecasted to lose potentially $2 billion in the upcoming two-year budget because of the coronavirus pandemic. How will the Northam administration address the drastic change facing the approved $135 billion budget?” Layne went on to answer that question and others without ever calling the $2 billion estimate into question.

Is it possible that the economic hit to Virginia from COVID-19 (even after federal bailout money) will only be $2 billion from the General Fund over two years? That’s just over 4% of the General Fund and just under 1.5% of the total budget.

Continue reading

Help Is Available, Governor

Dr. Jay Schnitzer, chief medical officer of Virginia-based MITRE, is a national leader in the COVID-19 response. Could he help Virginia?

by James C. Sherlock

The issues I spotlighted yesterday in Governor Northam’s news conference are not a Democrat or a Republican thing. They just need to be fixed. If you or I were elected Governor, we would consider our new responsibilities.  We would find that we have basically four:

  • Appoint competent and hard-working cabinet and sub-cabinet people and give then the authority to do their jobs. A corollary is that we would not suffer fools once we saw them in action.
  • Produce a budget.
  • Declare state emergencies, which activate the extraordinary crisis authorities granted to us under state law.
  • Use those authorities to lead and manage the state.

We would do first things first, and ensure a competent administration. We would see that we don’t have to produce a budget for a year.

Then we would turn to the last two. Governors come to the job with a near infinite variety of skills and experience. Most don’t have any experience in state-level crisis management. We would see that we could not delegate such responsibilities and make sure that we were ready. We would have our state department of emergency management train us in the basic tools of crisis management, the National Response Plan and the National Incident Management and the state annexes to both. We would ask those same offices to schedule training and exercises in the federally pre-scripted and funded scenarios for such crises: Continue reading

“We Are All Keynesians Now”

John Maynard Keynes

By Peter Galuszka

John Maynard Keynes, the British economist, advocated government spending and monetary intervention as suitable for modern economies.

When I was a student at a liberal college in New England in the early 1970s, we were taught that Keynes very much had the right idea. As evidence, we had the Great Society programs of Lyndon B. Johnson and, strangely, the Vietnam War. They all relied on vast amounts of deficit public spending.

Since then, free-market types came into favorable light and it all became the magic of the market, little regulation and other panaceas.

According to whom you read, pro-capitalism economist Milton Friedman admitted the necessity of Keynes’ thinking by stating, “We’re all Keynesians now.” President Richard Nixon, a Republican, is also credited with the quote when he took the U.S. off the gold standard.

The phrase is taking on increasing relevance with the COVID-19 pandemic. Virginia is no exception. Continue reading

Federal and State Responses to COVID-19

Duck and cover!

by James C. Sherlock

The federal government’s relationships with state and local governments is defined by the U.S. Constitution. Presidential management of internal national crises is constrained by lack of command authority over the states. No governor works for the President. He cannot order them to do anything, even in wartime. He can take control of industries, but not state governments. If the President nationalizes the National Guard, the Guard loses its ability to enforce state laws or respond to the Governor. And no, I don’t think we need to change our constitution.

The most complete restructuring of the federal government in my lifetime was the creation of the Department of Homeland Security after 9/11 and a complete rewrite of the National Response Plan. Giving birth to that full-grown mastodon was as noisy and bloody as you can imagine. After its birth, it was very awkward for a time. FEMA, now an element of DHS, existed at 9/11 exclusively as an agency that wrote checks upon the Presidential implementation of the Stafford Act. Although all of the plans and programs were restructured in 2002 and 2003, FEMA had that same role when Katrina happened in 2005.

After Katrina, the National Response Plan (NRP) was re-written again. The lessons learned from that tragedy resulted in a major restructuring of FEMA to support a national emergency command center and greatly improve its logistics capabilities, but those logistics capabilities still largely lie with check writing to implement contracts negotiated both before and during crises. Virtually every other major federal agency has a role in federal response coordinated by FEMA with participation of other federal agencies defined in plans specific to the type of emergency. The White House has its own staff to support the president and direct the federal agencies. Continue reading

Backgrounder: Virginia’s Healthcare Emergency Management Program

by James C. Sherlock

State emergency operations are personally meaningful to me. Preparation is key. Decisions have consequences. I want this one to go as well as possible.

I spent about a year while under contract to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as director of operations for a program that offered advanced Department of Defense capabilities to the state of Louisiana to improve its real-time emergency voice and data exchange and GPS-enabled visualization capabilities with response agencies across the state. We operated out to the state Emergency Operations Center and performed several successful statewide multi-participant live demonstrations. The people were great. The post-action reviews were very favorable. We finished the demonstration series about eleven months before Katrina. DoD’s offer was never accepted.

So, any words I offer are informed by that tragedy and are well meant.

Virginia Healthcare Emergency Management Program

In an earlier column, we reviewed Virginia’s training and exercise program funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. There is a second one. The Virginia Healthcare Emergency Management Program is funded through an annual Hospital Preparedness Program (HPP) grant from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS). Continue reading

Yes, Virginia Does Have a Plan to Fight the Pandemic

by James C. Sherlock

I have reviewed the Commonwealth of Virginia Emergency Operations Plan, HAZARD-SPECIFIC ANNEX #4 PANDEMIC INFLUENZA RESPONSE[1], August 2012. Such plans are required by FEMA as a predicate for federal funding, so every state and territory has one. Virginia’s operations plan, which follows the FEMA template, is excellent. The lead agency for execution is the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM).

 The question, as always in emergency response, is pre-emergency training and exercises. FEMA offers every level of both training and exercises and pays the bills, but the states must opt to use them, make sure that the right people participate and correct any readiness deficiencies exposed. Assessments of how and how often Virginia exercised, who participated, the level of rigor and post-exercise corrective actions will wait for post-operation analyses Here follows highlights of that plan. (Text in italics are my editorial insertions.)

Purpose

The Commonwealth of Virginia Pandemic Influenza Response Annex …has been developed to provide a sound basis for pandemic influenza preparedness and to establish the organizational framework and operational concepts and procedures designed to minimize the loss of life and property and to expedite the restoration of essential services following an influenza pandemic. Continue reading

Photo Project Spotlights Pipeline Impact


By Peter Galuszka

Veteran photographer Karen Kasmauski, who grew up in Norfolk, has a brilliant online project that shows the human and environmental impacts of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

She is a senior fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers, a non-profit group that funded her project that centers mostly in rural Nelson and Buckingham Counties that would be dissected by the natural gas pipeline.

She combines spectacular aerial photos with deep close ups of people.

One of her subjects is Ella Rose, a retiree who lives in a small house in Union Hill. She was living a quiet happy life in her natural setting until she got a letter from Dominion Energy stating that they would be routing the ACP about 150-feet from her house.

Union Hill is a touchpoint for pipeline controversy since it is largely African-American community that ACP officials have selected for a compressor station. It is one of similar localities that seem to be targeted with other loud and disruptive equipment along the pipeline route. Continue reading

A Look at Richmond and COVID-19

By Peter Galuszka

Here is a roundup story I wrote for Style Weekly that was published today that explains the effects of COVID-19 on the Richmond area. Hopefully, BR readers will find it of interest.

It was a tough piece to report. The impacts of the deadly virus are very complicated and multi-faceted. An especially hard part was trying to keep with the fast-changing news, notably the number of new cases and deaths. We were updating right up until the story closed Monday afternoon. It was hard to talk to people with social-distancing and closings.

The experience shows the delicate balancing act between taking tough measures to stem the contagion and keeping the economy going. My view is that tough measures are needed because without them, it will all be much worse, particularly more illness and death as the experience in Italy has shown.

Incredibly, our utterly incompetent president, Donald Trump, now wants to focus on the economy more than taking necessary containment steps. It’s far too soon for that. Regrettably, a number of Bacon’s Rebellion commenters are sounding the same irresponsible tune in keeping with their big business and anti-regulation laud of free market capitalism. Continue reading

COVID-19 Update: Exponential Rate of Increase Getting More Exponential

Forgive me for the mathematically nonsensical headline, but it drives home the point: Not only is COVID-19 spreading more rapidly, the rate of increase in infected patients is increasing. The Virginia Department of Health dashboard shows that 67 new cases were confirmed, and seven more coronavirus patients were admitted to hospitals. The number of fatalities rose to three.

If you’re inclined to panic, the latest data provides new fodder for your hysteria. Instead of the number of identified infections doubling every three days, as had been the case as recently as two days ago, the number has nearly doubled in just two days. The difference between doubling every three days and every two days is dramatic. If this rate of spread continues, hospitals and health care practitioners could find themselves running short of beds and staff within two to three weeks.

Governor Ralph Northam assured Virginians early in this crisis not to worry, the state had a plan. As the old military adage goes, no plan survives first contact with the enemy. In this case, no epidemic plan survives first contact with the virus. Specifically, what is being done (a) to increase the number of hospital beds, (b) increase the number of front-line health practitioners, (c) provide health practitioners the protective gear they need to avoid getting the virus themselves, and (d) create emergency capacity to hold coronavirus patients should hospitals run out of rooms? Continue reading

Dare County, N.C., closes its borders

By DJ Rippert

From Outer Banks to Outer Mongolia. Dare County, N.C. issued orders last week closing its borders to non-residents. Dare is a coastal county just south of Currituck County, N.C., which borders Virginia. Many Virginians know Dare County from Outer Banks vacations in towns such as Duck or fishing trips launched from Manteo. Checkpoints into and out of Dare County are apparently now manned by law enforcement officers who will check IDs to ensure that travelers are residents of Dare County or have pre-authorized transit permits issued by Dare County. As of last week there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Dare County, and it seems county officials want to keep it that way.

Is it legal? Some are questioning whether officials in Dare County can legally enforce a prohibition against non-residents entering the county. Apparently they can. North Carolina law, specifically N.C. General Statute 166A-19.31, allows local officials to control access and ingress to their jurisdiction during times of emergency. Given the Coronavirus outbreak, local officials in Dare County have decided to invoke that law.

We want your taxes but not you. Dare County has many vacation homes owned by non-Dare County residents. These homes are typically expensive and generate a material amount of tax revenue for the county. Originally, non-resident owners of these homes were allowed entry into the county by showing their tax receipts for the property along with valid ID. Yesterday that changed. Dare County is now excluding non-resident property owners from entering the county.

Commentary. I was originally predisposed to giving Dare County officials the benefit of the doubt regarding the border closure. For one thing all those expensive and unoccupied beach homes could be targets for burglars taking advantage of the Coronavirus outbreak. However, my perception changed when those same officials decided to bar entry for non-resident property owners. These are people who have invested in the county, who pay taxes to the county and who should have every right to go to their properties. I have no idea if Virginia law would permit the same type of buffoonery from our local officials. Let’s hope not  However, even if such actions are allowed, I hope no Virginia jurisdiction would follow the selfish, arrogant and small minded actions of the officials in Dare County, N.C.

Virginians, Look to State/Local Government for COVID-19 Response

by James C. Sherlock

Our schools generally don’t do as good a job teaching civics education as they used to — that’s an old man talking! — which leaves a lot of people confused as to where to look in a crisis. The conversations we see on Bacon’s Rebellion reflect that confusion even among the sophisticated readership of this blog. Much of the press reporting is devoid of this perspective.

The United States constitution defines a federal system of government in which power is divided among the national government and state governments. Some areas of public life are under the control of the national government and some areas are under control of the state governments. The original reason for the founders choosing that system was maintenance of personal freedom and empowering the governments closest to the people. Those reasons still apply.  To that reason we can now add scale. The profound differences of all kinds among the states ensure that one size truly cannot fit all.

Virginia is a sovereign state under the constitution. The federal government does a lot of things, but it does not have direct responsibility for how well Virginia — or California, or Texas — handles COVID-19.

The Governor of Virginia and the Secretary of Health and Human Resources — physicians both — are responsible for managing the crisis in Virginia. So conversations on this blog regarding the National Stockpile and the capabilities of the Defense Department and pretty much all other issues relative to state utilization of national resources need to start with an understanding that the Governor must request those resources.

Continue reading

COVID-19 Update: March 17

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases jumped sharply, according to statistics updated today by the Virginia Department of Health. But don’t panic! While the number of cases increased 31%, the number of people tests leaped 110% as testing kits became increasingly available. The leap is a function of the testing, not the spread of the disease.

— JAB

Update. The Virginian-Pilot has begun tracking Virginia coronavirus, too. The newspaper has a particularly cool graph showing the progress of the epidemic in different states by the number of days since the first reported case. (Hat tip: Carol Bova.)

Damn the Coronavirus! Full Speed Ahead!

Source: Department of Planning & Budget revenue forecast. Click for more readable image.

The budget forecasts underpinning Virginia’s General Fund budgets for FY 2021 and 2022 suggests that revenues will increase 4.5% next year and 3.7% the year after that. Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne released those numbers back in December, when COVID-19 was still an obscure disease incubating in a Wuhan wet market. But it’s a very different world today. Nations are shutting down travel and enforcing social distancing. Economies are slowing. Retail sales are suffering. Economists are revising growth forecasts downward. Speculation is rampant that the global economy could enter a recession, dragging the U.S. down with it.

None of these developments appeared to make the slightest impression upon Virginia General Assembly leaders as they finalized changes to the budget submitted by Governor Ralph Northam. Read Dick Hall-Sizemore’s recap of the legislature’s budget actions here. Like junkies reaching for the needle, spending-addicted legislators paid no heed to their surroundings. They made no accommodations whatsoever for the impending epidemic.

Republican lawmakers did propose a delay in adopting the budget on the not-unreasonable grounds that the rapidly changing situation could have a big impact on revenue forecasts. Democrats responded that a delay would create unnecessary uncertainty.

As Admiral Farragut famously said, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” That dare-devil approach worked out for the Civil War commander in the Battle of Mobile Bay. We’ll see how it works out for Virginia in the Battle of the Coronavirus.

— JAB