In one Louisiana parish, flexibility trumps bureaucracy

Plaquemines Parish juts out into the Gulf of Mexico just south of New Orleans. It's 80 miles long and in places is just 8 miles wide, and on a map it looks like a tree branch waiting for one bad storm to snap it off. No place in Louisiana is more exposed or more remote, and nowhere would you less expect to hear the singsong accent of Minnesotans.

But in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, there they were: a six-person squad from the sheriff's office of Hennepin County, Minn. Alongside them were sheriffs' deputies from Massachusetts and Kentucky, National Guard troops from New Mexico, and countless other contingents. All were linked by the Minnesotans' high-tech command van. And very few of them had been sent by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. These helpers came to Plaquemines and places like it from no single source, through no comprehensive organizing process, at no national leader's command. They came from across America, as officially or as ad hoc as they had to, because they wanted to help in the aftermath of one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.

Such a response builds on four centuries of American self-reliance and mutual help, a spirit accelerated by cellphones and the Internet. It was inspiring. It was massive. And it was not nearly enough: Hundreds of the dead, thousands of the homeless, could have told you that.

But the questions of the hour -- Who's in charge? Why not the military? Why so much bureaucracy? Should FEMA be part of the Department of Homeland Security or not? -- as important as they are, miss most of the point. Doing the same things better in time for the next catastrophe is not good enough, if only because chance rarely sends two disasters of the same kind in a row. Amid the wreckage of Katrina, and of Hurricane Rita, and of the California wildfires, signposts point toward a new, more fluid way to organize and save lives in the face of chaos, a response that emphasizes flexibility over bureaucracy.

Welcome to Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana. Welcome to the 21st century.

Picking Up the Pieces in Plaquemines

Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana about 7:10 a.m. on Monday, August 29, along the exposed peninsula of Plaquemines. "Between the wind and the water, it pretty much devastated two-thirds of our parish," said Col. Charles Guey, operations chief for Plaquemines's sheriff, I.F. Hingle. "Close to 60 percent of our officers lost their homes." The storm downed antennas, flooded the communications center, and ripped radio equipment off the building and washed it away. Good planning, and good luck, kept most of the parish's patrol cars intact on the high ground -- but they obviously couldn't drive through flood waters. More planning had enabled Plaquemines to activate backup radio channels through what the storm spared of the Louisiana state-police network -- but these channels, too, covered only the parish's unflooded northern portion. So that first afternoon, when the sheriff led his deputies out on shallow-draft airboats equipped with only short-range radios, the rescuers entered a desolation of water and static where they themselves could not call for help.

Soon, they were not alone. As the skies cleared, Coast Guard helicopters flew search-and-rescue missions of their own. Unable to talk by radio to the federal aircrews, the deputies used hand signals to guide the choppers to a surviving strip of levee, where the locals' boats were dropping off survivors.

That was all the outside help, however, that Plaquemines got in the first five days after the hurricane. The Louisiana Emergency Operations Center was all but unreachable over the remaining radio channels, and anyway, the roads were mostly flooded. "[Even] the Red Cross was not here," Guey said. Deputies broke into abandoned businesses for food, fuel, medicines, generators, even trucks.

On Saturday, September 3, the military finally arrived: a task force of the New Mexico National Guard. The unit was not federalized under the command of Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore. Instead, the force operated as a state militia lent directly by New Mexico's governor to Louisiana's. The arriving Guard had several hundred troops with supplies, equipment, even police training -- yet no way to coordinate with the people they had come to help. "We're designed to handle law enforcement at an air base, not over many miles," said Air National Guard Lt. Col. Richard Almeter, the deputy commander. The Guard radios could not talk at all to the incompatible systems of the sheriff's office, and Almeter could not reach his own detachments beyond "three miles, max."

On Monday, September 5, a week after Katrina, the Minnesotans arrived with the solution. Four days earlier, their chief, Hennepin County Sheriff Patrick McGowan, had called an old National Sheriffs' Association colleague in Louisiana and actually gotten through. "They were just overwhelmed down there," said McGowan; above all, "they needed communications" -- and McGowan had a $2 million mobile command post. That was Thursday. All day Friday, Hennepin County officers scrambled to get their gear ready. Meanwhile, Minnesota state officials raced to secure permission and contacts, bypassing FEMA and going directly to Louisiana state officials under a state-to-state Emergency Management Assistance Compact. On Saturday morning, the Hennepin County team hit the road. On Monday afternoon, they reached the Louisiana sheriff who had requested their help, only to find that he had already gotten his communications working again. So he sent them down the road, deeper into the damage, to the next parish -- which turned out not to need them, either. Then, as night fell, they went to the next parish after that, to land's end for Louisiana: Plaquemines.

Within 24 hours, the Minnesotans had set up their antenna, handed out spare radios, and gotten troops and deputies alike onto a common network with long-range coverage. "That was critical," said Guard Lt. Col. Almeter; with it, "we were able to rescue people."

Initiative and Its Limits

All along the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast, in many places like Plaquemines Parish, crucial help has come from unexpected sources. It is not that the armed forces or FEMA were absent: The military's peak deployment of 70,000 troops made up the bulk of the rescuers, FEMA's billions the bulk of the cash resources. It is that all sorts of smaller players, acting on their own initiative, stepped up to fill in the gaps. Freelancers, however, have to know when to fall back into formation, or they can end up hampering, rather than helping, the recovery.

Charles Werner, fire chief for Charlottesville, Va., had those limits very much in mind as he watched Katrina's devastation unfold. Like Minnesota's Sheriff McGowan, Werner had a high-tech communications van he knew would be much needed; but "for the better part of two days, we were unable to make a connection to Louisiana or Mississippi through the regular channels," he recalled. At last, he sent his unit south without formal authorization, a local contact, or even a specific destination -- but with strict orders to stop short of the disaster zone if no clearance came. "We're not going to self-deploy and just show up somewhere," Werner said. "It just adds to the chaos."

The gamble paid off. The unit was en route when Werner got a call for help -- not from FEMA, or even from Louisiana or Mississippi, but from Florida state officials who had "adopted" six Mississippi counties that had lost all communications. Werner sent his team to Hancock, Miss., at the Floridians' request and got clearance -- retroactively -- from Virginia and Florida authorities under the state-to-state Emergency Management Assistance Compact. All of this required some extra, but necessary, paperwork: The compact "does cover all those things you have to have" when operating outside your jurisdiction and off your budget, from legal authority to liability coverage to reimbursement, Werner emphasized.

But the official process can impede individual initiative, instead of enabling it. Four days after Katrina, Sheriff Greg Champagne of Louisiana's St. Charles Parish stopped waiting for the National Guard and had his aide, Capt. Patrick Yoes, e-mail a request for supplies and personnel to the 320,000-member national Fraternal Order of Police; Yoes is on the FOP board. The FOP forwarded the appeal to all 2,100 of its lodges, and the pledges poured in. "Within eight hours," said Yoes, "I was advising people we had filled our needs."

The only problem was that the FOP volunteers still had to get to Louisiana. The U.S. Capitol Police got hung up in the FEMA authorization process and did not go until September 24; the U.S. Mint Police broke through and secured permission only when the Treasury secretary intervened. "Every time you talked to FEMA, you were sent in this endless circle of phone calls," said Lou Cannon, head of the FOP's D.C. lodge. But by Labor Day, September 5, even as the Minnesotans showed up in Plaquemines, hundreds of FOP members, truckloads of supplies, and a mobile kitchen were arriving in St. Charles and other neighboring parishes.

Then the offers kept on coming. "It was almost overwhelming," Yoes said. "I had to put a recording on my phone asking people to stand down, that we had met the complement of officers that we needed. I got no less than a thousand inquiries. Officers called from Canada and Hawaii." Let loose on the Internet, Yoes's original request had spread faster than anyone could rein it in.

Meanwhile, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, working with FEMA, had met its goal of mustering 4,000 volunteers. By September 6, it was actively urging people to stop coming to the Gulf region. Up to 200 firefighters a day were "self-dispatching" -- arriving in New Orleans on their own, unauthorized and unannounced -- and local commanders could not keep them fed and supplied, the association warned. Unsolicited offers of aid were jamming the phone lines at Louisiana's Emergency Operations Center, blocking urgent calls.

This kind of spontaneous, unofficial response to disaster has been seen before, as on 9/11. "It's commonly referred to as 'the second disaster,' " said Tim Manning, New Mexico's homeland-security director. "There's enough work to do without having to deal with the thousands of people who show up unrequested and say, 'I'm here to help.' "

Too much central coordination fatally slowed the response to Hurricane Katrina; too much individual initiative overloaded it. What the country needs is a system that can balance both. What the country has is two and a half systems.

Two and a Half Systems

The response to Hurricane Katrina cost FEMA chief Michael Brown his job and sent President Bush's job-approval ratings lower. The administration's defenders note that the federal government has no power to make the states shape up. But that is only half the issue. Not only is FEMA unable to command the states, it cannot command other federal agencies, either. It has always lacked that authority, both before -- when it was an independent agency -- and more recently, as part of the Homeland Security Department.

The disaster-response system looks like a tidy federalist ladder: Overwhelmed local officials ask for help from their state, which in turn asks for help from FEMA. But FEMA is a clearinghouse with fewer than 3,000 of its own personnel. To deploy trucks, troops, radios, rations, almost anything except a few specialized teams, FEMA has to ask for help from other federal agencies. All of those agencies have other missions, legal restrictions, tight budgets, and concerns about reimbursement. Neither the FEMA director nor the Homeland Security secretary -- no one, in fact, short of the president -- can compel a Cabinet department to hurry up and help.

Once help is sent, the new National Response Plan calls for the secretary of Homeland Security to name a "Principal Federal Official" to "facilitate" and "coordinate" the federal effort. But, the next paragraph adds, this official has no "directive authority" over other federal officials. The first PFO named for Katrina was Michael Brown; he was followed by the well-regarded Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen. But for anyone, said disaster-training consultant Paul Speer of CNA Corp., "that's an inherently difficult position to be in, because you're not actually commanding anything to happen."

Small wonder, then, that "it seemed like FEMA was having a difficult time communicating even within its own structure," as Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) told National Journal. As his state tried to work with FEMA to send aid and receive evacuees, Huckabee said, "we'd get conflicting information 10 minutes apart." Arkansas ultimately sent more than 1,000 helpers -- Guard troops, state police, rescue boat crews, and more -- but not through FEMA channels. "We're sending all that through EMAC," Huckabee said.

EMAC, the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, is a voluntary agreement among all the states except Hawaii (California joined in September). It is completely independent of the federal government. Legally, EMAC is a set of standardized, ready-to-go agreements covering liability, reimbursement, and jurisdiction so that personnel from one state can respond to disasters in another without, say, being sued if the lifesaving goes wrong. Operationally, EMAC is a phone-and-computer network linking member states to a central database -- run not by any government agency, but by the nonprofit National Emergency Management Association in Lexington, Ky. In the Katrina disaster, the compact enabled 44 states to send 43,000 people to Louisiana and Mississippi. Yet the federal National Response Plan -- all 426 pages of it -- mentions EMAC just twice, and then only in passing.

The two systems -- state and federal -- do coordinate through liaisons. And for all their dissimilarities, the two are structurally akin. On the supply side, the state emergency managers, just like FEMA officials, are coordinators with few resources of their own. They must call on other agencies that they do not control, such as their state's National Guard, the state police, or, increasingly, the police and fire departments of their state's cities and counties. And on the demand side, both FEMA and EMAC rely on a stricken state to say what help it needs. But in the first days after Katrina, hardly anyone asking for or offering help could get through to the Louisiana and Mississippi Emergency Operations Centers by radio, landline, cellphone, satellite phone, or e-mail. The few functioning lines, and the people answering them, were overwhelmed.

The state and federal choke points, though, can be sidestepped. "There's not a county or a city of any size that would not have members of the Fraternal Order of Police," said John Magaw, former director of the Secret Service. Send an appeal to the FOP, as St. Charles Parish did, or to the National Sheriffs' Association, or to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Magaw said, "and you could reach every law enforcement agency in the country. The help is there, if you reach out for it." Similar nongovernmental organizations exist to link firefighters, emergency managers, hospital administrators, public works officials, churches -- even, through the Red Cross itself, ordinary volunteers.

It is such self-organized networks that Alexis de Tocqueville lauded 150 years ago, when he wrote: "Nothing, in my opinion, is more deserving of our attention than the intellectual and moral associations of America." Today, this tradition has adopted the centerless connectivity of the Internet. But the strength of decentralization is the same as its weakness: Fewer choke points make for weaker direction. The mightiest locomotive, if it has no tracks, is only half a system.

In practice, the private associations work best in conjunction with the governmental systems. EMAC officials actually encourage local fire chiefs, sheriffs, and the like to reach out to their counterparts and work out what aid to send directly, as long as they then report back to get authorization and support, as Sheriff McGowan and Chief Werner did. FEMA went through the International Association of Fire Chiefs to quickly muster volunteers. Problems arise when the different systems block each other, as when the Capitol Police had trouble getting FEMA's approval -- or when they do not connect at all, as when unasked-for volunteers overwhelmed New Orleans.

These different parts of the rescue effort can all perform: Look at Plaquemines Parish, or at FEMA and the state of Florida in last year's hurricanes. But harmonizing them -- federal, state, local, and nongovernmental -- is hard. The temptation, with which the president himself has toyed, is to set the untidy civilians aside and let the military take command. As old soldiers will tell you, it's not so simple.

The Man on Horseback?

On Friday, September 2 -- four days after Hurricane Katrina hit -- the first military convoy drove through waist-high water into New Orleans. CNN showed the three-star Joint Task Force commander, Lt. Gen. Honore, directing trucks, cussing out troops, giving orders to civilian cops, even carrying babies in his arms. President Bush, as impressed as anyone, called for "a broader role for the armed forces" in his September speech from Jackson Square -- triggering an instant backlash not only from civil libertarians but from the Pentagon itself. The U.S. military may be the planet's biggest hammer, but not every problem is a nail.

"The military does three things very, very well in times of crisis," said Robert Killebrew, a retired Army colonel who helped with disaster relief in Africa: They can set up communications where none exist; move masses of supplies over poor roads or none; and provide security amid chaos. (The Insurrection Act allows the president to use federal troops for law enforcement in the United States at will, overriding the Posse Comitatus Act, which President George H.W. Bush did in response to the 1992 Los Angeles riots.) But, Killebrew added, the military does three key things much less well than civilian specialists: Utility companies can better restore power and water; aid groups like the Red Cross can better provide shelter and support; and civilian police can better maintain daily law and order, street by street. After a disaster smashes local infrastructure, the military is uniquely capable of keeping the rest of the relief effort in communication, well supplied, and safe from thugs -- but its role is to support the civilian effort, not supplant it.

If the military cannot do without civilians, can it at least coerce them into cooperating, as Lt. Gen. Honore sometimes did with the New Orleans police? Not likely. "The idea of this guy at the top issuing orders and having everybody fall into line is not reality," said Robert Worley, a military analyst at Johns Hopkins University. No less a leader than Gen. Robert E. Lee lost contact with his own cavalry before Gettysburg. "Given the nature of war," declares an official Marine Corps manual, Command and Control, "it is a delusion to think we can be in control with any sort of certitude."

An officer in Iraq today has to juggle ground troops, air strikes, aid work, and local allies, but not all are under his command. He even has to request, not demand, air support, and he gets it not through drill-sergeant shouting but through a formal process. "When a military unit is in trouble, help streams that way because there are very strict doctrines in place," said Col. Killebrew: procedures predetermined, organizations standardized, communications kept open, and all of it practiced, practiced, practiced, until whatever specialized reinforcement the current crisis requires can snap quickly into place.

Civilian emergency responders can learn from the military model. The military itself, however, has trouble fitting civilian partners into its structure. When the military does take the lead in recovery missions -- recall Iraq and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's decision to shut out State Department experts in that nation's rebuilding effort -- the results are poor.

Anyone able to bridge this gap must intimately know both martial order and civil ambiguity. Such people do exist. You could see some of them in the sky over Plaquemines Parish in the first hours after the storm, as the local deputies waved in rescue helicopters from the U.S. Coast Guard.

That Coast Guard Thing

The Coast Guard started saving lives just hours after Hurricane Katrina came ashore. In the first 10 days, the service estimates it rescued 23,909 people. When public fury forced out FEMA Director Brown, President Bush tapped Coast Guard Vice Adm. Allen to replace him as Principal Federal Official orchestrating the all-agency response. The president named another Coast Guard commander, Rear Adm. Larry Hereth, as PFO for Hurricane Rita before it even hit land.

The Coast Guard's job is not just to show up in disasters. The counterdrug operations in the Caribbean and the Pacific (Joint Interagency Task Force-South and JIATF-West) combine the Navy, Customs, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI, and others, but always under the command of Coast Guard admirals. Nor do "Coasties" stick to coastal work: Adm. James Loy was widely hailed for turning around the Transportation Security Administration -- whose focus is airplanes -- before he became deputy secretary of the entire Homeland Security Department. And although the Coast Guard is unique in being both a military service and a law enforcement agency, Loy won praise precisely for his success in replacing TSA's top-down, take-charge military/police-like culture with a more collaborative approach.

In all of these cases, the Coast Guard's unique culture -- half first-responder, half military -- is at work. Initiative is expected: "When the search-and-rescue alarm goes off, people are falling over themselves to get into airplanes," said retired Rear Adm. John Tozzi. "They're not waiting for anyone to ask. There's authority at the station level to act." Nor is authority limited to lifesaving, Tozzi added: "A Coast Guard ship can board any U.S.-flagged vessel, any time."

In the face of oil spills, drug smugglers, boat people, illegal whalers, drowning sailors -- any number of sudden crises -- Coast Guard officers can act on their own. But at the same time, in those same missions, the Coast Guard cannot succeed by itself. It cannot contain an oil spill without federal and state environmental agencies, or stop smugglers without the Navy and DEA and Customs, or protect ports without local harbor police and shipping companies. Nor can the Coast Guard keep sea-lanes safe without the help of commercial shipowners and boating clubs.

"It's not only about authority," said Loy (now retired and a partner at the Cohen Group). "It's about having to recognize that you may not be the one that's going to do it all. You may have to be in harness with a bunch of others."

In the first hours after Hurricane Katrina arrived, Coast Guard rescue choppers flew out to Plaquemines Parish without a formal request, without even a way to radio the local officers in boats below. A few days later, a Coast Guard liaison officer arrived at the parish command post, and the service quietly joined the Plaquemines team. Coast Guard officers spend their careers learning how to slip in and out of harness as needed -- to balance the needs for initiative and for coordination.

But achieving that kind of adaptability is not the hardest part. The real trick is to set up a structure for coordination in advance, without knowing precisely what the disaster will be or whom you'll be coordinating with.

Organized Chaos

When Coast Guard commanders respond to an oil spill, let alone a hurricane, they know the Guard will not be the only agency at the scene. If the commanders have planned and war-gamed well with potential partners, they will have a good sense of who these partners might be. But the worse the disaster, the more complex and unpredictable the response: Greater damage in a wider area, to more kinds of facilities, communities, and interests, brings in more victims and requires more varieties of outside help.

What all that help plugs into is something called ICS, the Incident Command System. The Coast Guard uses it for oil spills, typhoons, and floods, but it was invented on the driest of dry land. Forty years ago in California, whenever seasonal wildfires spread uncontrollably across county lines and into federal land, firefighters from myriad federal, state, and local agencies faced a deadly common problem with no common game plan and no one in charge. So, starting in the early 1970s, officials thrashed out what would become the ICS. Its bedrock principle: One incident, one commander -- no matter how many agencies send help.

As a disaster grows and the response grows along with it, the ICS unfolds a standardized but customizable structure. Too many units for that one commander to manage alone? ICS specifies how to organize everything, from fire trucks to police dogs to medevac helicopters, into strike teams, task forces, divisions, groups, and branches under a single Operations Section. Operations so complex they require written plans? ICS shows how to set up a Planning Section. Supplies and personnel getting exhausted? Here's how to set up a Logistics Section and a base camp. Need to keep records for reimbursement? Here's how to set up Finance. After 9/11, the Homeland Security Department added protocols for setting up an Intelligence Section if necessary as well.

Forced to practice every year because of real-world wildfires, local fire departments out West and federal Interior Department and Forest Service fire chiefs built on the basic ICS. They created "area commands" to handle the largest incidents; a National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho; standby command teams to dispatch as needed; and a virtually military-style system of standardization: The commander on a wildfire can ask for a "Type I Helicopter, restricted," or a "Type II incident management team," and the neighboring departments will know exactly what equipment to send, and with it how many people, trained in what skills.

The essentials of ICS have been adapted and adopted by other firefighters, hazardous-materials technicians, emergency managers, and, after long reluctance, an increasing number of police forces across the country. As of this year, the Homeland Security Department requires grant recipients to "institutionalize the use of ICS." For most types of incidents facing most local governments, though, the meat is not yet on ICS's bones: Training standards vary across departments, many radio systems are incompatible, and people don't all mean the same thing by "Type I." "So when we see requests for an 'incident management team,' the first question is, 'What do you mean? How many people? What capabilities?' " said Jeff Phillips, the New Mexico emergency manager who coordinated EMAC's nationwide response to Katrina and Rita.

The details of an ICS response need to be worked out in advance. Thrashing them out after a crisis hits can consume precious time. Rushing through them can lead to ill-equipped rescue teams -- as when the New Mexico National Guard arrived on the 80-mile-long Plaquemines Peninsula with radios operating over only a 3-mile range.

The basics of the Incident Command System are simple; what's hard is all the planning, training, and reorganization that teams must do in advance, if they are to plug in seamlessly when the crisis comes. Such standardization, however, is essential, because you can never predict what partners you'll have in a crisis. Sometimes, Louisianans need Minnesotans to help them talk to New Mexicans. Who knew?

Beyond Plaquemines

No one could have planned out the response in Plaquemines Parish. The Hennepin County officers themselves could not have predicted it until they got there. They had a superior who took the initiative to send them, a bureaucracy that stepped in behind to support them, a local contact who knew where to use them, and the training to set up a new organization with the partners they found on arrival, literally overnight. Who was in charge? Whoever had, at that moment, the resources and the information on which to act -- and the restraint to hand off control to the next person at the next moment, as required. It would have been impossible to draw up a strict table of organization in advance; it would be futile to copy the precise structure used in Plaquemines as the model for every future disaster.

Yet we keep trying. If terrorists hijack airplanes and crash them into buildings, we create a Transportation Security Administration with 60,000 people to stop the next hijacking. If, on reflection, we find that some of the hijackers entered the United States illegally, we throw the TSA together with the Border Patrol, Customs, Immigration, and FEMA for good measure into a new Department of Homeland Security. If the DHS, focused now on terrorism, fumbles a hurricane, we might bring FEMA back out again into its own little box. After the bird flu strikes, perhaps FEMA can be put under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"We develop an organization perfectly geared to preventing the last disaster -- but not the next one," said UCLA professor Amy Zegart, whose history of national security reform is titled Flawed by Design. "We're not going to solve the problem by waving our magic wands and putting one person in charge of everything, because the problem is huge. You're either going to have a maze within one agency, or across agencies -- but it's still going to be a maze."

The only way out of this labyrinth is to break down the walls. What the Incident Command System, the Coast Guard, good generals, voluntary associations, the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, and even the much-maligned FEMA have in common is the ability to reach across dividing lines -- federal/state/local; public/private; civilian/military -- and borrow the resources a particular crisis requires. "The goal should not be to hardwire everything in," Zegart said. "That's unattainable." What is attainable is the ability to adapt.

Policy makers cannot draw the perfect organizational chart. But they can make bureaucracies nimbler, provide encouragement and structure for volunteers, and couple generous funding with strict standards so that agencies can act, not only forcefully, but together. Lawmakers can also remove obstacles to cooperation and reward adaptability -- and then pay for, and insist on, constant exercises so that everybody gets it right. Only the well organized can improvise well.

On the last day of September, more than a month after Hurricane Katrina and a few days after more flooding from Hurricane Rita, the Minnesotans pulled out of Plaquemines Parish. The Hennepin sheriff's spokesman, Jeff Bakken, said his crew had lingered because "we were waiting for a crew from BellSouth to help us with the final plug-ins on a portable 911 dispatch center." Once the phones were ringing again in Louisiana, the Minnesotans headed home. For now.

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