Fri, Sep

We are Powerless in the Face of Nature

Fri, Sep 2, 2005


Sometimes I wonder, how am I going to write about anything other than Katrina? With a disaster this big, talking about other things seems crass. But you do realize that the areas affected by the Boxing Day tsunami are still being rebuilt? And the suffering is continuing in Darfur? I wonder how long it will be before we resume some normality in our lives.

Then again, for hundreds of thousands of people, their lives won’t be normal for quite some time…

While I took umbridge over the fact that Canada’s DART team has not yet been given permission to move to the stricken areas in the wake of Katrina, and while it is frustrating in the extreme to see the scenes of chaos continue nearly a week after Katrina has passed, it is way too early to pass judgement against government officials for their supposed failure in dealing with the effects of this storm. One commentator asked, “why hasn’t marshall law been imposed”, to which the answer is: it was imposed last Tuesday. Such is the extent of the damage and the suffering that the declaration went largely unnoticed.

James DiBenedetto links to an article that frames the extent of the disaster well, and illustrates why any government, this early in the game, is going to look like an incompetent fool.

To those who would blame the mayor of New Orleans, I would ask you to prepare, in the course of three days, to completely evacuate and rebuild a city of approximately one million people. I would further constrain you by telling you to expect that the energy to be released on your city in the coming days will be equal to the detonation of one United States W81 0.5 megaton thermonuclear warhead on your city and the surrounding areas, each and every single minute that the storm is overhead.

Not only do you have to plan and build a new city in three days, that will house one million people, you must also facilitate the traffic flow of 800,000 of those people to an area that will not be affected by the rain of 450 kiloton nuclear weapons the storm will drop after it leaves your city. You have to find, and physically force some portion of the 100,000 remaining persons to leave, and you have to find and transport the remainder of that 100,000 people who cannot do so on their own.

Whatever routes you choose to get to your brand new one million person city will be shared with mandatory evacuees from the entire two or three state region. Beginning on the second day of your one million person new city construction project, every asset you and your staff possesses, cars, houses, offices, telephones, computers, and basic necessities, will be unavailable, under water.

At this point you will have to make some very hard decisions. No city government is capable of building a one million person city, not in three years and certainly not in three days, but this is only the beginning. When the levees begin to fail, you will have to start choosing who gets to live and who gets to die. Not one at a time, you will be forced to decide whether large groups of human beings, your constituents, 20,000 in the Dome, 60,000 in each of three flooded parishes, another 50,000 in the downtown area, get to live or are abandoned.

Will you save the people trapped on flooded roofs, or fix the levee and let them die? How many will die if you do not fix the levee? When your best engineers tell you that they cannot close the breach before it floods the city, will you even try? When they tell you that even if by a miracle they succeed and seal the breach, that 50 others are ready to pop at any time, what then? If you seal that breach, or even try, the people on the roofs will die. If you do not seal the breach, who knows how many in the city — s center will die. But your task is not yet complete, far from it.

The largest seaport in the US has been destroyed. How will ships get in to help you? The largest river in the US is now blocked to ocean going ships, and river going ships. Will you just let it sit there, blocked, while the rest of the country starves for gasoline, not to mention hundreds of other necessities? All but one of the bridges into and out of your city are destroyed, but you don — t even know this, not at first. You can — t get even one block from your office without a chainsaw and a crane. Your helicopters are either 200 miles away or destroyed. Your phones don — t work and your power is out.

Will you divert resources from saving people in attics to look over the highways to see which are open and which are closed? Will you choose to check the roads, and begin cleaning the roads, if the price of doing so is to let a thousand people in local hospitals who require electricity to live, and who therefore must be evacuated, die in their hospital beds? Perhaps instead, you will choose to place a priority on looters, who are shooting at hospitals and policemen. Who will you allow to die, while you divert assets to maintaining security? This is just the beginning.

You still have 30,000 people in the Super Dome, the water is rising, they are getting sick and they are near rioting. What are you going to do with them? By now, you are hopefully beginning to understand the error in trying to fix blame, at least this early. You do not, a city does not, even the United States does not build a brand new one million person city in one day. If you try, you seal the deaths of thousands and thousands of people.

What you do first is call in the Feds. This is so far beyond the capacity of any city, even New York, that the Feds have the only chance at success. But you are the mayor, you have known for years how many cops you have, how many National Guards you have, and that the numbers available to you are less than a tenth of what you need. The Federal Government is the ONLY answer. But even the Feds do not rush into a disaster of this magnitude.

If you want to know exactly how long it takes a trained crew to set up a one million person city, I cannot give you the answer. But I can tell you how long it takes to set up the headquarters that will run a one million person city. It takes three days. We just saw it done. We just saw how professionals work. They do not run into a disaster area with two other guys and immediately bog down, buried under a task far too large to comprehend. No, they assess the situation first. That takes 24 hours. I have never seen any kind of a hurricane damage overview in less than 24 hours after the eyewall passed the area.

They assess and then they move an advance team in to build the headquarters and support facilities necessary to command the entire relief effort. While that is being built, the lower echelon units are packing and getting into trucks and flying their helicopters closer to the area. Closer, but not in, because they, and you, do not know exactly where it is safe for them to set up, or even where they will be needed. But once you have the headquarters up, and the troops nearby, things begin to happen quickly.

Now, instead of having to choose whether this 10,000 person group dies, or that 30,000 person group stays on the roofs, you have entire battalions to throw at the problem. Battalions to throw at each problem and more in reserve. Battalions that are fed and watered and equipped and supported and have a place to sleep. Battalions that you can sustain and keep working, not for a few days, but for the months that they will be needed.

Now, you have a plan. Now, you have the tools you need, the roads, the choppers, the aircraft, the rifles, and the boats. Now you can do the job right. But you don — t have any of that as the Mayor. I don — t care if you are Boss Tweed or the least corrupt politician in hostory, you do not have the resources you need, not by a factor of ten and maybe not by a factor of one hundred. There is only one option open to the mayor. Finger in the proverbial dike, and yell for the Feds.

When you understand the real scope of this storm, then you understand that the Mayor — s job was to hold the fort and yell for help. Only then can you make an accurate assessment of how well the mayor performed his or her task. But it still isn — t time for that. Not yet. Not for a long time.

America faces the worst disaster in its history. More dead than Pearl Harbor. More than 9/11. Maybe only ten times as many dead. Maybe 100 times as many. A bigger fuel crisis than the 1973 Oil Embargo. Nine American cities mostly or totally destroyed. America — s largest port, closed until further notice. America — s largest river, closed until further notice. A 500 year, worst case doomsday scenario hurricane.

Now take a good hard look in the mirror. Yes, you. If we are going to lose 40 thousand dead, and at least half of those are alive right now, what is your priority? If we are going to lose four hundred thousand dead, half a million people, and half of them are still alive right now, what is your priority? It isn — t time to point fingers of blame, even at the looters. 100 looters don — t hold a candle to the 20,000 people that will die if they aren — t rescued. Ten thousand looters don — t hold a candle to two hundred thousand people at risk.

This is a huge disaster, and it is important for America to learn how to think big. If you aren — t capable of walking past ten dying people to save 100 dying people, then at the very least, stay out of the way of those who can. You know what the price is, if you don — t. When you start thinking big, you start understanding that one person doesn — t count anymore. Not the mayor, not the governor, not even President Bush.

Bush will not fix this, the New Orleans police will not fix this, and the National Guard will not fix this. They aren’t big enough. Three hundred million American people are going to fix this, or else it isn — t going to get fixed.

I am seeing signs of lacklustre leadership at the top (so what else is new?) but the scope of this disaster is too big, and it’s still in progress. You do realize that the job of reconstruction following the south-east Asian tsunami still isn’t complete? There will be plenty of time for recriminations later. For now, let us focus on the living.

Entomology. The article that James DiBenedetto quotes from was also quoted here. It’s from a thread in the Free Republic, which is a right wing forum. But I still agree with most of the sentiment. And I still believe it illustrates the scope of what we’re dealing with, here.

In time, we will be asking questions over whether the Bush Administration was wise to cut back on the funds to maintain and expand New Orleans’ levy protection system. In time we will ask if all of the players had the best disaster plans in place, and if they were acted upon promptly. In time, we will ask if it was wise for any administration, Bush, Clinton, or the various governors of the various Gulf Coast states, to allow the construction of such developments in harm’s way. Jay Currie advocates abandoning much of the Gulf Coast, buying out the properties and moving the communities inland a bit, turning the whole line between sea, land and bayou into a gigantic national park. He’s got a point.

But that time will come later. Now, let’s just focus on relief.

P.S. Grace period runs out in about two days.

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