Sat, Sep
17
2005

The Battle of New Orleans

Sat, Sep 17, 2005

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People knew this would happen. They knew that New Orleans would flood, that coastal communities would be devastated, and that the damage would run into the tens of billions. They knew as early as the beginning of this century. Scientific American wrote a major article in October 2001 about the drowning of New Orleans. Bill Moyer of NOW ran a story that essentially predicted what we would see. FEMA listed a hurricane strike against New Orleans as one of the worst disasters that would likely hit the United States. Agencies whose job it was to plan for such a disaster had years to come up with something, and yet they came away looking unprepared.

I said that the disaster itself was not a time to hurl recriminations, but now that the disaster is more-or-less under control, recriminations can fly. Make no mistake, people will be blamed for what happened. But as long as blame is assigned clinically, pointing to the mistake more than the person, in the hopes that corrections are made, then we will have done some good in the wake of this disaster. Unfortunately, the scope of this disaster has raised the political stakes in an already heated environment.

With that in mind, I’ve tried to cobble together a list of the more serious errors that took place in the week following Katrina’s strike, and offer preliminary assessments of what happened, who may be at fault, and how the individual controversies will play out.


Budget Decisions

The first strike against the Bush Administration was the revelation that, in 2001, the budget for the Army Corp of Engineers was cut back in order to help pay for Bush’s tax cuts. As a result, planning to expand New Orleans’ levee system never took place, and the levee system, which was only designed to handle a Category 3 storm (if that), burst as predicted, flooding 80% of the city.

Responsibility: The Bush Administration will get slugged with this one. It was their tax cuts that prompted the spending cuts. The underfunding of first responders was known as early as 2003. The Bush Administration played the odds that New Orleans wouldn’t be hit by a super storm and they lost. The billions of dollars put into taxpayers’ pockets in 2001 now have come out, through taxes, through increased insurance premiums, through inflation, to pay for the damage done to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

But the Bush Administration isn’t the only player in the budget game. The budget had to get through Congress and the Senate in order to pass, and at the time the Senate was still under Democratic control. These types of compromises are being made every day in every jurisdiction. They’ve been made for years before Bush took office. Consider the longstanding erosion of the Gulf Coast bayous, themselves natural storm surge protectors, highlighted by National Geographic last October. In Ontario, do we jack up taxes in order to bolster our power system and prevent another superblackout from happening? The responsibility ultimately comes back to us, the voters.

How this will play out: The debate over whether the Bush Administration should be held accountable for convincing Americans to choose bad policy, or whether the policy was actually bad or just plain unlucky, will be fought politically, at the ballot box and in pundit circles and across the tables at the coffee shops. This will go to the inquiry of public opinion, and the final decision will be impossible to predict until it’s acutally made — either in 2006 or 2008.


FEMA/Homeland Security/Other Bureaucratic Delays

This is the meme most often followed by those who place the bulk of the blame for the suffering of the aftermath on the Bush Administration. It is helped by the fact that features a number of individual incidents that makes for a good list, to whit:

  • Offers by various governments, including the Canadian government, to send in supplies and personnel, delayed by Homeland Security and other US agencies. Canada’s offer to send in the DART team, which can offer fresh water on the spot to thousands, refused by Homeland Security. (link)
  • Ice and water sent late, and sent to the wrong areas. (link)
  • Delays in deploying National Guard troops from other states. (link)
  • Homeland Security officials unaware of 2000 citizens gathered at the New Orleans convention centre without food and water, despite reports of same on CNN (link).
  • Offers to drive buses from Wisconsin into New Orleans to ferry out refugees after the storm delayed by Homeland Security, but welcomed by the Louisiana government.
  • Firefighters from Utah brought in by FEMA to hand out flyers instead of mount rescue operations (link).
  • Aid to Mississippi arrives after Trent Lott bypasses FEMA, calling the agency “overwhelmed” and “undermanned” (link).

(An extensive timeline of this disaster and its aftermath can be found on Wikipedia)

All in all, this list lends a lot of fodder to the libertarians’ argument that government is incompetent by design, and that it will always fail its people.

Responsibility: Taken together these incidents suggest that there is a surprising amount of red tape within the agencies that are supposed to respond quickly to disaster. If these incidents bear out, this is a serious flaw in the organizational structure of these departments, and a good cleaning/purge may be required.

Some of this blowback comes back to the Bush Administration, as one of the revelations of this disaster is that a number of high level officials were appointed based on their personal connections to George Bush, not their actual qualifications for the job. The head of FEMA under the Clinton Administration had actual disaster management experience. The head of FEMA under the Bush Administration, Michael Brown, previously managed the International Arabian Horse Association — and was asked to leave it due to internal differences. his could be yet another example of Americans being ill-served by Bush’s propensity for crony government.

How this will play out: Bush’s proposed investigation will focus here, as will Congressional and Senate investigations that will certainly follow in Bush’s wake. I predict they will likely identify and make examples of a number of low-to-mid-level officials who made mistakes (Michael Brown would appear to be the first). Whether or not this investigation topples officials higher than these depends on if the investigations are thorough, if the investigations are a whitewash, if there is anything actually juicy to find, or a combination of all three.


As many as 200 buses left idle as evacuation progressed

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When Nagin ordered the mandatory evacuation of New Orleans, he knew that not everybody was going to make it out. The city has a disproportionate number of poor. Poor people generally don’t own cars. The airport was closed, and Greyhound stopped serving the city that Saturday, citing “security concerns”. To house these soon-to-be dispossessed, Nagin commandeered the Superdome as a “refuge of last resort”.

He meant it. Officials knew the field level was going to be innundated. They weren’t even sure the roof was going to hold out to the winds (it didn’t). They knew the power was going to go out. They knew there would be no air conditioning, that thousands would be stuck there for days, and they knew the toilets were inadequate. But these people had nowhere else to go. Or so they thought.

At the height of the aftermath, 30,000 were holed up in the Superdome. By the time tropical storm winds had hit, 10,000 were waiting outside of the Superdome’s gates. 200 buses carrying, say, 60 passengers each, could have carted 12,000 away from New Orleans before the storm hit. Not everybody could have been saved the hellish conditions of the Superdome, but for those who got out — AND those who stayed in, the suffering would have been reduced.

Responsibility: Likely, local officials. Some breakdown in communication occurred which prevented New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and his officials from commandeering those vehicles and using them in the evacuation. It should be fairly simple to connect the dots, here. Did Nagin know of these buses and, if he didn’t, who failed to tell him? If there was anybody who should have told him, they’re fired.

How this will play out: The prominence this failure gets in the media depends on the depth of incompetence found at state levels and in FEMA, and how much higher-level political figures and their media pundit allies try to avoid their own culpability by pointing out this particular mistake.


Other State and Local Decisions

The idle buses are the largest mistake that cannot be laid at the federal government’s door, but it’s far from the only one. The news media has also uncovered miscues that can be traced to state and local officials, although the list is smaller.

  • Requests by Red Cross officials to relieve New Orleans rebuffed by Louisiana state officials (link).
  • The failure of the state of Louisiana to follow its own evacuation plan (which, incidentally, called for the use of municipal and school buses) (link).
  • The decision by an Astrodome official to block access to a new, low-power FM station designed to provide emergency information to evacuees in Houston, despite the fact that the FCC agreed to the measure.
  • Mayor Nagin himself admits a critical mistake in signaling that the city was all right just after Katrina past but before the levees broke. (link)

Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco admits there were mistakes and failures at all levels of government: local, state and federal. And just as Bush took ultimate responsibility for the mistakes at FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security, she took ultimate responsibility for mistakes at the state level as well.

How this will play out: Even looking at blogs which ardently defend the Bush Administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina by pointing the blame at New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco, it’s difficult to get a list as extensive as the mistakes that can be laid at FEMA’s door. Part of this is scale. The federal level of government has far more resources to offer against a major disaster such as Katrina than the state of Louisiana, and it has taken ultimate leadership in disasters in the past. In short, it does the heavy lifting, and that means that it has had more opportunity to make mistakes.

It is also hard to criticize state and local officials without looking like you’re blaming the victim. Outside of the idle buses, the bulk of the criticisms against Ray Nagin have been that he overstated the number of dead during the disaster; that he sounded like chicken little. But the fact remains that he stayed in New Orleans throughout the disaster. You can criticize him for his choice of words, but unless you’re willing to stay inside a city below sea-level as a category four hurricane barrels through, it’s unlikely your criticism is going to stick. The worst that can be said about Nagin is that he is a frank-speaking man who cares deeply for his city.

Whether mistakes made at the local or state level eventually overshadow the list of mistakes at the federal level depends on what else is discovered, and how much the media harps on it.


Various Attempts at Damage Control

It’s human nature to try and avoid blame, regardless of whether you deserve to be blamed or not. It’s also human nature to assign responsibility and blame towards the very top, regardless of whether or not it deserves to go there. Despite apparently Byzantine complexities regarding the division of powers and responsibilities between state level and federal level officials, the simple fact President Bush is at the top of the heap. Moreover, he has plenty of political enemies with real and imagined beefs against him. So when a disaster of this magnitude hits, of course he’s going to be the target of a lot of blame. How he responds to that will determine whether the blame sticks, whether it doesn’t, or (worse yet) whether it simply confirms the views of his friends and enemies and deepens the angry chatter.

The right way is to simply stick to the facts. If there were mistakes made, own up. If some of the charges are spurious, explain why. Be calm, and for God’s sake, don’t try to downplay the disaster, or foist off blame on others who don’t deserve it. Unfortunately, during this disaster, we’ve seen hyped accusations against the Mayor of New Orleans, against the President of Jefferson Parish, against the poor of New Orleans, as if most had a choice on whether or not to actually leave. Further, if you’re going to try to use your response for political gain, don’t be too obvious about the photo ops.

Andrew at Bound by Gravity cites examples of the disaster being downplayed. Cathie from Canada cites the example of a Bush photo-op pulling firefighters off the line. These are profoundly stupid maneuvers by the Bush Administration which makes it look as though the guy is trying to cover his butt. Bush’s later turnaround, accepting ultimate responsibility for FEMA’s mistakes, acknowledges this, and has prompted a similar response from Blanco and Nagin. Whether this maneouver is enough to rectify matters remains to be seen.


What About Our Own Responsibilities When Faced With Impending Disaster?

A meme that has appeared in a number of more right-leaning and libertarian blogs is that some of the victims made the mistake of trusting their government and not doing enough themselves to stay out of harms way.

Jay Currie argues that basic disaster preparedness was something a number of citizens in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast neglected to consider:

With the best will in the world, perfect conditions and a tail wind, government can and will help as quickly as possible. However, do the math: even if my city has a million gallons of fresh water warehoused for an emergency, distributing that water in the wake of an earthquake or tsunami is going to take days. So why not have several water containers already filled and in the backyard? Dropping food to the survivors is a great idea and one which can work well. But a carton of beef stew in cans and few dozen powerbars, some trail mix and so on in a place which is accessible even if your house or apartment collapses make sense. A decent first aid kit, a tarp, a roll of 8m plastic, a bit of rope, a small stove and some blankets and you have improved your chances and your family — s chances of surviving until help can arrive.

That — s the start. Now what? Know your neighbours. Know who lives where and who will need help. But also know who has resources you don — t. Whether it is a chainsaw or a come-along or first aid skills or walkie talkies. In my neighbourhood there are a number of house which have been built on bedrock - they are likely to survive an earthquake where the houses built on fill will not. This makes a difference. There are houses heated with natural gas which are going to be a fire hazard and some which are not. There is an ongoing emergency preparedness process which anyone can become a part of.

(snip!)

The political lesson to be learned from Katrina is that waiting for the government can be fatal. The personal lesson is a renewed commitment to self sufficency. Water, food, shelter - assume no help for two weeks and get on with it.

This is different from blaming the victims for their failure to get out, which Jay himself notes, has infected too many blogs. I dispute Jay’s suggestion that those who were too foolhardly to leave outnumbered those who simply could not get out in time, but it is true that, if we looked to ourselves and asked if we would be ready to face a disaster like Katrina, or something far less, many of us would be inadequately prepared.

If you were affected, consider your own experiences with the Blackout of 2003. Now imagine if the power had stayed out for weeks. Do you have a first aid kit? Do you have batteries, or a flashlight that doesn’t require batteries? Do you have a radio that uses batteries? If you had sufficient warning, as Katrina gave, how many of us would think to store more water and food? What if we had no warning, what then?

I don’t have a first aid kit. I’m planning to get one before Vivian arrives. I don’t have a disaster plan. I could do more to protect myself in the face of a disaster.

However, the fact remains that government assistance didn’t arrive as quickly as it should have, thanks to mistakes made by various officials at various levels. The fact remains that though we knew that such a disaster was possible, steps weren’t taken to bolster our protections. We allowed ourselves to build in unsuitable areas. We allowed natural protections to erode. In many ways, “the government” failed us.

But the only thing capable of building the levees to the correct levels, to provide that much aid in timely fashion, to maintain enough law and order in order to truck in supplies and truck out refugees, to prevent ourselves from building in unsuitable areas, to maintain the natural protections, is a government system. I don’t care if you call it an association of individuals, a Non Governmental Agency or the Army, it’s a social agency, providing a service that single individuals operating on a profit motive could not provide for themselves.

Even teaching individuals how best to prepare for disaster, as San Francisco is now doing in case the San Andreas fault decides to fulfill FEMA’s trifecta of the nation’s worst disasters, requires a widespread education system that typically only governments provide.

We as individuals can make the government’s work go more smoothly by taking more responsibility for protecting ourselves and moving ourselves out of harms way. The government should have done more to mitigate the disaster before Katrina happened, and ensure that aid was provided promptly after Katrina occurred. These failures are not an indictment of the system or this relationship. The system and the relationship is not something that I think can be thrown away. But it is a warning. It is a kick in our complacency. We have to hold ourselves and our government accountable for not doing all that should have been done.

Let us hope that a rational examination of all of the mistakes prompts improvements, and that the next time disaster strikes, we will be better prepared for it.


On This Day

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