Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Louisiana and the Hurricane: What went wrong? Part 1

Before I say anything, I want to say that there are things that DID go right in the whole Katrina disaster, and that they should never be overlooked. The police and emergency services in Louisiana who stayed on their job in the midst of one of the worst disasters in US History deserve applause. Same as for the National guardsmen and military personell who are risking life and limb to do their job. Same as for the doctors, nurses, and others who did their jobs. And to cities like Dallas who took in many Louisiana residents after all hell broke loose in that state. And to the many others who did good and I haven't mentioned them; you know who you are, and that's what matters, and counts. Thank you.

Now, as for what went wrong- since the media is so adamant that something DID go wrong, I should tackle that. Only what I know is radically different from what the media wants it's viewership to know.

First and foremost, nearly all states have contingency plans in place in case there is a disaster, natural or man-made. I've lived in New York for most of my life; and I'm now in Florida. Those are two states that have long histories of planning ahead for storms and the like, and have dealt with diasters on a wide scale- the hurricane season last year for Florida, and September 11th in New York (actually, twice in New York, if you include the first WTC bombing). And yes, New Orleans had a contingency plan in place to deal with diasters/hurricanes :( In the plan, the Mayor has the authority to order evacuations in the event of a oncoming diaster, as well as facilitate the means for the evacuation (specifically: buses) . For the people who would be stuck behind, they would have the availability of some secure shelters- mostly well reinforced schools (and nowhere on the list, is the Superdome). Those facilities were meant for handling large numbers of people, and for more than a few hours in a given day. What's even better, is that New Orleans had dry runs for disaster planning in the case of a hurricane, and found out that their actual infrastructure was wholly unsuited to the 2004 ( They never took the necessary time nor measures to fix the problems, afterwards.

There's only thing- Mayor Nagin didn't follow it. There was no mandatory evacuation of the city well in advance of the Hurricane, (even though the President asked both Governor Blanco and Mayor Nagin for one, and there was a voluntary evacuation-, ) and there were far too many people who refused to leave the city. That's where the contingency plan that I mentioned earlier, should have come into play. Those that could leave New Orleans, did. Those that couldn't or refused to leave, either stayed at home or went to the Superdome. Oh, and in all of this, it was the President's idea to push for a mandatory evacuation. Not Blanco. Not Nagin. Someone totally outside the loop in the contingency plan of Louisiana. Who they subsequently began to blame for all their problems, I might add.

Now, out in New York, on Long Island, if you're a resident of Fire Island (or anywhere on the coastline), you're told point blank by the emergency services: get out or we're not coming to rescue you. They will assist you in getting your and your family out of harm's way if you comply, but otherwise, they mean what they say. They have no time nor inclination to want to rescue people who've unnecessarily put themselves in harm's way when they have damage assessment and real search and rescue operations to undertake. They didn't do this in New Orleans. Admittedly, New Orleans is a big city. But no effort was made to initiate any form of evacuation in this matter. The "mandatory evacuation" that was issued, was basically meant to be "if you can get yourself out, do so. We're not going to do anything."

On top of that, the buses that they would have used to evacuate anyone from New Orleans.....never left their lots. And when the flooding began, they were wrecked (, The emergency plan that was designed for New Orleans DID call for use of buses in the case of an impending disaster to be used to take people who don't have transportation or are unable to drive (sick, elderly). Now, to be fair, some people were bused to Baton Rogue, and others to the Superdome. But both were half-attempts to move people around, and they didn't even follow the actual plan that was designed. Plus, the buses- and fire trucks and the like- were supposed to be moved to higher ground, as per the contingency plan, anticipating future need for them, and the need to keep them from getting damaged within the danger zone. That wasn't done, either. But Florida (and New York) always does that- it's standard policy. And that's why the buses were stuck in the middle of all this, unable to be used. And Blanco, the governor, takes 3 days to finally realize they screwed up about the buses.

Also, Amtrak asked Mayor Nagin if he wanted to use the last trains that they had in the city(to get some important equipment out of NO) as a way to get people out of the city- but he refused. With those trains, they could have taken quite a bit of people out of harm's way- and he refused( If the busing system was intact, and coupled with the Amtrak offer of assistance, not all, but alot of people who were stuck in NO would have escaped the disaster area. Not all- but more than enough to reduce any problems that would later develop. It would also have reduced the strain on relief efforts after the hurricane had left. But, once again, he refused.

And then there's the New Orleans Police Dept. As their cars and trucks stayed in the did they. They never had a chance to regroup, and go to higher ground and wait out the storm (or at least a significant portion of them didnt) and the levees breaking. And, as will be discussed later in another column, they were effectively forced to supervise the city in their police fashion (both law and order, and resue ops all at once) by themselves. The slow trickle of military aid were not in place to help them restore order yet. And then the levees broke, and the police had to deal with areas that were heavily flooded, their cars useless, and years of neglect on the NOPD took it's toll. At least 30% of the police force left New Orleans for good, and some of them engaged in the same looting they were supposed to stop. And at least two officers committed suicide ( So the mayor's police department was already dysfunctional, and the cracks just burst out into the open with the disaster. To be fair, the police would have had things under control if it was just the storm that hit them, and not the flooding. But expecting rain and not flooding is effectively wishful thinking. Even in their dry run, they anticipated heavy flooding (and they did expect to see flooding) and they should have responded prior to the storm with a comprehensive plan to deal with it. But they didn't.

This stands in stark contrast to the NYPD and NYFD in New York, which on September 11, 2001, were faced with the worst man-made disaster this country has ever faced. Sure, they had problems (their radios didn't work, dooming at least 350 firefighters and police officers to their deaths), but they regrouped and dealt with it, as much as they could. And they did it for months on end, until the last piece of rubble was sifted from Ground Zero, and the last body was given a proper burial. They followed their WTC plan (designed from the previous WTC bombing in 1993), and it worked- they got nearly everyone that they possibly could, out of the building in time. No one quit on them; no one deserted their station; and they proved why they're among the best trained emergency force in the world (they're also highly underpaid for their jobs, but they do it anyways).

Compare that with the New Orleans emergency response. Yes, they did good. But when you have at least 30% of your police force bugging out on you, something's wrong. It says that there's an endemic problem within the system that existed previously, and the hurricane was the breaking point. It was a broken system, waiting for the final snap.

Think about how devastating that is when you've got a serious looting problem and anarchistic gangs running around in NO. Actually, since there's a high crime and unemployment rate in New Orleans, this shouldn't have been that hard to forsee. That's why in LA, when they had their blackout a few days ago, the police were immediately patrolling the streets.

Plus, Mayor Ray Nagin is no Mayor Rudolph Guiliani. Heck, he's no Mike Bloomberg. On 9/11, Guiliani was there, on site, and in fact was tuck in a building's basement do to the collapse of the South Tower. Nagin? He did the exact opposite.He bellowed for federal help, all the while complaining that it was the federal government's fault.And he went for every sound-bite imaginable. Plus, he kicked people out of a hotel in order to give their rooms to him and his staff, during the crisis. And then he announced plans to give NOPD officers vacations to Las Vegas (all on the tab of FEMA) ( And he's now bought a house in Dallas (

Hardly what I'd call Churchillian. He doesn't compare with a Guiliani.

I'll do the State response in the next post, and how they hampered the military assistance from coming into the state- and in light of the problems with the mayor not following his plan, nor having the resources to fight the aftermath of the hurricane- became cruicial.


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