September 02, 2005

First, a tale of survival.

"Unfortunately, [the high death toll is] going to be attributable a lot to people who did not heed the advance warnings ... I don't make judgments about why people chose not to leave but, you know, there was a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans, and to find people still there is just heart-wrenching to me because, you know, the mayor did everything he could to get them out of there.
- Michael Brown, director of FEMA
A major function of government -- perhaps one of the very few that justifies its existence -- is its ability to respond to disasters. One of the major strengths of the public sector over the private one is its ability to spend funds and free up other resources on a large scale to prepare for anticipated emergencies which have not yet materialised and which may never materialise.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency failed in this obligation. And they were scarcely alone.

Among the excuses offered by Brown is that Katrina was unlike other hurricanes, which typically decrease in strength as they blow ashore: perhaps forgetting that (quite apart from other things) Katrina did , by some 30 mph of windspeed, to reduce it from a category 5 to category 4. Yet there is no point in scapegoating here, much less one director in an entire social structure, all the way from civic on up, whose major justification for existence should be precisely such situations as these: and which failed and failed catastropically, all the way from civic on up.

It becomes very, very apparent now that neither on a civic, state, or federal level was there any contingency whatsoever for the most likely outcome of a hurricane of Katrina's power on what seemed then a near-certain collision path with New Orleans. No solid evacuation plan was in place beyond just telling people to leave and turning major freeways into one-way evacuation routes. Public transportation links had been shut down, so no escape options there (and additionally stranding non-locals, adding to the later burden). No levee reinforcement just ahead of the storm. No long-term reinforcement/improvement of the entire levee system (more on this later). No emergency facilities for containing near-inevitable levee breaches as soon as the storm made it feasible to attempt this: before the brunt of the flooding could begin. No National Guard or other armed forces personnel on local stand-by. No plans for even medium-term refugee housing for those temporarily sheltered in the Superdome. No plans for restoring or temporarily or permanently bypassing existing sewage and clean water systems. No real contingencies whatsoever to deal with flooding on any scale. Only FEMA came through even approximately as planned, at a current cost of about $500 million per day (which will rise): and even that arrived much later than it should have. (By comparison, estimates of the daily cost of the war in Iraq range from $177 to $198 million.)

The alpha and omega of this plan was for people to get out of the area and especially out of New Orleans: yet the means allowing even tourists who desperately wanted to were shut down long before the storm hit.
I think there ought to be zero tolerance of people breaking the law during an emergency such as this, whether it be looting, or price-gouging at the gasoline pump or taking advantage of charitable giving, or insurance fraud. ... If people need water and food, we're going to do everything we can to get them water and food. But it's very important for the citizens in all affected areas to take personal responsibility and assume kind of a civic sense of responsibility so the situation doesn't get out of hand, so people don't exploit the vulnerable.
- George W. Bush, president of the United States
While there is no single time to exercise civic responsibility (this being something of an ongoing thing), the costs of civic responsibility would be much lower had it been exercised differently earlier, at the start of what was turning out to be the worst hurricane season in decades -- and only the beginning of a cycle which promised more of the same for years to come. Instead:
The system is in great shape, but the levees are sinking. Everything is sinking, and if we don't get the money fast enough to raise them, then we can't stay ahead of the settlement. The problem that we have isn't that the levee is low, but that the federal funds have dried up so that we can't raise them.
- Al Naomi, project director, Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control (SELA) Project (06-18-2004)

It appears that the money has been moved in the president's budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that's the price we pay. Nobody locally is happy that the levees can't be finished, and we are doing everything we can to make the case that this is a security issue for us.
- Walter Maestri, emergency management chief, Jefferson Parish LA (06-08-2004)
In 2004, after several studies showing that the area could not stand up to any hurricane over level 3, the Louisiana congressional delegation attempted to dedicate federal monies to secure parts of the Louisiana coast. However, it was directly opposed by the federal government, which cut federal funds targeted for the SELA project were cut from $36.5 million to $10.4 million. Emergency levee repairs that summer were financed out of increased property taxes.
Looting and other lawlessness will not be tolerated. ... [The National Guard have been instructed] to strictly enforce Louisiana laws and to use necessary force.
- Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, governor of Louisiana
Apparently I do need to clarify that martial law has not been declared in New Orleans; and I am thinking it won't, not if it is at all avoidable. That is an extremely dangerous bridge to cross, and I think the federal administration will try to avoid it if at all possible. It is possible to send in both National Guard and other branches of the armed forces independent of martial law to assist local civilian law enforcement, in which case they serve as peace officers. As nearly as I can tell, the rumour began when martial law was reported by New Orleans CBS affiliate WWL-TV on Tuesday, 11:52 AM (ET), and spread quickly, even being picked up by the mayor of New Orleans. Since then, several authorities ranging from National Guard Chief Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum to various state governors have been actively trying to counter the rumour. However, New Orleans -- and most of south Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama -- are under a state of emergency, which is fairly powerful in and of itself.
Just to see kids like that, it's horrible, it's sad. ... I'm gonna try to do something ... do whatever I can, because I feel like that's a part of my family that's starving. ... If I was in New Orleans and my children needed to eat, and ... I can take a boat and try to go to a Winn-Dixie, or a Target or the mall to get something to wear and for my kids to eat, guess what? You'd be calling Joe Horn a looter.
- Joe Horn, receiver for the New Orleans Saints, father of six
Most of the police seemed to be trying to avoid harming or arresting for looting based on food and water, basic needs, although as in Iraq and any active warzone, the growing anarchy is making snap distinctions increasingly difficult. Some local police officers have started giving up their badges. Among the ironies is that anyone who is trying to take electronics really has not thought this through. In the absence of transportation (physical and fuel) and infrastructure, not only in the immediate New Orleans area but increasingly in the areas surrounding the city, expensive electronics are just so much scrap.
Frankly, what we're doing is we are putting probably more than we need in order to send an unambiguous message that we will not tolerate lawlessness or violence or interference with the evacuation [of New Orleans]
- Michael Chertoff, Secretary of Homeland Security
In an alternate, fictional reality (from Shadowrun):
We don't have any social problems here that a couple of thousand troops won't solve.
- Marilyn Schulz, Governor of Seattle
There is a relatively quick way out of this, but it is a harsh one. Set up a military cordon, isolating completely those areas of the city which are currently gang-controlled, making sure to secure hospitals and those sections where the army engineers are trying to fix the levees. Allow anyone to pass the cordon outward so long as they are not bearing weapons of any kind, give them food, water, and clean clothing, and arrange for their housing with private families (as outlined in the earlier blog entry): spread word of this inside the cordoned-off sector, with airplane-dropped leaflets if necessary -- but not one piece of further intervention. Allow absolutely no one to pass the cordon inward. Gradually keep tightening that cordon and securing the new sectors. After a day or two, the anarchy problem will begin solving itself.

And hope no other hurricane follows the Gulf route north, this season.

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