What was the plan?

What on Earth went wrong with the Federal response to this disaster?

I don’t know. But it looks to me like the planners made the mistake of planning for the worst-case scenario.

The worst case, of course, was that the hurricane didn’t deviate from its expected path or intensity, that it sent Lake Ponchatrain over the levees and destroyed the levees themselves, that it sent a rushing wall of water throughout the city destroying everything in its path, and that it left very few survivors outside the Superdome and a few high-rises built to stand up to it.

Level of immediate Federal response, particularly supplies and military police, that would have done any good whatsoever: a small fraction of what’s actually needed now.

The other expected possible case would be that the levees held and the area would be slowly rebuilt. No one seems to have anticipated the possibility that a hurricane would hit with just enough force to cause the levees to break a full day later and leave hundreds of thousands of survivors trapped by water that has nowhere to go.

No one at any level of government, in the media, or anywhere else showed any sign after the storm passed of expecting anything to happen other than ordinary disaster relief. No one that I’ve seen, for instance, suggested that evacuation should resume immediately after the storm passed.

Does this fully excuse the Administration? Not really. It is well-known that there are a lot of people around the world that would love nothing better than to set off a nuclear weapon on US soil. The military has done an admirable job of preventing that thus far, but there’s still a non-zero chance at any given time that someone, somewhere could pull it off.

When that happens, the aftermath will involve hundreds of thousands (at least) of survivors cut off, in dangerous conditions, running out of food and water and needing immediate help. It’ll be worse than New Orleans because (a) there will be no warning and no evacuation beforehand, (b) a lot more of the survivors will need immediate, specialized medical care, and (c) the terrorists will almost certainly pick a more heavily populated place than New Orleans. And the response by the Homeland Security Administration and FEMA, if no changes are made, will be disastrously slow.

17 thoughts on “What was the plan?”

  1. I’m sure there’s plenty of blame to go around, but a lot of the criticism reads like hindsight quarterbacking. It’s a fact of life that terrible events occur from time to time, and I’m sure that that will always be true despite the best of intentions and technological progress. If we’re lucky we will learn from this experience. (Perhaps more individuals will prepare to fend for themselves for a couple of weeks in case something like this, or worse, happens again.)

  2. Almost all of the problems in NO are caused by local ineptitude. There seems to have been almost a complete lack of planning for any evacuation, no protection of public vehicles like school buses and transit buses to move people, no prior evacuation of hospitals, no provisioning (or even marking the locations of warehouses currently stocked) with food and water, and (last but not least), completely inadequate law enforcement.NO and LA have had YEARS to plan adequately, and did nothing. Even a few days of planning could have had thousands of Guard troops and police and supplies in place at the Superdome and buses stored on higher ground.Those closest and most capable of assistance did nothing, and given the dispersal of military resources around the country (Norfolk is closer to Europe by sea than to NO), there’s little the Feds could do quickly. Unless of course they had been able to plan on the locals were doing NOTHING.

  3. I agree with PierreM. The Federal response has been acceptable in timing. You cannot just send troops into a situation without supplies, a plan etc. They become useless quickly.

    The Governor of LA has been a disaster. The Mayor of NO has done zero except go on the radio today and act like a big man by cursing the feds (to hide his own ineptitude).

  4. Isn’t it interesting that Texas which suffer the Galveston disaster had plans [now unfolding in Houstan and elsewhere]?

    After watching numerous Florida landfalls, why is it a surprise that locals lose power, water, sewage, and basic services for weeks on end? That when that happens, large number of people soon create a humanitarian problem [Andrew]?

    So what did NO officials do? Did they learn from previous experiences across the Gulf?

    Unfortunately, as human beings, we learn more from our failures than successes.

    I would hope, though completely expect it not to happen, that Congress will finally relook and rewrite the Posse Comitatus Act for federal intervention with military forces without having to wait upon local and state officials to wet their pants before acting. PCA was not designed for protecting civil rights. It was created by Southern Democrats to get the federal troops out of the south and away from the polling booths in order to revoke the civil rights of blacks for nearly a hundred years. For class 1 national distasters, the local and state governments do not have the resources nor the staff to carry out relief and reconstruction. Its time the ‘mother may I’ approach end. Let’s see if we can learn.

  5. And another thing, whose bright idea was to send people into the Superdome llke that. What happened there was 100 percent certain to happen. A mass area like that is fine AFTER the immediate crises (like the Astrodome now) but before, it was a stupid, almost criminal decision.

  6. The first failure is certaily one of preparedness. The evacuation plan was woefully inadequate, to understate the obvious.

    With such a lack of preparedness and anticipation is it any wonder that the response to the disaster would seem slow and confused?

  7. What went wrong? Not much, actually. The warnings were out early, the disaster declaration predated the storm, supplies were pre-positioned, the National Guard was already out in NO (they were manning the Superdome, remember?) and the Navy and Coast Guard were moving in right behind the storm.

    The big thing that is wrong is a “Cindy Sheehan” response: if something awful happens, we want to blame someone who should have prevented it. And so when a chunk of country the size of all of Great Britain is devastated and we don’t have a fix within hours, we think someone must have failed.

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  9. Charlie is right on target. Perhaps out standards are ridiculously high. Is this a reflection of the microwave/10-minute oil change/chatroom culture that expects perfection instantly?

    Anyway, I might be thinking cynically, but I wonder if terrorists might learn something from this event: as long as you can outgun police, a sufficiently large force can operate for days within impunity before encountering US military forces.

  10. Ignorant commentators keep asking “were troops taken away by the Iraq conflict that would have made a difference?…..Why is the Federal response so slow?”

    It’s breathtaking to realize how naive (or cynical in the attempt to sensationalize and scandalize) media opinionmakers are. Someone with a basic education and common sense should have some idea how difficult the logistics are for moving an army of, say, 100,000 persons. Without fighting, with modern equipment, moving that force 50 miles a day would be a pretty good pace…..because of logistics. How long would it take to gather provisions BEFORE it could move.

  11. Another thing. Many commentators presume that evacuation requires some kind of official order. Why? It should be clear that if a major storm approches your city, at some point it makes sense to head for the hills. Certainly some people can’t or won’t leave, but for most of us the decision to flee is a matter of personal logistics, not orders from the mayor.

  12. I’m saddened by the “Monday-morning quarterbacking” ongoing too.

    All we can do is help now and learn later
    from mistakes.

    Time enough later to dissect all the blame.
    Meanwhile, decent people from all nearby states
    have mobilized and “stepped up to the plate.”

    The goodness of the human spirit WILL triumph.

  13. I hope the one lesson learned in cities prone to floods and hurricanes…move the buses, ambulances, firetrucks to higher ground BEFORE the flooding, do not leave them empty, unusable and flooded.

    Also, have a contingency evaculation plan available BEFORE the disaster hits instead of scrambling after the fact to find places to send thousands of homeless refugees.

  14. Thoughtful posts. Thanks to all for clear headed contribution.

    As I recall, about three years ago the local NO newspapers did a series about the likely catastrophic conditions resulting from a major hurricane hitting the area. Quite prescient, and a confirmation of a lack of local preparedness perhaps, but again, the horrific damage resulting from a natural disaster of this magnitude could not be reduced materially regardless of the government effort.

    Here’s a question: how much government planning for disaster relief has been implemented along the San Andreas faultline? It’s not as if warnings have not been offered.

  15. Five-Part Series published by The New Orleans Times-Picayune June 23-27, 2002, LEFT BEHIND By John McQuaid and Mark Schleifstein

    Hurricane evacuations rarely go as planned. Storm tracks are hard to predict, and roads are not designed to handle the traffic flow, so huge traffic jams are a common result. In 1998 it took six hours for people leaving the New Orleans area in advance of Hurricane Georges to reach Baton Rouge, 80 miles away. The following year, Hurricane Floyd’s constantly changing course spurred evacuations and bumper-to-bumper traffic on highways from Florida to North Carolina. …

    Like every coastal area vulnerable to hurricanes, south Louisiana faces these challenges. But the Louisiana delta also has it worse than other coastal areas. Because the entire region is susceptible to storm-surge flooding, hurricanes pose more danger to those left behind than in places where the coastal
    profile is higher.

    “Evacuation is what’s necessary: evacuation, evacuation, evacuation,” Jefferson Parish Emergency Preparedness Director Walter Maestri said. “We anticipate that (even) with refuges of last resort in place, some 5 (percent) to 10 percent of the individuals who remain in the face of catastrophic storms are going to lose their lives.

    The region’s sinking coast and rising flood risk also make the task of getting people out harder than it is elsewhere. South Louisiana presents some of the most daunting evacuation problems in the United States because:
    The region’s large population, including more than 1 million people in the New Orleans area, requires a 72- to 84-hour window for evacuation, well ahead of the time that forecasters can accurately predict a storm’s track and strength.
    Few north-south escape routes exist to move residents away from the coast, and many of those include low-lying sections that can flood days before a hurricane makes landfall.
    Evacuees must travel more than 80 miles to reach high ground, meaning more cars on the highways for a longer time as the storm approaches.
    A large population of low-income residents do not own cars and would have to depend on an untested emergency public transportation system to evacuate them.
    Much of the area is below sea level and vulnerable to catastrophic flooding. Based on the danger to refugees and workers, the Red Cross has decided not to operate shelters south of the Interstate 10-Interstate 12 corridor, leaving refuges of last resort that offer only minimal protection and no food or bedding. Emergency officials say they have made improvements since Hurricane Georges, but the changes have yet to be tested under real-world conditions, and many obstacles remain. …


    Louisiana braces for Hurricane Katrina
    Residents evacuated as storm strengthens in warm Gulf waters
    Sunday, August 28, 2005
    Mary Foster

    … Katrina was expected to strengthen to a Category 4 monster with winds of at least 131 mph before hitting the Gulf Coast on Monday. A hurricane watch extended from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle, but forecasters are predicting that it will hit shore near New Orleans. At 11 p.m. yesterday, the eye of the hurricane was about 335 miles south-southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River, the National Hurricane Center said. It had turned to the west-northwest and was moving at nearly 7 mph, with maximum sustained winds of 115 mph. …

    The storm formed in the Bahamas and ripped across southern Florida on Thursday [8/25/05], causing seven deaths, before moving into the Gulf of Mexico. It was expected to grow in strength over the gulf because surface water temperatures were as high as 90 degrees — high-octane fuel for hurricanes.

    Katrina could be devastating to New Orleans because the city sits below sea level and is dependent on levees and pumps to keep the water out. A direct hit could submerge the city in several feet of water. Making matters worse, at least 100,000 people in the city lack the transportation to get out of town. Mayor Ray C. Nagin said the Superdome might be used as a shelter for people without cars, with city bus pickup points around New Orleans. …

    New Orleans’ worst hurricane disaster happened 40 years ago, when Hurricane Betsy blasted the Gulf Coast. Floodwaters approached 20 feet in some areas.
    Fishing villages were flattened, and the storm surge left almost half of New Orleans under water and 60,000 homeless. Seventy-four people died in Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida.

    Katrina was a Category 1 storm with 80 mph wind when it hit south Florida on Thursday, and rainfall was estimated at up to 20 inches. Risk modeling
    companies have said early estimates of insured damage range from $600 million to $2 billion. …


    Big Easy gets off easier than predicted
    Cool air, change in path help prevent worst-case scenario
    Tuesday, August 30, 2005
    Lee Bowman

    Waves of computer-model projections and dire warnings of Hurricane Katrina’s potential path and destruction preceded it for days, but a slight jog
    to the north and a shot of cool air kept the “worst-case scenario” from hitting New Orleans yesterday. Katrina goes down as the fourth-most-intense Atlantic hurricane in modern times upon reaching its top sustained winds of more than 160 mph. But the storm didn’t maintain its catastrophic strength before making landfall 60 miles south of New Orleans, thanks largely to cooler air from another weather system late Sunday. Katrina turned course just enough that the low-lying city did not get the storm surge that everyone feared would wash over levees and submerge it in 20 to 30 feet of water.

    Wednesday, August 31, 2005
    Brett Martel, David J. Phillip

    NEW ORLEANS — Rescuers along the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast pushed aside the dead to reach the living yesterday in a race against time and rising waters, while New Orleans sank deeper into crisis and Louisiana’s governor ordered storm refugees out of this drowning city.

    Two levees broke and sent water coursing into the streets of the Big Easy a full day after New Orleans appeared to have escaped widespread destruction from Hurricane Katrina. An estimated 80 percent of the below-sea-level city was under water, up to 20 feet deep in places, with miles and miles of homes swamped.


    The important thing here is that this was a two stage disaster, and the second stage occurred on Monday morning, just when most of us thought N.O. had dodged the bullet.

    I don’t think that it is time to do lessons learned yet. But, Clearly, N.O. should have had an evacuation plan in place and should have begun executing it on Friday. But even if they had they might not have been able to evacuate everybody, if we credit the 84 hr number above.

    Second the N.O. police were clearly out of their league and unable to respond. N.O. is not a well run city. It never was. Its police dept. was under-maned and undisciplined, which may explain why N.O. is a high crime city.

    I think we can safely save the blame-storming for a few weeks and then work on that.

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