Pie in the Sky

Like most of you, I’ve been following coverage of the relief efforts in and around New Orleans. But, unlike most of you, I’ve felt a great deal of pride from those efforts. It appears that everyone is doing the best they can with what they have. I certainly don’t want to offend anyone, particularly fellow Chicago Boyz ken who wrote a post that inspired this one. But it seems to me that while some criticism of the government response is warranted, the majority is not only unjustified but unrealistic.

Why would I feel this way? Because I once had a job in law enforcement, and I have a little inside knowledge of the difficulties that present themselves when preparing for disaster.

One thing that everyone seems to agree on is that transport assets have been completely inadequate. There aren’t enough vehicles to move the refugees out of NO and there doesn’t seem to be any trucks coming in with fuel, medicine and food. The pundits keep asking how this could happen. How come the government isn’t marshalling vast fleets of trucks and buses to get those people out of there and restore order in the city?

Glenn has posted an Email that pretty much explains the situation. There are enough vehicles in the area to meet the sudden need, but since they also were in the path of the hurricane it’s proving difficult to get to them and get them ready to roll. Not that it would do much good if they were all loaded up with their engines turning over since most of the roads leading in to NO are now no longer able to bear any traffic. There isn’t much anyone can do until access to the stricken area is restored.

Of course, the main reason that there’s a problem with looting and refugees in the first place is due to the fact that there are a great many people stranded inside of the city. While regrettable, I don’t think that any blame can be leveled for this situation. A quick look at life threatening disasters from ancient Pompeii to the present will quickly prove that only a fraction of the people at risk will move out of harms way while there’s still time. The rest will cause massive problems. (I’m reminded of the scene in the original War of the Worlds where Gene Barry is pulled from his truck by a desperate mob.)

Many pundits are focusing on preparedness. It’s become very popular for pundits to point out that the government wasn’t prepared for a disaster of this magnitude, and more could have been done before it was too late. Food could have been stockpiled, roads could have been built to withstand extreme storms, and vehicles could have been warehoused in secure locations against need. All of this is true so far as it goes, but it ignores the one big question: Who is going to pay for all of this?

I’ve been asking that same question for years, usually when someone makes the mistake of suggesting that the police need to take on more responsibilities. Local and state governments are constantly scrambling to fund highway projects. If they start building massively overbuilt roads and bridges then the rest of the transport infrastructure will suffer, and with degraded roads the tax base will also suffer. Building secure facilities to warehouse vehicles and equipment costs big, too, as do the vehicles and equipment that are supposed to be stored. Security and maintenance demands will mean that the hemorrhage in the budget will continue forever. It’s doubtful that any administration would survive the next election if they proposed such a plan.

The lawlessness in New Orleans has provoked a great deal of conversation, but it’s something that is hardly surprising. While the general impression is that there are enough police to handle any emergency, the reality is that the cops are always terribly outnumbered. Remember the so-called Rodney King riots? That was in Los Angeles, which has a very high police/citizen ration with one officer for every 410 people. (Population 3.7 million with 9,000 police.) For contrast, consider that my home town of Columbus, Ohio has an officer for every 1400 people. (Population 700K with 500 police.) New Orleans probably has a ratio that falls somewhere in between these two numbers, but I won’t be able to get any hard numbers until power is restored and the NOPD website comes back online. But no matter what the actual count happens to be, it should be pretty obvious that the cops will be overrun in short order if a sizable group decides to misbehave.

The message I’m trying to communicate here is that yeah, sure, there were a great many things that could have been done in the years and decades leading up to this disaster. The only problem is that every single one had a problem with lack of funds, lack of will, lack of political necessity, or a combination of all three. There just isn’t any reasonable way that state or local governments can devote the resources necessary to handle such a huge problem, and claiming that they should have isn’t helpful.

One last point. Remember the post by ken that I linked to above? I think one of the comments pretty much sums this whole thing up.

1 thought on “Pie in the Sky”

  1. No offense taken. It’s difficult to evaluate what a government could have done or anticipated – there’s too many people, too many assets, and too many confounding factors that may or may not be relevant. I don’t know if a rapid response to a surprise disaster of this magnitude by the military, FEMA, Homeland Security, or any combination thereof is possible given any conceivable leadership talent (and an absence of inivolvement on the part of Louisiana officials) – I only wanted to point out that the speed of the response would make a noticeable difference in the outcome of a large surprise attack, and the evidence thus far shows that the outcome would not be all that good for us.

    Will we pay for a level of disaster preparedness that will ensure response to a nuclear attack or something of similar magnitude? Probably not – and not just because of the oft-disparaged tax cuts, but because of a whole list of things that have a large number of Congressmen stubbornly refusing to even consider cutting back on no matter what our other needs are… things like Social Security and Medicare, which last time I checked are much bigger than that tax cut.

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