Critical Failure

People are being evacuated from New Orleans in large numbers. A headline (pulled from google at random) captures the response of many to the event:

The cavalry arrives
But refugees and local officials want to know why it took so long

Everybody wants to know what took relief “so long” to arrive for the people of New Orleans.

They’re asking the wrong question.

The right question is:

Why were significant numbers of people left in the city when the hurricane struck?

It is now clear that the critical failure that lead to the tragedy of New Orleans was the incomplete evacuation of its inhabitants. Regardless of how slow off the mark the federal response turns out to have been, if the people had been evacuated from harm’s way in the first place it wouldn’t have mattered. It was the responsibility of authorities at the state and local level to initiate and conduct the evacuation and they did not do so.

Worse, they had plenty of warning that an incomplete evacuation would occur.

During hurricane Ivan last year, the same pattern of evacuation occurred. Those with resources left while the poor and infirm remained behind. The city and state did nothing to help those who could not leave on their own. Ivan bypassed the city, causing no major problems. Advocates for the poor screamed about the neglect, but when Katrina threatened the city and state again did nothing. This time, however, their indifference had massively fatal consequences.

Last year FEMA conducted a disaster simulation called “Hurricane Pam” which sought to model an event exactly as occurred with Katrina. The conclusion?

But one of the drill participants, Col. Michael L. Brown, then-deputy director of the Louisiana emergency preparedness department, told the Baton Rouge Advocate newspaper that, in a worst-case scenario, there would be only so much government agencies could do.
“Residents need to know they’ll be on their own for several days in a situation like this”

So the authorities at the state and local level in Louisiana knew that (1) large numbers of people could not evacuate on their own and would be left in the city, (2) a serious risk that the levees would fail existed and (3) outside help could be days in arriving.

Given these facts, the only competent course of action in the face of a major hurricane would have been to use government resources such as busses to evacuate everyone it was physically possible to evacuate. Yet it is now clear that local authorities did next to nothing.

It is legitimate to ask if the federal government could have rescued people faster, but the real question is why people were still there to be rescued at all.

9 thoughts on “Critical Failure”

  1. Maybe bus and truck drivers bailed, the same way a lot of police did. They just aren’t paid well enough to take on a busload of potentially dangerous people. On second thought, strike ‘potentially’. The smart, if not the brave thing for them to do was to pack their families into their own cars and get out of the city before anyone omes up with an idea have them drive commandeered buses. I suspect that the drivers did just that, so that the idea of commandeering all that rolling hardware couldn’t be followed up (I don’t doubt that it was entertained).

  2. It isn’t clear why the responsiblity should skip up to the Feds.

    First. Being a free, enfranchised citizen of the US means one IS the government. The habit of free people thinking “they” or “them” or “the government” could or might have done better, rather than asking how: “I, personally could have done better” is a tried and true guarantee that such people will eventually LOSE those freedoms they take for granted.

    I am very sorry that so many were injured, and have already personally contributed to relief efforts. But I absolutely refuse to accept any blame whatsoever for politicians and bureaucrats in a different State that are not answerable to anyone but their own electorate. Hopefully the citizens of that State, once the immediate problems are in hand, will tend their own political garden and hold their own people accountable. But until such a time, it doesn’t strike me as fair to blame Feds for not doing someone elses job.

    Finally. If State and local authorities can’t convince their own people to evacuate, where’s the sense in imagining someone else is going to succeed in their place. Maybe I’m misinformed, but I was led to believe that some State electorates, including Louisianas, weren’t notoriously friendly regarding outsiders trying to order them to do this or that. Saying, “Hi. We’re from Boston, and we’ve driven our rescure bus all the way here to evacuate you from your home…” doesn’t seem very wise…

  3. What amazed me in this whole mess is that it took Pres Bush to tell the governor and mayor that they should get the people evacuated and he did that on Saturday!! When the levee burst, there were 300 buses that should have been used by the city to evacuate people sitting there in a field where they got flooded.

    My understanding is that FEMA is set to take over what the state and city can’t do for themselves and once they come in they direct things. Why did not the city and state do anything and then complain that it took the FEMA 3 days to get there. The governor has responsibility for the National Guard. She could have directed them to secure the city as much as possible. Why didn’t she. Governor Barber of Mississippi did and they did a much better job than Louisiana in handling this devastation.

  4. This is unbelievable, really.

    There are tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of poor and infirm people in that city – and in every city. They don’t have anywhere to go, or any money to pay to go there. Don’t you get this?

    In any case, where were these people supposed to “go” once they evacuated the city? Were they supposed to ride around on buses for the rest of their lives? Were they supposed to sit on the interstate in a bus, waiting for the storm to pass? Or maybe get blown away in it?

    Do you think the government – and that’s us, just as you say – has no responsibility to its own citizens? And the frailest and weakest among them, at that? How does this responsibility get manifested, if not through taxes?

    Where’s the “Christian” charity, my friends? You guys go on and on about how wonderful the religious right is – and how awful the secular left – and yet you don’t believe in helping poor people who can’t help themselves? Do you think Louisiana – or any state – has unlimited funds to do something like this? You guys are the ones who advocate cutting taxes.

    Wake up, at last, and take a look at what your policies do.

  5. LA has a compact w/other states in cases such as this, they all help each other out down there.

    Once again Her Governorship fell down on the job.

    Via LGF from the WP:

    …Behind the scenes, a power struggle emerged, as federal officials tried to wrest authority from Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D). Shortly before midnight Friday, the Bush administration sent her a proposed legal memorandum asking her to request a federal takeover of the evacuation of New Orleans, a source within the state’s emergency operations center said Saturday.

    The administration sought unified control over all local police and state National Guard units reporting to the governor. Louisiana officials rejected the request after talks throughout the night, concerned that such a move would be comparable to a federal declaration of martial law. Some officials in the state suspected a political motive behind the request. “Quite frankly, if they’d been able to pull off taking it away from the locals, they then could have blamed everything on the locals,” said the source, who does not have the authority to speak publicly….

  6. Ralf Goergens,

    Using busses was part of the preexisting contingency planning for just this type of an event. Planners knew that there were many people within the city who would want to leave but who would be incapable of doing so on their own initiative due to poverty,infrimity or because they were tourist.

    Hurricane evacuations are very common on the Gulf Coast and everyone there knows how they work. Taking care of the families of those who must serve in the emergency is a primary consideration and well planned for. There was ample time to evacuate those in need, evacuate the families of those conducting the evacuation and to place vehicals and other assets in areas that would not flood if the levees broke. None of that was done.

    The failure in New Orleans was that none of the contingecy plans were activated. The state and city officials just went limp and passively waited for the feds to do virtually everything.

    It is inexcusable.

  7. Anonymous,

    I don’t think you understand. Some people, as matter of planning, were reliant on the state and local governments to evacuate them. This was not done. That is was not done was due to decisions made by the political leadership at the state and local level.

    There were plenty of physical assets in place to accomplish this but they were simply not used. In Texas, for example, nursing homes on the coast are evacuated to nursing homes and hospitals inland. Schools are used to house others. You just load up a school bus and drive inland a hundred miles or so and unload at a high school gymnasium. Its not that bloody difficult.

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