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.