Risk, Hindsight and Mass Evacuations

A. Scott Crawford made some good points in his comment on Shannon’s “Critical Failure” post. A lot of commentators seem to assume that governments can just order people to leave and that they will do it. A lot of them will — almost everyone in New Orleans left — but some will not, no matter what the govt does. Even if the NO municipality or LA state govt had provided transportation out of town, some people would have stayed. In hindsight, evacuation looks like the obvious choice, but before the storm arrives you can’t know. There have been plenty of false alarms in the past, and evacuation is costly.

Initiating a mandatory mass evacuation is a bit like ordering a military mobilization in a small country like Israel: you have to be damn sure the risk you are responding to is extreme, because the cost is huge: you are essentially shutting down the society for days at least. And the cost isn’t just monetary: evacuations, like hurricanes, kill people, both directly (via auto accidents, heart attacks, etc.) and, in the event the predicted deluge doesn’t materialize, by convincing some residents that next time they should stay in town and ride out the storm. And for some citizens, like the guy pictured in the NYT article guarding his auto-repair shop, fleeing means that they probably go out of business, because in a place like NO they will be cleaned out by looters. How can you force such people to leave on the strength of a fallible weather forecast? By the time the storm is close enough for the danger to be certain, it is probably going to be too late to implement a successful mass-evacuation. This strikes me as an insoluble problem.

I suspect that the best that NO could have done in this case would have been, as many people have suggested, to offer transport out of town to people who lacked the means to leave on their own. But this is all hindsight. It’s impossible to know how many people would have been saved if the City had actually done it. Even with the best of planning, it seems likely that many citizens would have chosen to stay behind and would have been killed.

Not all problems are soluble, not all risks can be hedged at acceptable cost. NO’s central problem was its location. Levee reinforcement, evacuation plans and other risk-abatement measures would have helped, but everyone always knew that a direct hit by a big enough storm would be a catastrophe. Accepting that possibility was an unavoidable part of living there, just as accepting the possibility of earthquakes is part of living in California.

Perhaps, in the long run, the evacuation model of hurricane civil defense, which depends critically on competent local government (which, it almost goes without saying, NO has not had) will be supplanted by emphasis on improved building codes and other technological measures that might eventually minimize the need for evacuations, and by increased emphasis on citizen self-reliance during emergencies. Perhaps, but NO has a dysfunctional third-worldish political culture that may make it difficult to implement reforms of any type. The best that we can hope for may be that New Orleans will be rebuilt with more-robust technology, and that Americans who live along our hurricane-prone coasts will take storm safety more seriously for the next generation or so.

UPDATE: Here’s a take on the current situation that I think makes a lot of sense.

UPDATE2: I combined and edited the 2nd and 3rd sentences of the last paragraph 9/8/2005.

UPDATE3: Jim Miller and Donald Sensing have very good posts about the logistics of NO evacuation in light of weather-forecasting uncertainties.

(A related post is here.)

5 thoughts on “Risk, Hindsight and Mass Evacuations”

  1. Johnathan, you’re my man:

    “Perhaps, in the long run, the evacuation model of hurricane civil defense…will be supplanted by increased emphasis on citizen self-reliance during emergencies.”

    If each adult had the consequences of their choices piled on their own shoulders, then individuals, and society as a whole, would adapt properly to all new challenges, even oncoming disasters. A self-determining responsible citizenry, informed in advance by an accurate warning system, will respond rationally, or should be forced to accept the actual costs of not acting.

    Our decentralized federal system relies on the local authorities, and finally, local individuals, to take action in response to local stimuli in order to insulate distant others from bearing the costs of the few’s follies. The idolatry of a “central government” and the “government-mediated” response absolves the “believing” individual of her responsibility to act, and coddles the human instinct to huddle under the leaky umbrella called “socialism.” In this church, “Personal Responsibility” and “Feedback Loop” are hated Anti-Christs, and their apostles are run out of town.

    A working response would make sure that government actions that subsidize repeated idiocy, like FEMA bailouts, subsidized low-interest loans for infirm real-estate purchases, local zoning regulations that induce construction in order to build property-tax revenues no matter what, are phased out. This collective response should stress private insurance and due-diligence as the aternatives to the dependency-enabling ministrations of “Mother Hen gub’ment.”

  2. There are always those who choose not to evacuate in any given emergency. Basically, this a choice we have the right to make by virtue of being a free people.

    I think many people are unclear on what a mandatory evacuation really means. The state has no authority to order people to abandon their homes and property. No one will herd you safety at gunpoint. A mandatory evacuation order is an explicit statement that anybody left in the area when the disaster hits will be on their own. Conditions are expected to be so bad that nobody can expect outside help. Everybody in Hurricane country understands this.

    Anyone who could leave with their own resources but chooses not to accepts the consequences of their actions. The question is what to do with those who want to leave but do not have the resources to do so? It is this second group that relies on the state to evacuate them.

    People in nursing homes, especially those who are poor or without families, would be an exemplar of this second group. Emergency planners know for a fact, long before any particular emergency, that these people will need outside assistance. Worse, the government had committed to providing evacuations to such people in its emergency plans. A tacit contract existed. People without resources had every right to expect the government would provide for them.

    80% of the cities population evacuated on their own. If we assume that half the remaining wanted to but could not we are talking about tens of thousands of people who were trapped in the city due to the ineptitude of the local authorities.

  3. Yup, Shannon, the contract between government and citizen needs a close look. Emergencies like Katrina can tend to reflect poorly on both parties. The whole gang at Chicagoboyz, and your thoughtful commentators, have outlined this issue well over the last week.

    Funny that, in the case of the aftermath of Katrina, “government’s” contactual integrity is being shown-up by an upstart network of internet-based, real-time information relays coupled with citizen volunteerism.

    Your readers might find this interesting. Over $200 M in voluntary donations have been received so far. This is more than double the ’03 budget (download pdf) for Loisiana’s Department of Economic Development (actual ’03 budget: $99,731,105).

    Then, visiting Tim Blair’s blog this morning I noticed that he posted a link to Apple’s innovative donation funnel: its popular iTunes main page. Blair writes,

    UPDATE. Reader Jeremy Garrett sends some easy donation news: “… Apple set it up where people with iTunes on their computers can donate money to the Red Cross through the iTunes Music Store just like they would if they were buying a song. The donations show up on your credit card statement as a donation to charity.”

    Gosh, might the integration of the internet with voluntary charitable exchanges more effectively execute the will of a free society, than traditional redistributionist “governance?” And should the institutions, media patrons, and others who derive from conventional, government-mediated redistribution feel a little threatened right now?

  4. Shannon,

    Yes, a better handled evacuation would have saved many lives in New Orleans. But it does not seem obvious that the local political culture would have supported a better plan, or even better execution of the existing plan.

  5. The principal difference between liberals and conservatives in US is that liberals trust government and distrust people (aka the masses, the mob, the underclasses, the proles, uneducated and unwashed, etc) BUT conservatives distrust government (adjectives are corrupt, bureaucratic, self-seeking, incompetent, etc) but trust people
    (aka citizens, entreprenuers, wage earners, ordinary hard-working, decent people).

    Bureacrats and MSM tend to be liberals and view the masses as the problem.

    If you review everything written about NO, it comes down to permitting people to do the right thing. Which is why things are going better in Mississippi.

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