It is easy to look at the appalling incompetence of the Louisiana officials at all levels and see a dark conspiracy at work. There appears to be a systematic attempt to depopulate New Orleans using fear, hardship and the withholding of government assistance. At every juncture before, during and after the disaster struck, the local authorities have attempted to herd people out of New Orleans. And I do mean “herd” not evacuate. The pattern is that they drive people out with fear, neglect and intimidation.
So, is there a conspiracy?
The Facts are these:
(1) Prior to Katrina’s landfall, the local authorities issued a mandatory evacuation order but PROVIDED ZERO ASSISTANCE to anyone who could not evacuate themselves. Why? They certainly could not claim they did not understand that many in NO had insufficient resources to evacuate themselves. During hurricane Ivan last year the exact same pattern occurred, i.e., people who could leave did and those who could not stayed. If the State did not have enough physical resources to evacuate the indigent, why didn’t they request months ago after Ivan that the federal government plan to evacuate the city using federal resources? In fact, both the City and State had plans on paper for using local assets to evacuate the indigent, but those plans were never activated. Why?
(2) Immediately after Katrina had passed, the Louisiana Department of Homeland Defense ACTIVELY PREVENTED RELIEF SUPPLIES FROM ENTERING THE CITY. The Red Cross, in coordination with FEMA, had pre-positioned supplies outside the city but was prevented from delivering them to the people in the Superdome and the convention by the local authorities. The stated rationale at the time was that authorities did not want to “encourage” people to stay or return to the city.
(3) At present, the local authorities are threatening to forcibly evacuate residents who remain, are disarming the law abiding and may be still withholding relief supplies, all in an attempt to empty the city of its remaining population. Why they wish to do this when conditions within the city can only improve going forward is not explained.
I don’t like economic and political conspiracy theories. I don’t think there has ever been a large scale conspiracy of any kind. It is not that I don’t think that people would do awful things given the chance, rather that I just don’t think anybody has both the knowledge, power and competence to pull a conspiracy off. Having said that, if some malevolent cabal had wanted to depopulate NO of its underclass and seize private property, they could not have come up with a better plan than the one being followed in NOLA right now.
The authorities provided no evacuation assistance because an orderly evacuation would be less traumatic and would lead to an orderly return. People evacuated after the storm are scattered, disorganized, disgusted and afraid of returning. Preventing relief supplies from entering the city made the suffering much worse and would drive more people out, perhaps permanently. For those who survived the first two assaults, we have a final round of intimidation and outright force.
Why would anyone do this? NO has been disintegrating for the last 30 years. Increasing poverty and crime are threatening the city’s tourist trade. Using a natural disaster to drive out a significant chunk of the underclass might look like a good idea to some. Others might hope to profit from sweeping condemnations of property. It is much easier to pull off some sort of scheme when the property owners are scattered across half the country than when they are sitting on their front porch with a shotgun.
Pulling off such a scheme would require more coordination and foresight than I think we can give the local government credit for. If they were that good they could have fixed NO’s problems in a more conventional and profitable manner. I think a better explanation is that an institutional perception of helplessness overcame local government at all levels. They became convinced that they were helpless in any major emergency, but at the same time could not admit this publicly by asking for help long before the disaster arrived, when it might have done some good. Instead they created an institutionally shared fantasy that the federal government would arrive instantly, following a disaster, and fix everything. They didn’t use ANY local resources to evacuate people, because they thought the feds would rescue them all with their magic teleporter machines.
I think Nagin revealed this mindset when asked about his plan for the city before the hurricane said, “Get people to higher ground and have the feds and the state airlift supplies to them — that was the plan, man.” That is why Nagin, Blanco and other officials flipped out immediately after the disaster. Their fantasy collided with reality. None of them had apparently asked before the disaster struck exactly how long it would take the feds to help. Instead, they spent the year between Ivan and Katrina telling each other the feds would save their asses instantaneously.
It was the illusion of helplessness that lead them to drive people with fear instead of actually assisting them. They were so convinced they couldn’t help that all they could think to do was to scare people into fleeing. That worked well for those who could leave on their own resources but failed for those who could not. After the disaster, they were still trying to drive people away by withholding aid.
Why are they still trying to drive people from the city? My best guess is that they are institutionally a bunch of central planning freaks. Real people complicate central planning. Its much easier to rebuild a city if you can just wipe the slate clean. (Perhaps a few connected developers expect to exploit the situation but I don’t think that is really the driving force.)
So I think that the disaster of NO can be summed up as follows: Politicians and bureaucrats in Louisiana become victims of classic group-think and denial. They believe they cannot deal with the disaster, but also cannot bring themselves to pay the political price of asking for help. When the disaster strikes, they react passively, leaving tens of thousands in extreme danger. Then they panic when their fantasy implodes. I think they are still panicking and trying to gain some sense of control by depopulating the city.
The tragedy of New Orleans is not the result of conspiracy but of rather of two simple human failings, incompetence and cowardice.