Depopulating New Orleans

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.

9 thoughts on “Depopulating New Orleans”

  1. I don’t think anybody is trying to depopulate New Orleans. The disaster is so complete that it is simply uninhabitable for now. By most standards, it was already uninhabitable, and those who could leave had left already, as in many crumbling urban centers. This one just has the additional misfortune of being vulnerable to physical collapse in addition to institutional collapse.

    That said, it is strange that you could take the critique so far without finding a single word to say about the corruption of appointing political hacks to head the federal disaster agency. The Coast Guard is the only part of FEMA that performed as expected, and now the Bushies are venal enough to co-opt USCG’s good reputation to benefit the rotting core of FEMA and DHS.

    At very best, FEMA is not an operational force. USCG did not have to be asked (or told) to start saving lives – they acted as they were trained, as the military always does. FEMA also acted as it was trained: “Put the best face on this, it’ll work out again, and we only have to look good on TV, not actually perform.” When it got ugly on TV, FEMA’s incompetence was exposed.

    I follow a lot of blogs in search of rational journalism (and entertainment), from “Whiskey Bar” to Thomas Barnett. If “Chicago Boyz” represents performance, resilience, and meritocracy from a national perspective, some accountability must be demanded of the Bush political apparatus.

  2. Don Hodges,

    All the critical failures in Louisiana occurred at the state and local level. In fact, I have been unable to find a specific, concrete failure of FEMA in the state. Complaints about the failure of FEMA seem to be entirely based on some vague idea that “it all should have gone faster.” Most people have absolutely no idea how FEMA works. If you have some concrete examples of FEMA failures I would like to here about them because I intend to address this issue in another post.

    I think it quite clear that the authorities are trying to depopulate the city at this point but I don’t think this is a conspiracy. I mostly wanted to point out that their incompetence was so bad that if someone were to engage in a conspiracy to depopulate the city, they could not have done a better job than the state and city officials did.

  3. FEMA is reported to have turned away relief supplies being trucked in by private agencies such as Wal-Mart, and some government agents (FEMA, Army, or other) commandeered the privately-chartered evacuation buses retained to get stranded tourists out (see the first story link here, though the rest is frightening reading too).

    FEMA comes off just as bad in these accounts as the state and locals do, but the Greta county gendarmerie seems worst of all:  actively malevolent.

  4. My point is that “somebody” is not/did not depopulate New Orleans. An Act of God on the (admittedly inadequate but not improveable in the timeframe of storm warnings) infrastructure did. If the flood had not occurred, the populace would have struggled back, in place, to the previous existence as it always does (see the Mississippi coast as it unfolds). FEMA was probably prepared for that.

    As for DHS/FEMA, I saw Michael Brown go from a cocky “Stand back, we are PRE-POSITIONED” to a sniveling cop-out “We are not aware of these stranded citizens, just rumors, move on, nothing to see here.” (paraphrased but close) Chertoff repeated the astounding claim that the DHS was not aware of the distress, while literally the whole world could see he was either a liar or an incompetent.

    The only way to deal with a catastrophe like this is be reflexively trained to execute a recovery plan that is equal to the threat or can be adaptive when threatened with being overwhelmed. This is true of chemical explosions, airplane crashes,riots, even warfare.

    I don’t give a damn “how FEMA works”. When live TV reported that the current problem was thousands of people stranded without food and water, it was time to quit working the previously assumed problem, whatever it was. Ten heavy helicopters with MRE’s and water would have defused the crisis, and FEMA, apparently not tasked with these, should have publicly called on the President and/or the Joint Chiefs to divert them a la Aceh province. If it did not happen then, at least the failure could not be excused as “not my job.”

    The kind of guys who learn to get ahead by kissing ass and arranging photo ops have no clue how to adapt a large-scale failing plan. This is true of Republicans, Democrats, and independent asshats.

    My question remains: How do you defend sending our national disaster response agency out with a patronage hack actually in charge?

  5. Don,

    I thought Bush replaced Brown with a more competent person? Oh, I forgot: by doing that Bush acknowledged making a mistake — GOTCHA! We certainly can’t tolerate leaders who make mistakes and then correct them. (Ain’t hindsight grand.)

    Rather than take Shannon to task for not writing about your preferred topic, why don’t you write your own blog post?

  6. Don Hodges,

    “I don’t give a damn “how FEMA works”.

    Well, that is the problem in a nutshell. You don’t know who was responsible for what. You just want to blame the Feds for everything, period. You give every impression of simply wanting to exploit the tragedy for political gain instead of understand what actual went wrong so we can avoid the problem the next time.

    Why is it the responsibility of FEMA for Superdome disaster when it was the State authorities that prevented the Red Cross (who was working in conjunction with FEMA) from sending in supplies only hours after the storm passed and who continued to block resupply until at least Wednesday? They have still not allowed the Red Cross into the city.

    I am quite willing to hold the Federal leadership responsible for the errors that they did commit but the tragedy of New Orleans wasn’t one of them. That was a local failure. Holding people responsible for the failures of others just encourages more bureaucracy and cya behavior which will cause future relief efforts to be even slower.

  7. Let’s try this one more time. First, this is not my blog and I have not been invited to post. It does, however, have open comments and I appreciate that. My remarks are not ad hominem attacks on Shannon – I just don’t believe one can explain this cock-up without looking at the political side. Now, I am NOT a Democrat or a left-sympathizer. I am a Republican who is very disappointed in the governance of the Bush apparatus, and I think part of the poor governance is the stupidity of putting people in performance-demanding jobs who would be better suited to congressional liason or some such patronage backwater. Where does it stop? We already have KAREN HUGHES at State, who’s next – Scott McClellan at the Fed?

    The Democrats would no doubt be worse – Paul Begala, Robert Rausch, Donna Shelela (sp?)? No, I certainly don’t long for the return of a Dem administration.

    We conservatives who spent all those years on the back benches and in the wilderness just hate to see our party squander this opportunity to govern more responsibly. Stumbling into a $300 Billion mismanaged war that is killing and mangling our grandchildren (then distributing Medals of Freedom and World Bank posts to the failed architects), bloated “Transportation” and “Energy” bills, indebting our future to the Chinese – is this what we want to be our legacy?

    Sorry to drift off the hurricane topic, but I just want to make it clear that being a Bush critic does not require being a Democrat or other political opportunist. Rather, I see few real conservatives or patriots in this crowd and far too many opportunists. We can do better than this, and I think this blog is a proper place to discuss it. If I wanted to promote Democrats, I could do it over at Talking Points Memo…

    Just in: Brown “resigns” – I guess he had to spend more time with his family or pursue other opportunities – good riddance. Watch for him on the other side of the table at Bechtel or Halliburton, still gobbling the pork.

  8. First, a comment about FEMA operations from someone who’s been in areas where they operate: they function with all the smooth precision of, let’s say, the Social Security Administration, and the general feeling around here (S Texas) is that if you’re waiting for FEMA to help you, you should save your last bullet, you’ll need it.
    Back to the main topic. When word came down on Aug 28th that voluntary shelters were opening, word quickly went around that if you knew anybody in the danger zone and could contact them, a place in one of the small private shelters could be reserved. (Bear in mind, the people you see on TV shots in the Astrodome and such are the last arrivals, and amount to less than half of the actual count.) At any rate, calls went out, and if you could make contact, they were in. This first group are the ones that thought ahead and got out. As a group, they also have jobs and insurance, and pay taxes. Local employers have started offering jobs, and are getting static from the Louisiana side, saying in essence, don’t poach in our worker pool.

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