Failure on Every Level

The hurricane Katrina passed over New Orleans last week. In it’s wake it left a city destroyed and a populous in desperate ways. For too many days the remaining survivors of the hurricane that did not make it out to safety before were left without water, security and protection from the elements and those looking to harm others. The makeshift shelters were nowhere near adequate to protect them and help did not arrive in time to save the lives of some. But where was the failure? Who is to blame?

I think a deep inspection will show that on every level of support that these people depended upon they were let down. But it goes deeper than simply “Iraq” and “Racism”, from before the hurricane to the planning of the aftermath all levels of our government are failing the citizens of New Orleans in disturbing ways.

The first reaction to the slow response of help caused many to cry “Iraq”. However, looking at this rationally we see that this is an easy accusation based on faulty logic. Four times last year hurricanes hit Florida. During each one of those National Guardsmen were in Iraq serving, yet the response to each of them was responsive and adequate. Even with Katrina, response and help came quickly to those damaged in other areas of the Gulf Coast. It seems to be quite a stretch to me, therefore, to say that it was Iraq that prevented the quick response everyone expected.

So, what is different about the Florida hurricanes, the other Gulf Coast areas and New Orleans? Some are now saying racism. This seems like a horrible insertion of a personal political viewpoint into a tragedy that cost so many their lives. And I don’t seem to remember Biloxi and Gulfport being white, middle-class suburbs either. They were hit possibly harder than New Orleans, at least during the initial destruction.

To find out let’s go through the timeline of the hurricane. Starting, of course, with BEFORE the hurricane arrived. There are a couple of areas that need addressing before we move on.

Be Prepared

First, there has been wide reporting of the movement of a large portion of the FEMA funding from the levee system in New Orleans into the Homeland Security funding. Many people have latched onto this as the reason for the severity of the disaster. It is true that this movement of funds did take place. And it is also true that the breech of the levee system caused the severity of the disaster in New Orleans. However, we have discovered that the project was only to sturdy the system to handle a Category Three hurricane. As detailed in a recent article we can see that the shoring up of the system was to prevent the levees from being overtopped rather than cutting wide breaks in them.

Someone did actually run simulations on what would happen to the city if it did get hit by a Category Five hurricane. They renamed the simulation from Delaney to KYAGB because anyone who was here as that Category Five storm came across was gone. When it was determined that the hurricane was indeed a Category Five hurricane heading their way a city wide evacuation was ordered. Governor Kathleen Blanco stated in a press conference regarding the evacuation that she had received a personal appeal from President Bush to perform the mandatory evacuation.

But wasn’t that enough? Shouldn’t an evacuation have saved everyone, why were so many people stranded? Reportedly there was a July 24, 2005 article in the New Orleans Time Picayune (which is unfortunately not available online) that addresses this issue. The first line of the article states:

City, state and federal emergency officials are preparing to give the poorest of New Orleans’ poor a historically blunt message: In the even tof a major hurrican, you’re on your own.

It appears that DVDs were created and distributed to the citizens of New Orleans. The story goes on to state:

In scripted appearances being recorded now, officials such as Mayor Ray Nagin, local Red Cross Executive Director Kay Wilkins and City Council President Oliver Thomas drive home the word that the city does not have the resources to move out of harm’s way an estimated 134,000 people without transportation

In 2004 National Geographic predicted the very scenario we saw before our eyes this past week. So did the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 2002. So the suggestion that no one predicted this event could occur are moot. It appears that many people did predict this to occur, people who were in a position to do something about it. People who should have done something to prepare better for it. Instead, they decided that it was better to cut DVDs to let the people know they were on their own.

So it appears that local, state and federal agencies all failed to prepare well enough to handle what they KNEW was a possibility. They knew that what happened last week was going to occur and decided that it was a better use of resources not to prepare well enough for it. Those lives and the horrors that those people went through wasn’t worth it.

Take Action

Moving forward to the day of the disaster, why did it take so long to get those who could not leave the city out? Let’s remember the day of the hurricane. Just before it hit the shore early Monday morning, the hurricane made an adjustment to the east and struck New Orleans with a glancing blow. It devastated the communities east of New Orleans in Louisiana and Mississippi. But everyone thought that New Orleans had ‘dodged another bullet’. Monday night brought us people in the French Quarter, celebrating about how they had been saved from the full brunt of the storm. It wasn’t until late Monday night and early Tuesday morning that the full awareness of the breaking of the levees started to become a story.

This became more fully realized throughout the day on Tuesday. By Wednesday morning, it was clear that the doomsday scenario that had been thought about but never realized was playing itself out before our eyes. At this point the Mayor started asking, pleading for help. The very man who made it clear that the very people who needed assistance now were the people he told were on their own just weeks before. Asking for busses to get the people out, it was not thought of to grab the school busses that were sitting locked up and start the evacuation themselves. This was realized by someone on Thursday who broke into the lot and grabbed a bus himself to drive it to the Convention Center.

But the Mayor was not the only one who was having trouble leading an effective relief effort. The Governor of the state and FEMA were equally negligent here, IMO. Communication was not occurring. FEMA had no knowledge of people using the Convention Center as an area of safe haven. Why? I don’t think we can expect the federal government to know every city as well as the mayors or governors of those areas do, but they should have a list somewhere with identified shelters detailed for them. But even if we lay the blame there, why wasn’t the Mayor or Governor pointing out to the proper agencies where to direct the relief efforts?

Eventually it was readily apparent that the relief effort, if it could be called that, was going nowhere. President Bush stood before the nation and assured us that things were in place and moving forward, that relief was on its way. But that was Wednesday, on Thursday we were still seeing pictures on our screens of how this was just not the case. The Governor was not allowing the remaining National Guard to be controlled by the Military, keeping control herself. President Bush did not supersede these wishes at first. The Mayor was begging and pleading, through the media, that something be done. But were these pleas getting the proper people in the Governor’s office? To the FEMA director? To the President? There is obviously a breakdown.

The Washington Post reports that a power struggle started between Governor Blanco and the administration.

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.

On Friday it looks like something was finally happened, that order was being restored and relief on its way. But it was not until Saturday, after the military was put in charge of the relief efforts, now four full days since the disaster was fully realized on Tuesday, before relief was given to the thousands suffering at the Superdome and Convention Centers. Here, we have a singular success that we can point to. The Military appears to have done a wonderful and heroic job in getting relief into the city and the remaining people out. The sad truth, however, is that it was late for many people, as I think we will unfortunately find. Why did this not happen three days earlier? Why were these people not in place on Sunday afternoon, at the ready, to move in and do what they do very well?

It’s sadly simple. The local authorities refused to deal appropriately with the possibility, the governor was either incompetent or disinterested in succeeding when the opportunity to harm a sitting republican president was at hand and played politics instead, and the president and FEMA director were slow to move in and do what was needed because of political considerations. Sound familiar? Sound like the reason we are STILL in Iraq doing what we should have completed a year ago? We have been picking our leaders based on the lesser of two evils and electability over substance for far too long. And this is the price that was paid, and will be paid again in the future, unless we start holding our political party’s feet to the fire and demand BETTER than what we have been tolerating.

The Future

Now we are at a place where we have a city that is almost completely empty and will not be inhabitable for some time, perhaps months. It has been reported today that it could be 25 to 60 days for the water to be pumped out of the city. The citizens are dispersed throughout the country, trying to start the process of getting their lives back together.

And the plan for these people? Some are going to be moved into public housing in other cities, housing that is rarely safe for those who already live there. And then try to assimilate them into these new areas. Unfortunately, as we have seen time and time again from all aspects of government, the opportunities are being lost.

There is a great opportunity here to not only rebuild New Orleans’ infrastructure, businesses and homes. We can also rebuild the community. By providing housing close to New Orleans for these people to reside in while the rebuilding process to occur, they can be first on the list of jobs being awarded in cleaning and rebuilding their own neighborhoods and city. They can be gainfully employed and work through literally putting their lives back together. The resulting sense of community spirit and pride that was most likely low will be at an all time high.

We could see a new New Orleans. A New Orleans that won’t take its poor and elderly for granted in the future. A New Orleans that is strong in every area, not just the tourist section of town. We could see a shining example to all other communities what can be accomplished if everyone would start taking pride in their own neighborhoods and do something themselves to take control of the situation instead of looking for someone else to do the hard work.

It may never catch on, but I for one would like to see it given a try. We might all be surprised at the result.

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