Saturday, September 03, 2005

True to form

”It was a broiling August afternoon in New Orleans, Louisiana, the Big Easy, the City That Care Forgot. Those who ventured outside moved as if they were swimming in tupelo honey. Those inside paid silent homage to the man who invented air-conditioning as they watched TV "storm teams" warn of a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. Nothing surprising there: Hurricanes in August are as much a part of life in this town as hangovers on Ash Wednesday.

”But the next day the storm gathered steam and drew a bead on the city. As the whirling maelstrom approached the coast, more than a million people evacuated to higher ground. Some 200,000 remained, however—the car-less, the homeless, the aged and infirm, and those die-hard New Orleanians who look for any excuse to throw a party. ”The storm hit Breton Sound with the fury of a nuclear warhead, pushing a deadly storm surge into Lake Pontchartrain. The water crept to the top of the massive berm that holds back the lake and then spilled over. Nearly 80 percent of New Orleans lies below sea level—more than eight feet below in places—so the water poured in. A liquid brown wall washed over the brick ranch homes of Gentilly, over the clapboard houses of the Ninth Ward, over the white-columned porches of the Garden District, until it raced through the bars and strip joints on Bourbon Street like the pale rider of the Apocalypse. As it reached 25 feet (eight meters) over parts of the city, people climbed onto roofs to escape it.

”Thousands drowned in the murky brew that was soon contaminated by sewage and industrial waste. Thousands more who survived the flood later perished from dehydration and disease as they waited to be rescued. It took two months to pump the city dry, and by then the Big Easy was buried under a blanket of putrid sediment, a million people were homeless, and 50,000 were dead. It was the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States.”

From “Gone With the Water”, National Geographic magazine, October, 2004

After painting this “hypothetical” picture, the National Geographic article went on to say that in 2003, the US Army Corps of Engineers had drawn up a $14bn, 30-year plan to protect what’s left of the Louisiana wetlands, which, in addition to levees, might have protect(ed) places like New Orleans from hurricane damage. But the Bush Administration turned it down. The article also explained how shipping, the oil industry and overall development have gradually stripped the area of its natural defenses. Of course the National Geographic is not the only voice to have called for better disaster planning over the years.

Sorry, even in the face of such unimaginable tragedy, I can’t suppress my anger and shame. The Bush administration’s response has been no better than that of a developing country with far fewer resources at its disposal. So since we’re talking about fantasy articles, here’s one I would have liked to hear when I turned on the radio or read when I went to the New York Times website this week:

BILOXI, September 2 - True to form, the President of the United States has reacted instantly to the crisis unfolding in four states on the Gulf coast. Beginning on Tuesday morning, August 30, he visited stricken villages, washed out ports and devastated resorts. He was tireless in the comfort he gave to residents, listening to their stories of grief and desperation, ensuring each of them individually that they would not be forgotten. To maintain order in New Orleans and elsewhere, he ordered 100,000 National Guardsmen to the Gulf coast immediately, many of them to be recalled from Iraq. In a press conference at the end of the day, he stated that in our eagerness to export American democratic ideals, we had forgotten to put aside resources “for a rainy day” back home, and he vowed that would never happen again. He said that a portion of his 1,600 acre Crawford, Texas ranch would be turned into a displaced persons camp for as long as necessary. A huge trailer park would be set up. Roads, a field hospital, and a helicopter pad would be built. Food and water distribution would be organized immediately, residents would have individual needs assessment interviews and counseling, and thousands of land-line and cellular phone connections would be brought in so that refugees could get in touch with their families. The president said, “Even if the cost of the Crawford camp alone runs into the billions of dollars, that’s OK. We’ll just come home from Iraq a few days early to make up for it.” Questioned about the effects of global warming on hurricane activity, President Bush said “I don’t personally agree that global warming is behind all these ills, but maybe my opinion has been colored by my background. Anyway, I’ve decided the risks of ignoring it are too great.” Accordingly he called on the Senate to ratify the Kyoto treaty without further delay, despite all its flaws, because “for the moment, it’s the best treaty we’ve got and we can’t afford to wait any longer”. He concluded by saying, addressing the survivors of the devastated region, “More important than grand ideas and future glory, however, I want you all to know that I will not rest until each of you has seen a semblance or order return to your lives.” At the end of Tuesday and each day since then, he has looked worn, haggard, emotionally drained.

But I didn’t. Instead, the real President Bush “toured” the stricken areas today, four days after the hurricane, and said the results of rescue efforts were “unacceptable”. He said there was an “issue” at the New Orleans convention center. This guy likes understatement, doesn’t he? He also said he was looking forward to the day when he could sit on the porch of former senator Trent Lott’s rebuilt house. Now there’s something the president can relate to. Now the disaster is starting to pull at his heartstrings. But if this was his attempt at an “I have a dream” speech, it was pitiful. Incidentally, I wonder what he and former senator Trent Lott will talk about during that future lazy morning on the porch. The good old days?

You can read the full New York Times article here.

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At 11:31 AM, Blogger Warrior said...

I like the possible speech, sad but true it will never be like that. Keep it up.

At 3:33 PM, Anonymous Dave G. said...


Your thoughts are very similar to the comments of David Brooks, a moderately conservative columnist, on the News Hour last night. Brooks often, if not usually, refutes attacks on the President but not last night. Here is an excerpt of his comments:

This is -- first of all it is a national humiliation to see bodies floating in a river for five days in a major American city. But second, you have to remember, this was really a de-legitimization of institutions.
Our institutions completely failed us and it is not as if it is the first in the past three years -- this follows Abu Ghraib, the failure of planning in Iraq, the intelligence failures, the corporate scandals, the media scandals.
We have had over the past four or five years a whole series of scandals that soured the public mood. You've seen a rise in feeling the country is headed in the wrong direction.
And I think this is the biggest one and the bursting one, and I must say personally it is the one that really says hey, it feels like the 70s now where you really have a loss of faith in institutions. Let's get out of this mess. And I really think this is so important as a cultural moment, like the blackouts of 1977, just people are sick of it.
[T]to reiterate the point I made earlier, which is this is the anti-9/11, just in terms of public confidence, when 9/11 happened Giuliani was right there and just as a public presence, forceful -- no public presence like that now. So you have had a surge of strength, people felt good about the country even though we had been hit on 9/11.
Now we've been hit again in a different way; people feel lousy; people feel ashamed and part of that is because of the public presentation. In part that is because of the failure of Bush to understand immediately the shame people felt.
Sitting up there on the airplane and looking out the window was terrible. And the three days of doing nothing, really, on Bush was terrible. And even today, I found myself, as you know, I support his politics quite often.

Look at him today earlier in the program, this is how [liberal commentator] Mark Shields must feel looking at him, I'm angry at the guy and maybe it will pass for me. But a lot of people and a lot of Republicans are furious right now.

The other commentators, Tom Oliphant of the Boston Globe and Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune, agreed and predicted that the tragedy would be a politically transforming event. The entire segment, a weekly feature of the News Hour, is transcribed at

Keep up the good work.


At 9:49 AM, Blogger Steve said...

As you probably know, David Brooks is also a regular Op-Ed columnist at the New York Times. Here is a link to today's similar, but far more scathing column:
Thanks for visiting!

At 12:32 AM, Anonymous Jeff Z said...

As you know, I'm a Republican and admire Bush; I'm not going to pretend otherwise.

The Democrats would be wise to take their cues from their two best politicians, the Clintons, for two reasons: the lesser reason is that they are proven successes, with Bill the best politician of my lifetime. The second and much bigger reason, however, is that they are from Arkansas, which borders Louisiana.

I'm not anywhere near in the Clinton's league, of course, but like them, I recognize that the Democratic party and their media allies are in the process of kindly handing the Republicans the 2006 elections and the 2008 presidency, in their response to Katrina.

Bill, on CNN, attacked those who were rushing to blame Bush on 9/1:

On 9/5, he supported Hillary, but was careful to use his infamous passive construction/ plausible deniability ploy (e.g. "mistakes were made") and say "everybody agreed," but stayed out of specifics and most crucially, focused on the federal government and away from Louisiana:

Hillary, has called for an in-depth investigation and proposed a very sensible reform, cleverly pointing out that it would return the situation to the status quo ante of the Clinton administration:

The rest of the Democrats, though, are making the same mistake that cost them the 2004 election. They focus on winning the news cycle, not the election. Right now, they are out accusing the Bush of every crime imaginable, with the full support of the mass media. Notice how quiet the Republicans are being; when your enemy is busy committing suicide, why stop him?

Louisiana is the most politically corrupt, racist, economically and educationally backward state in the country. The very fact that they were so utterly outperfomed by two of their three rivals for that prize, Mississippi and Alabama (Arkansas, landlocked, cannot contend. Too bad. It would have been like the Special Olympics for states), is as clear proof of this as can be imagined.

What the Clinton's know is that, while there is plenty to criticize the Feds about--and it is testimony to Hillary's brilliance that she hit Bush's biggest weak spot so precisely--it is the Louisana Democratic Party that will be destroyed when the full investigation is made. I don't have the time for all of it, but here are some main points:

1)New Orleans was a basket case long before the hurricane hit. For example, here's an article about the tough situation school kids face. The lead states that New Orleans has: "...a school system in such turmoil that no one is sure how many employees it has, the new budget is millions of dollars out of balance, and the buildings are old and deteriorating." Oh, well, what do you expect after a hurricane, right? Except that this article came out on 8/11, more than two weeks before Katrina arrived:

The chief accomplishment of the police force is to make the education system look good:

Perhaps, then, it was not all that surprising that police and fireman joined in the looting:

The New Orleans police did almost nothing to prepare for hurricane and collapsed faster than the 17th street levee. It's not just them, of course, itis the whole municipal government. A few highlights:

Who demanded the mandatory evacuation of New Orleans?

The Mayor was supposed to:

In regard to preparing for the hurricane, the New Orleans official policy is clear:

"The safe evacuation of threatened populations when endangered by a major catastrophic event is one of the principle reasons for developing a Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan. The thorough identification of at-risk populations, transportation and sheltering resources, evacuation routes and potential bottlenecks and choke points, and the establishment of the management team that will coordinate not only the evacuation but which will monitor and direct the sheltering and return of affected populations, are the primary tasks of evacuation planning. Due to the geography of New Orleans and the varying scales of potential disasters and their resulting emergency evacuations, different plans are in place for small-scale evacuations and for citywide relocations of whole populations.
Authority to issue evacuations of elements of the population is vested in the Mayor. By Executive Order, the chief elected official, the Mayor of the City of New Orleans, has the authority to order the evacuation of residents threatened by an approaching hurricane.

"Evacuation procedures for special needs persons with either physical or mental handicaps, including registration of disabled persons, is covered in the SOP for Evacuation of Special Needs Persons."

You can read the whole plan on-line:

Only guess what? The Mayor and Governor did not want to order a mandatory evacuation at all. They made it clear that they were only doing so because Bush appealed to them to do so, as the AP reported at her press conference the day before the hurricane hit:

Even after Bush declared a state of emergency (the day before--that's the day before, on Saturday morning) the mayor still dithered on the evacuation:

Fortunately, Bush prevailed--which is probably why Louisiana's Senators released a letter thanking him for the help he'd given in preparing Louisiana for Katrina--a letter released right before--that's before--Katrina hit:

He was actively involved the whole time:

2) The Federal government is not the "first responder" and FEMA is not a first response organization; they come in afterwards to administer the recovery. Local and state officials are responsible for preparing and executing an emergency response plan.

FEMA coordinates the “rear areas” where refugees are moved to and have to housed, fed and given medical treatment, and whence supplies are collected and shipped into the response area. Basically, FEMA is supposed to get requests for needed items, and arrange for their delivery where needed.

The states, counties (parishes, and cities are responsible for their own disaster plans.

For example, the National Guard deployment policy is:

"It is against the law for any President to order troops into a city or across state lines without a request and permission from the Governor of that state.

"Federal law prevents the President from sending in the National Guard until the Governor gives the order. It is little known, but the Commanding General of the National Guard in every state reports to the Governor, not the President, until the Governor says otherwise. U.S. military units (regular Army, not the Guard) cannot be used because of the Posse Comitatus law, until the Guard has been authorized."

Another example: a key part of the New Orleans emergency plan is to mobilize city and school buses beforehand and have them ready to go. The Mayor seems to have, uh, forgotten:

Of course, perhaps in such an extreme situation, only the most highly skilled, experienced, and brave individuals could have managed to gotten a bus out. Here's the story of the first bus driver able to perform this almost superhuman feat:

But then again, the Mayor's evacuation plan was to make that sure everybody knew that there was no evacuation plan:

What a lot of people still don't understand is that the internet has changed the way that people get their information. Commercial media is one option. Because of the internet, it can only take a minute to go to a government website to get a more informed point of view. For example, there were a lot of accusations a few days ago that having an LA Guard unit in Iraq cost lives in New Orleans. A quick internet Google and you learn that the Iraq nit was a mechanized combat team that is of no use in a flooded marsh, and, furthermore that Guard units from other states were in northern LA waiting for orders to deploy.

Of far more consequence, I believe, is the sending of e-mails with attachments from people reporting on-scene. Not all of these are reliable, of course, but most can be vouched for by the sender. Here is one I received from a co-worker, who said it came from a friend:

"I was born in Baton Rouge, LA. I grew up in Lafayette, New Iberia, Opelousas, and New Orleans, and spent every summer on Grand Isle. At the start of every hurricane season the local news, papers, etc cover the usual annual information regarding hurricanes and evacuation plans. They explain about needing to keep an ample stock of fresh water and food for every member of the household, batteries, flashlights, etc; and they show the official evacuation routes and ask that you plan how you will evacuate and where you will go. This is done EVERY YEAR. In the city of New Orleans the order for Mandatory Evacuation was given a full 48 hours before the hurricane arrived, with police and fire going through the neighborhoods telling everyone to evacuate over their loudspeakers. This is a part of the life of everyone that lives along the Gulf Coast. They all know what to do and how to do it. You grow up hearing it every single year. There was no surprise, there was ample warning, and there was ample opportunity to leave.
As for the response post-Katrina, on Monday everyone was breathing a sigh of relief that New Orleans was spared. Rescue efforts were being geared to the Mississippi and Alabama coasts where the population densities were higher than the marsh lands south east of New Orleans. It wasn't until the levies failed late Monday night and early Tuesday morning that there was a need for more extensive planning in New Orleans. After that it was the failure of the Mayor to quickly order a total evacuation, and the Governor's failure for not over-stepping him and ordering it herself that caused a crisis to turn into a catastrophe. Once the flooding was complete there was no way for the people left in the city to escape. Furthermore, it was the Mayor's and the Governor's fault for not mobilizing the Louisiana National Guard as early as Tuesday when it became apparent that the city was going to totally flood, and it was their fault that they also did not give orders to shoot-to-kill any looter stealing more than food, water, or shoes. In Mississippi the Governor almost immediately gave shoot-to-kill orders for looters. How many looting stories have made the news from Mississippi?

"A very close friend's sister lived in New Orleans, stayed at her home through the hurricane and only made it out yesterday. On Wednesday she and her neighbor decided they had to leave even though their homes were in the 20% that didn't flood. They spent that day gathering what food and water they had, loading their guns, and testing possible routes out. On their second try they met up with two New Orleans police officers who at gun-point ordered them to return home telling them they "would not" help them. On Thursday, when they left, their SUV was mobbed by a huge crowd that tried to pull them out of their car and take it. Brandishing their guns they were able to escape. Along their route out of town they witnessed murders and mounds of bodies lining the streets. Had they not left I doubt they would have survived."

Now there are three overlooked aspects to this disaster that will go a long way to blunting the anger against local, state, and federal governments:

1)The 24-hour space beween the pasing of Katrina and the breaking of the levees, when the effects of the storm were much less severe.

2) The 17th Street levee that broke was state-of-the-art. The storm surge that broke over it (The surge was at least seven feet higher than the levees) was so heavy that it seems to have crushed it.

3) When all is said and done, this was a natural disaster of such size and power as to severely limit human ability to protect ourselves.

(Granted, compared to those of Europe, our natural disasters are pretty small potatoes, and even at that, our government's ability is far inferior to those of the EU to protect us from even the ones we do have. It is a disgrace to the US that we may have lost over 10,000 lives to Katrina, while the nations of Europe lost only 40,000 people to a heat wave in 2003. Floods, storms, and winds of biblical proportions are nothing compared to having to deliver portable air conditioners. You can get sweaty and everything! Just imagine what would happen in the US if it ever got up to 38-40 degrees Centigrade! Why it would be, never mind.)

Still, heads are going to roll.

I don't have time to go through everything, but this is the best shorrt summary I know of that goes over the highlights of what investigations will reveal over the coming months (I don't know if the footnoted links will transfer):

"It was President Bush who pushed for a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans.(1) Governor Blanco issued only a voluntary evacuation order, but admitted that she received a call from the President on August 27, 2005, urging her to make it a mandatory one. He wanted as many people as possible out of the path of the storm.

"Despite the fact that New Orlean’s own Emergency Response Guidelines call for a mandatory evacuation of the City if a strike by a Category 3 Hurricane is projected, with 72 hours advance notice to all residents, Mayor Nagin didn’t order a mandatory evaluation until Sunday. Further, he only did so after Max Maxfield, the National Hurricane Director, called Nagin at his home to plead that he empty the City. (2)

"Why did Nagin wait so long? He was worried about the legalities. If people want to affix blame, perhaps they can look at lawyers.

"All over the internet are pictures of dozens of New Orleans’ submerged and now useless school buses, buses that could have been used to transport residents out of the City prior to the storm, bring in supplies after the storm, and help evacuees escape the flooding. Meanwhile, Governor Blanco issued a request to the State of Louisiana to provide her with buses from local school districts.

"Bush’s offer to have the federal government aid in the evacuation was rejected. (5)

"Mike Brown, Under Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security for Emergency Response and Preparedness, received the order from President Bush on August 27, two full days before the storm hit the region, to prepare for Katrina disaster relief. (6) The President also declared the entire region under a State of Emergency, so that FEMA could coordinate efforts at the request of the Governors. (7) Under the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, the Federal Government and FEMA are not allowed to interfere with local operations unless they are authorized by state and local leaders.

"Blanco did not authorize this until September 1, 2005.

"Further, according to an Association Press report on August 30, “The federal government began rushing baby formula, communications equipment, generators, water and ice into hard-hit areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, along with doctors, nurses and first-aid supplies. The U.S. Defense Department sent experts to help with search-and-rescue operations.” (8) FEMA was there and helping, in the capacity that was allowed by local officials, but could not swing into full gear until after Blanco gave them permission.

"The local and state governments have control over law enforcement activities in their state, and such activities could only be coordinated through the federal government with their permission. It was not until terrible reports of rapes and violence, videos of looting, and reports of shoots being fired at rescue workers did Governor Blanco relinquish any claim of control on an out-of-control city.

"An August 31, 2005 Fox News Report reveals, “The looting prompted authorities to send more than 70 additional officers and an armed personnel carrier into the city. One police officer was shot in the head by a looter but was expected to recover, authorities said. Blanco said she will ask President Bush for military troops to help keep looting under control.” (9) Almost immediately thereafter, FEMA, the military, and the Bush Administration began to restore order.

"Further, on September 2, 2005, the Bush 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.” (10)

"Predictions of wide spread devastation have been known since Hurricane Camille in 1969. Despite these, it was local officials who appropriated funds designated for levee improvements towards such necessary purchases as a casino, hotel, and other projects."

This is all provisional so far,and doubltessly there is a lot of partial information.

Does this mean that Bush did nothing wrong? Of course not. His choice to head FEMA is proof enough of that. However, if you actually go on US government websites, access local newspapers, go to the National Guard websites, hunt out local bloggers, etc., you will find that the US government response was early and active. Not perfect, and there is plenty to correct, but it was the Louisiana politicians who completely botched this effort. I have barely even touched on it, such as their ordering people to the Superdome and Convention Center, without even bothering to stock these places with food, water, or an organized police presence.

All of this is going to come out, and much more besides.

Like I said, Bush is going to take a very deserved shot for hiring Mike Brown, but FEMA did most of what it could do, if for no other reason that it is not structured or tasked to be a first responder, but it is the state officials that will take the hardest hit.

What it comes down to is this, which I got from someone in our San Francisco office:
"And it's important to remember (well, it wouldn't be if certain people crazed with partisan venom weren't slinging stupid accusations non-stop) that the responsibility for planning for a predictable disaster is local. Not federal. It is the job of San Francisco to plan for earthquakes (and we do); to have the necessary communications and organization to coordinate emergency response. Including asking for and coordinating state and federal help when needed. New Orleans has been facing the possibility of flooding for at least 40 years, with the Mississippi flowing right through town, well above the height of many buildings. ...

The thing is, it is extremely difficult for outsiders to accomplish much when they are groping around unfamiliar territory. They can spend days just finding out what's needed, and establishing communications."

Addendum: The Clinton's wisdom has been confirmed by Bush's announcement that he would personally head the investigation:

At 12:50 AM, Anonymous Jeff Z said...

The best one yet:

24 hours to make a decision. Unbelievable.

At 6:39 PM, Blogger Warrior said...

only a republican could think that a comment was a blog in itself. Jeeze man. Hey Steve how goes?


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