Monday, September 05, 2005

When New Orleans' muddy waters have cleared...

. . . and we can see more than dim outlines, I think we'll find more than enough blame to go around.

At this point, I have some blunt questions. Perhaps there are convincing answers, or explanations (as with Governor Blanco's words about shooting looters), but let me at least put these questions on the table.

According to the August 28th issue of, Mayor Ray Nagin ordered a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans in response to an appeal by President Bush:

Acknowledging that large numbers of people, many of them stranded tourists, would be unable to leave, the city set up 10 places of last resort for people to go, including the Superdome. The mayor called the order unprecedented and said anyone who could leave the city should. He exempted hotels from the evacuation order because airlines had already cancelled all flights. Gov. Kathleen Blanco, standing beside the mayor at a news conference, said President Bush called and personally appealed for a mandatory evacuation for the low-lying city, which is prone to flooding.

This means that all three levels of government, from city to state to federal, recognized the severity of the storm and knew what had to be done and should have anticipated the worst.

Each level of government appears to have failed:

1. City Failure Prior to the Storm:

According to the Southeast Louisiana Hurricane Evacuation and Sheltering Plan (Revised January 2000), page 13, paragraph 5:

5. The primary means of hurricane evacuation will be personal vehicles. School and municipal buses, government-owned vehicles and vehicles provided by volunteer agencies may be used to provide transportation for individuals who lack transportation and require assistance in evacuating.

This plan was not followed. Photos online show now-flooded school and municipal buses that must have been available for evacuation purposes at the time that the mandatory evacuation was ordered. See here, here, and here. Why weren't these buses used to evacuate the poor people who couldn't leave on their own? And why were hotels exempted from the evacuation order if these buses could have been used?

Why didn't Mayor Nagin act on this plan since he did order a mandatory evacuation?

2. State Failure After the Storm:

According to the September 4th issue of the Washington Post:

Behind the scenes, a power struggle emerged, as federal officials tried to wrest authority from Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D). 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.

A senior administration official said that Bush has clear legal authority to federalize National Guard units to quell civil disturbances under the Insurrection Act and will continue to try to unify the chains of command that are split among the president, the Louisiana governor and the New Orleans mayor.

Louisiana did not reach out to a multi-state mutual aid compact for assistance until Wednesday, three state and federal officials said. As of Saturday, Blanco still had not declared a state of emergency, the senior Bush official said.

"The federal government stands ready to work with state and local officials to secure New Orleans and the state of Louisiana," White House spokesman Dan Bartlett said. "The president will not let any form of bureaucracy get in the way of protecting the citizens of Louisiana."

Blanco made two moves Saturday that protected her independence from the federal government: She created a philanthropic fund for the state's victims and hired James Lee Witt, Federal Emergency Management Agency director in the Clinton administration, to advise her on the relief effort.

This passage doesn't make anybody look good, but let's focus on the state level. It appears from this Washington Post report that Governor Blanco and others at that level were more concerned about looking good . . . well, looking less bad anyway . . . than about rushing a coordinated relief effort even at a time when the city was descending into chaos.

And I don't understand why Governor Blanco was so slow about requesting multi-state mutual aid or declaring a state of emergency.

Why didn't Blanco set aside politics and act promptly?

3. Federal Failure After the Storm:

It took Bush rather long to act. Waiting for the local and state levels to do something made no sense under the circumstances. I'm running out of blogging time, so I'll just link to this disappointed Bush supporter and echo her words. Who gives a flying finkerninkle about Trent Lott? Well . . . maybe Bush does:

We've got a lot of rebuilding to do. First, we're going to save lives and stabilize the situation. And then we're going to help these communities rebuild. The good news is -- and it's hard for some to see it now -- that out of this chaos is going to come a fantastic Gulf Coast, like it was before. Out of the rubbles of Trent Lott's house -- he's lost his entire house -- there's going to be a fantastic house. And I'm looking forward to sitting on the porch.

Trent Lott has lost his house? So have a hundred thousand other people, most of them with fewer means of rebuilding than Senator Lott. And why this gratuitous mention of Lott anyway?

I don't understand why Bush didn't act sooner. In a crisis like this, one acts immediately and worries about getting approval later.

Once again, at all three levels of government, we have seen incompetence in America's political leaders. Just last night, my wife remarked,

"I thought that American politics worked better than Korean politics."

"I'm beginning to wonder," I replied.

A lot of politicians are going to find themselves living in interesting times when the muddy waters clear.


At 12:06 PM, Blogger Jeff said...

For what it's worth, I think Bush mentioned Trent Lott because (if you check out the entire press briefing and its accompanying photos) Lott was standing nearby, along with other Southern government types, when the president made the comments, which were primarily addressed to them:

At 12:56 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks. I wasn't aware of that, which makes the reference to Lott's home more relevant.

Living overseas, I find it hard to keep up with everything going on in the States.

Plus . . . classes started today, limiting my time for dredging up information from the internet.

Thus, I appreciate all input.

At 2:37 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Michael, thanks for the long comment. I'd agree with just about everything that you wrote.

Thanks, too, for reading my blog. I hope that it's entertaining when it should be entertaining. Now that the semester has begun again, I'll probably have less time to work on posting items.

On being called "Horace," I believe that Alistair called me that a few posts back. Most people who post don't call me by name, so the issue doesn't usually come up.

At 12:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Politics and racism aside: The first 72 hours of a disaster belong to the local government. FEMA takes that long to come online, period. Plus NOLA wasn't the only place FEMA was going. For Nagin to claim anything else he is either a liar or a fool. Instead of talking to his attorneys on the 28th, he should have been evacuating his city. Full evacuation, forced if necessary. The entire concept of vertical evacuation is absurd. He had a Cat 5 (eventually Cat4) hurricane off the coast, a city below sea-level protected by levi/dike (s) rated only to Cat3 and he doesn't fully evacuate??? If there are 10,000 dead in NOLA as he claims, their death certificate should list as the cause of death "Naginned"

At 4:19 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Fireman Bob, I agree that Nagin failed in his responsibility to evacuate the city. Even if there weren't enough school and city buses, he could have used what he had and saved some lives. And he could have appealed to citizens to help take those without cars.

He failed.

From what I see so far, however, nobody and no governmental agency looks good in this -- not, anyway, in New Orleans.

By the way, what's a "vertical evacuation"?

At 7:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding point #2 "State Failure After the Storm"

Blanco requested a state of emergency before Katrina hit land. The Wash Post and Newsweek both incorrectly reported that she was "sluggish" in requesting this, resulting in slow aid to New Orleans. The Washington Post sites a source from the Bush Admin. Too bad they don't actually read the news.

At 2:45 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Mark, thanks. I'll need more information on that. Is there a difference between requesting and declaring, for example?

Anyway, I'm waiting to learn all of the details before I say any more.

For now, I'm profoundly dissatisfied with everybody's performance.

At 4:44 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Jennifer. I looked at the letter from Blanco to Bush that you linked to. It certainly establishes that Blanco asked Bush to "declare an expedited major disaster." She looks better to me for that, and Bush looks worse.

I wonder, therefore, about what apppear to be delays later in her own decisions.

Anyway, I'll have to just wait for the results of the investigation that you're calling for on your own blog. We all need more information to know what went wrong and when.

At this point, FEMA is looking very bad, as noted by my old high-school friend Deva Hupaylo (whom I cited in a previous post). As you have demanded, Brown should resign (and I can't understand how Bush could have praised 'Brownie').

But I ramble on . . .


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