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 1:41 PM, Blogger Michael S. Pearl said...


First of all, I have been enjoying your blog ruminations, stories, humor, etc., for probably the past couple of months; please keep up the good job. Why doesn't anyone here call you "Horace" as so often happened at the old discussion group?

Secondly, I had time to notice your "Yat" entry. Did you know that Yats do not go to the grocery store or buy groceries? No, they "make groceries" -- by going to the store and buying groceries. Another Yat greeting is, "How's ya momma 'n thim?"

As to the Washington Post article, I think it wise to suspect an agenda - especially when the source will not or cannot speak publicly. That said, the characterization of Kathleen Blanco, when understood as someone who likely is not suited for the position she holds under these circumstances, is very feasible.

In addition, I heard a local reporter interview Ray Nagin yesterday, and, while in what follows I may not be recounting the details accurately, I am certain that I have captured the gist of what Nagin was conveying (and I posted this to another group [], but it is in an accessible to members only part of that group). Here is what I wrote:

"... Nagin did not go into any specifics, but he did leave the impression that Governor Blanco does at least occasionally pose some sort of bottle neck.

Nagin mentioned a meeting held [two days ago] between himself, Blanco, and (I think) President Bush, in which Nagin claims he requested that decision making authority be delegated to him for the goings on in New Orleans. According to Nagin, the chain (or, maybe it is a spider's web) of command was making effectual communications and action virtually impossible, and Nagin seemed to be suggesting that what was lacking and what was needed was local decision making authority.

Nagin reported that Blanco said she would think about it. As of [the next afternoon] afternoon, Nagin had not heard what she had decided."

As to why Nagin did not order a mandatory evacuation earlier, here are some observations and thoughts.

As the hurricane was approaching - but still a couple of days out - we thought it odd that there was evidently some reluctance on the part of Nagin for issuing a mandatory evacuation order. The day before the evacuation order was finally issued, there was some talk on TV and the radio about some sorts of legal considerations, and, as I recall, someone mentioned that if the mayor were to order such an evacuation then he might be legally responsible for providing means of exit for all people in New Orleans unable to evacuate on their own. No real details about such a legal responsibility (or even what was meant by the notion) were provided.

At the press conference during which Nagin issued the order, he noted that President Bush had asked him to do whatever he could to get the city evacuated. I do not know whether Bush's request was regarded as alleviating the supposed legal considerations which were being discussed by the press, but I got the impression that some sort of linkage between the Bush request and the Nagin order was implied. Of course, that may just have been my imagination.

In your blog entry you refer to an official evacuation plan which notes the assorted types of vehicles that were to be used to evacuate those who had no means of transportation of their own. I was not familiar with this plan until I read your entry, but I was immediately inclined to think that the plan was one of those sorts of documents that serve no purpose beyond making it appear as if attention is being paid to providing a solution for a problem. In short -- window dressing.

If this plan imparted to Nagin the legal responsibility to which the press had been referring, then it is no wonder why Nagin was reticent to order the evacuation. The plan was unworkable.

By Nagin's estimate, eighty percent of the approximately 500,000 people in New Orleans were able to evacuate on their own. If that figure is accurate, this means that there were still 100,000 people to move out of the city. I doubt that there were enough school and public transportation buses available to move that many people even if Nagin had ordered the evacuation a day earlier. There is also the question of to where were these 100,000 people supposed to be moved.

The evacuation plan authors certainly had to be able to have anticipated these problems. In which case, the plan was what? A horridly bad joke?

Putting aside the ridiculousness of the evacuation plan, and putting aside the possible (maybe even likely) unsuitability of Governor Blanco, there is still the matter of why no one in the federal government stepped up to force a rectification for the sake of the stranded people being tortured in New Orleans from the earliest stages of the disaster.

There is something amiss in a report which points out that the federal government presented "[s]hortly before midnight [on the] Friday [after the Monday on which the storm hit] ... a proposed legal memorandum asking [Blanco] to request a federal takeover of the evacuation of New Orleans" without taking note of how absurdly delayed such a request was.

Still, regardless of how wretchedly inadequate was the federal government effective response time, there is something very wrong with a mute response to the rejection by the Louisiana government.

If the federal government had responded in anything close to a timely fashion, if the federal government had actually been prepared to get relief supplies to the stranded people, only to be faced with a Blanco rejection, would the appropriate response on the part of the feds be to remain silent? Not if the primary interest/goal was in saving lives and alleviating misery. If the head of FEMA could not get his immediate superior, or even the President, to speak out publicly against the disgraceful decision of the Louisiana governor, then the head of FEMA could have - no, should have - taken to the air waves himself. That would have been unprecedented courage on the part of a bureaucrat - an act that would have been celebrated, not castigated, by the people.

I think that the events of the past week make it quite clear indeed that what we refer to (euphemistically) as public servants are, in fact, legal servants. They serve the law rather than the people. This is what must be addressed, and this is precisely what will not be addressed by the special Congressional committees that get created in order to assign blame.

In closing, you might also find interesting/relevant the following remarks which I posted to the aforementioned group:

"Many in the Republican party imagine that theirs is veritably the party of God, the party of "values". Well, then, if they opt to further develop the legalistic defense of the federal government which depends on deflecting blame to Governor Blanco, they should be reminded of a story from the Bible:

And the Pharisees said to him, "Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?" And he said to them, "Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry ... how he entered the house of God ... and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?" And he said to them, "The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath." (Mark 2: 24-27)"

Ask whether our public servants serve the law or whether they serve the people. Such an inquiry would be particularly suited for the upper tier federal politicians - if they do indeed end up trying to insist that the government of Louisiana (specifically the Democrats Blanco and Nagin) was the real impediment."

I tried to be brief, but, oh well.


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 12:40 AM, Blogger Jennifer said...

Excellent observations. I personally feel this whole fiasco was a failure at the local, state, and federal levels. Very scary failure, too... I hope the feds would do better in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. Just to clarify a false report about when Governor Blanco declared a state of emergency... she declared a state of emergency on August 26 (Friday). Bush declared a state of emergency on August 27 (Saturday), which should have activated all of the federal resources necessary. Blanco sent a memo to the president on Sunday August 28 asking that he delcare an "expedited major disaster", stated that the situation was more than the local and state authorities could handle, and asked for federal assistance. The state asked for help, they just didn't get it in a timely manner. Here's a link to the memo if you care to read it:

At 12:43 AM, Blogger Jennifer said...

Oops, just noticed the web link on my comment got whacked. It's a PDF extension. Try this:

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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