Friday, September 09, 2005

Katrina's Aftermath  

Wow. Well, I've been meaning to post a wrapup to follow up my previous entry, but the unfolding events in New Orleans have left me a little shell-shocked. It's been difficult to gather my focus enough to write a coherent entry. This is going to be a long one, because I have dozens of links and a lot of pieces to put together.

As you probably know, the situation in New Orleans started out bad, and then went from bad to worse. But it didn't even slow down at that point -- it quickly passed through awful, lingered a while in horrific, sped up as it passed through OMG, and ended up somewhere in "WTF is going on!?"

Throughout the past week I've relied upon several sources for information. Many of those were the links I shared with you in my last entry. But I've also been very impressed by how thoroughly the reader-contributed diaries at Daily Kos (in the sidebar on the right side) have covered the situation. Daily Kos is a political blog with a large community from the left and center. As with any community blog, like Slashdot, you have to sometimes take things with a grain of salt. There are occasional wacky conspiracy theorists who read and post there, but there are also economists, scientists, authors, engineers, members of Congress, you name it.

What happened

Southern Louisiana and the city of New Orleans specifically were declared a national emergency on August 27th, just prior to the hurricane's arrival. Then the governor of Louisiana requested specific funds and relief resources from the federal government the day before the hurricane arrived. Here's the governor's request for aid, dated August 28th, and the President's response, dated August 29th.

I originally thought the local authorities had dropped the ball on early evacuation, but it appears that I might have been mistaken. The New Orleans area started evacuation and contraflow on Saturday, two days before the storm's Monday landfall. That's not bad. I think the problem was that people didn't take the hurricane seriously until everyone else was taking it seriously, so for many people evacuation waited until nearly the last minute. There was to my knowledge no coordinated attempt to use buses or trains to evacuate people without cars over the weekend.

Just before the hurricane arrived, many people who either chose not to or could not evacuate (many because they did not have cars, and there was no plan for using public transportation to evacuate) were moved out of the city of New Orleans into temporary shelters at the Superdome and convention center. Other scattered pockets took refuge elsewhere in the city. Some people are angry over this because it was unknown even at the time whether the Superdome could withstand the expected winds, which were expected to be up to 150mph. But I think this anger is misplaced. This was the right move. For the short duration of the hurricane, the Superdome was probably the safest place to be. There is no situation in which the Superdome would have been less safe than a house in New Orleans: if the wind had been strong enough to rip the roof off the Superdome, it would have been more than strong enough to flatten an ordinary home. Evacuating to large, well-built structures like the Superdome and convention center was absolutely the right thing to do for the duration of the hurricane.

I have to qualify that statement with "for the duration of the hurricane", of course, because of what happened next.

Astonishingly, the drowning city of New Orleans was closed off and nobody was allowed to enter or leave. For the people trapped in the flooded, burning city there was literally no place to go. The convention center and Superdome turned from safe havens into hellish deathtraps -- with nobody allowed in or out there was no food, no water, no sanitation, no medicine, no nothing. And this continued, unbearably, for days and days. As people were rescued from other areas of the city they were sent to one of these two locations, which only served to increase the crowding and filth because nobody was being let out. As Geraldo Rivera pointed out in this must-watch emotional TV horror show, they could have just walked right out if they'd been allowed to.

It went on like that not for one day, not for two days, not for three days... but continued and grew worse over FIVE DAYS until finally, mercifully, someone got their act together. The human conditions down there are still awful this week, but the evacuation seems to be finally proceeding forward.


So who is responsible?

FEMA: To begin with, there appears to have been an utter breakdown in the effectiveness of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. These are the guys that are supposed to move very quickly and mobilize state and local resources to handle emergencies and save lives. Instead of saving lives, we get lists like this from Constructive Interference:

There's even more in the full story on CI. It seems pretty clear that rather than aiding and directing relief efforts to where they were needed most, FEMA acted as an awful hindrance to relief.

Some ugly stories have come out about several of the leaders of FEMA. It's getting tedious to link everything, but essentially a lot of the leadership seems to be Bush cronies with no prior emergency management experience. Here's more on FEMA director Michael Brown (college roommate of Bush's campaign manager), Chief of Staff Patrick Rhode (Bush's campaign event manager), and Deputy Chief of Staff Scott Morris (marketing director and media strategist for Bush's campaign). None have any previous emergency response experience to speak of; their positions appear to be political patronage and nothing more. [Update: TIME magazine reports that Brown's resume appears to be thoroughly padded, making him a great deal less qualified than he claims -- which wasn't very qualified to begin with.] Whether by malice or incompetence, it seems likely that people like these appear to have utterly crippled FEMA's ability to respond.

The Executive Branch of Government: Yes, not the legislative or judicial branches of government... this was a failure of the executive. In our country we have the guys that make the laws, the guys that interpret the laws, and the guys that enforce the laws. This was a complete and utter failure of enforcement and execution.

A lot of people are angry at George Bush. A very few people are still trying to defend him, even though Bush's actions seem more and more indefensible every day. Here's my take: Although Bush wasn't running FEMA, he appointed the people that were. As President he had a responsibility to pick capable directors, and it's becoming clear that he didn't do that. Bush also sets the budget for FEMA, which by all accounts has been slashed considerably. (Why? Take your pick: tax cuts for the rich, or the war in Iraq, or both. But that's another topic.)

The hell of it is that just last year FEMA and New Orleans ran a training scenario that is chillingly similar to what actually happened with Katrina. The scenario was entitled "Hurricane Pam". The first part of the training involved simply running through the scenario and seeing what happens. That was completed, but many loose ends were discovered -- including the fact that evacuees in the Superdome and other areas would be stranded with no place to go. The second part of the training, where plans would have been developed to fix all the things that went wrong during the exercise, was dropped due to a lack of funding.

Like him or not, Bush is the de facto leader of our country. And dammit, the leader of our country should be proactively handling things like a leader. Take responsibility, fire people that screw up, get in there and do it yourself if you have to. That's the American way. Don't cower and hide and blame everything on your subordinates. (Unfortunately that's sometimes the American way too, but we're not as proud of that one.)

But Bush and the people under him have shown absolutely no leadership -- in fact, negative leadership. Really what we're seeing is that they have bungled it just absolutely beyond all recognition, and are too busy patting each other on the back to notice what the entire rest of the country has noticed -- that it's a giant steaming clusterfuck. I'm half afraid that we're just going to see Medals of Freedom all around and Michael Brown will be rewarded with a Supreme Court nomination. That really might make me lose it.

Some of Bush's defenders have pointed out that hey, the mayor of New Orleans and the governor of Louisiana may share some of the blame. That's very possible. But all the documents and interviews I've seen suggest that they were screaming upward in the hierarchy for help even before the hurricane hit, and everything went to FEMA, who proceeded to drop the ball. FEMA could only be overridden by DHS (represented by Chertoff) or by Bush himself, neither of whom did anything. Under the mayor and governor prior to the hurricane, New Orleans achieved about 80% evacuation which isn't bad. And moving everyone who was left to the Superdome for the duration of the hurricane was the right thing to do. It really sounds like FEMA was the big screwup. Still, the mayor and governor are part of the executive branch too, so they will have to be open and accountable to the public for their actions as well.

(Some of the dumber or more desperate Bush apologists have been trying to claim that the mayor and governor should have ALL of the blame, leaving Bush and FEMA scot-free -- which is just a brown, drippy, steaming crock of bullshit.)

Update: Newsweek just published an article entitled "How Bush Blew It". Despite the unflattering title, it does not lay all the problems at Bush's feet. It's actually a pretty fair all-around discussion of the events and mistakes and problems of the executive branch's response to the storm. It reads like a strikingly honest assessment, which is something I'm not used to seeing from the press after several years of Iraq war cheerleading. Neither Bush, Chertoff, Brown, Blanco, nor Nagin come out looking all that good, frankly, though some look better than others.

The Legislative Branch: There were failures in the legislative branch as well. Repeated abominations like the pork-filled transportation bill have diverted federal funds from where they can do the most good. (In this year's version, Alaska was awarded over $400 million to build bridges to a Senator's vanity... for no viable economic reason whatsoever.) Forward-thinking programs that would have slowed or reversed the erosion of the buffer around New Orleans were cut. Those are not as immediate as the failures in the executive branch, but the legislature's problems are more subtle and more entrenched, and probably more difficult to solve.

Southern Racism: [Added Sep 9th at 3:45pm.] It's coming out that the police chief of Gretna, Louisiana was apparently responsible for pinning people in New Orleans. The people who were trapped were predominantly black.

In an interview with UPI, Gretna Police Chief Arthur Lawson confirmed that his department shut down the bridge to pedestrians: "If we had opened the bridge, our city would have looked like New Orleans does now: looted, burned and pillaged."

I don't think active 'drown as many darkies as we can' racism was at play here. (In the deep South you never know -- but I'm going to at least attempt to give him the benefit of the doubt. For now.) But if it's not that, then it's absolutely a matter of race-based fear, the fear that comes as a result of practical segregation. That fear is strengthened by what's called 'structural racism', a long-standing problem in the US where race and economic class are tied together, and racial divisions strengthen class divisions and vice versa.


Wow. I haven't I haven't even had a chance to get into the economic effects -- such as gas never seeing the underside of $3.00/gallon again because of damage to refineries and drilling, or heating costs quadrupling from 2003 prices because of damages to the natural gas supply from the Gulf. Or the environmental effects -- at least 20 drilling platforms were destroyed and are uncapped, and several large oil storage tanks have started leaking. Or the effect on our status as 'superpower', which appears to have been largely erased as a stunned world sees the country utterly unable to handle a thoroughly predictable disaster. (Although you know, a little dose of realism may be a good thing.) Or the very real possibility that all of the above economic effects will crash the housing bubble and start a real, full-fledged depression in the US and in the world.

But for now at least I can't go on. I need a break, and you probably do too.

I pray for everyone in the region, and I pray for our country. We badly need to regain our senses and do it quickly.

If you haven't donated yet, now is the time. I recommend giving to the Red Cross first. If you have anything left over, the ASPCA is doing what they can for the animals in the region. Both are fine organizations with a lot of able volunteers who will make your dollar go far.