Events of note Weather

Going Forward Three

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

Dr. Jeff Masters of the Weather Underground wrote an opinion piece on Katrina yesterday that discusses the concept that Katrina was an ‘Act of God’ and therefore something that couldn’t be foreseen. In response he wrote:

A horror unimagined by anyone, except by every hurricane scientist and government emergency management official for the past forty years and more. It was a certainty that New Orleans would suffer a catastrophe like this. Every 70 years, on average, the central Gulf Coast has a Category 4 or 5 hurricane pass within 80 miles of a given point. Sometimes you get lucky–for a while. New Orleans had gone over 150 years without a strike by a hurricane capable of overwhelming the levees. Sometimes you get unlucky. There’s no guarantee that New Orleans won’t get hit by another major hurricane this year. We are in the midst of an extraordinary period of hurricane activity, the likes of which has not been seen in recorded history. Hurricanes Ivan and Dennis, which both had storm surges capable of breaching the levees in New Orleans, smashed into Pensacola in the past year. Either of these storms could have destroyed New Orleans, had they taken a slight wobble westward earlier in their track.

I remember waking up Saturday morning and being astonished that the Mayor of New Orleans had not given a mandatory evacuation notice. The people in the area were acting as if this storm wasn’t going to hit, but all the computer models converged, and in fact had started to converge Thursday night, and it was becoming a certainty it was going to hit, and hit hard. The National Weather Service had given a warning of such Friday, and they are, chatter aside, fairly conservative with their predictions.

Then when the evacuation was given and we heard of the plan–to put all the people into the Superdome, and that people would have to bring with them three days of food and water–it made no sense at all. If Katrina hit and flooded the city, what was important was to make sure that people weren’t in the city, because evacuating them would then be that much more difficult. Even if this wasn’t logistically possible, to leave a mandatory evacuation until Sunday, and to do so into a building that had inadequate water, food, and security, made no sense. .

We knew it was only a matter of time until New Orleans was going to get hit by a major hurricane. Yet the local, state, and federal governments all acted as if they had no real plan for the eventuality–no real intent to prevent loss of life.

According to Dr. Masters, perhaps they didn’t:

But the politicians we elect don’t care about the poor people in New Orleans, because poor people don’t have a lobbyist in Washington. The poor people don’t make big campaign contributions, and those big campaign contributions are vital to getting elected. In all of the Congressional and Presidential races held over the past ten years, over 90% were won by the candidate that raised the most money.

So there was little effort given to formulate a plan to evacuate the 100,000 poor residents of New Orleans with no transportation of their own for a Category 4 or 5 hurricane. To do so would have cost tens of millions of dollars, money that neither the city, nor the state, nor the federal government was willing to spend. Why spend money that would be wasted on a bunch of poor people? The money was better spent on projects to please the politicians’ wealthy campaign contributors. So the plan was to let them die. And they died, as we experts all knew they would. Huge numbers of them. And they keep dying, still. We don’t know how many. Since the plan was to let them die, the city of New Orleans made sure they had a good supply of body bags on hand. Only 10,000 body bags, but since Katrina didn’t hit New Orleans head-on, 10,000 will probably be enough.

However, according to the pundits hereabouts, if Mayor Nagin of New Orleans had used the school buses at his disposal, he would have been able to evacuate at least 16,000 people before the storm had hit. According to a weblogger, Junk Yard Blog, most of the problems would have been averted if they had just used the buses:

Houston is 350 miles from New Orleans. At 50 miles per hour, 13,530 people could have reached Houston in seven hours. Turn the buses around. 14 hours later another 13,530 people are in Houston, far away from Katrina’s wrath. In a little more than a day’s time, you’ve gotten the poorest people who wanted to leave but couldn’t leave on their own out of the city. And you don’t have to drive them as far as Houston. It’s the closest huge city, but there are lots of smaller towns you could ferry people to more quickly. The shorter the drive, the more trips you can make. Pretty soon 26,000 saved becomes everyone saved. If anyone left behind in the storm survives and then loots, at least they’re not endangering thousands of innocent people. Those innocent people aren’t there to be endangered. They’re somewhere else.

Great plan, except for one problem: In most cases, cars moving out of town were moving along at about ten miles an hour, more or less. The roads leading away from New Orleans were packed, bumper to bumper, for hundreds of miles in any direction. Not only would the buses not have been able to get to Houston in 7 hours, to then return in 7 hours again to pick up more people, they probably wouldn’t have been able to get more than a hundred or so miles away. If that. And if you think that these smalls towns you mention so casually could absorb thousands of evacuees, most with no food or water, then you grew up in a small town different than the one I grew up in.

More importantly, there are few things more dangerous than to be in a school bus in the midst of what is predicted to be a direct hit from a category 5 hurricane. Unless you could guarantee that the people would be in safe haven when the storm hit, using ill-equipped buses is at most, a pipe dream, at worst, gross negligence.

That’s not to say that the local government doesn’t share much of the responsibility of this mismangement in a crises. There was no viable plan in place to handle the evacuations of the people; the police did fail in their duty; and after the fact, the local government reacted emotionally, rather than deliberately–spending far too much time jumping about and blaming the government than providing a steady source of support for it’s people.

Compound this, then, with the odd and unexplained delays in mobilizing support at the national level. This latter is what still leaves me puzzled. It is true that we’re told that we’re on our own for the first three days after a major event, and couldn’t count on federal assisstance until then. However, this is for an event that has no prior warning, such as an earthquake. Though predicting hurricanes is chancy, this one storm was almost uncanny in its predictability.

It was going to hit the Gulf Coast. It was going to hit as a bad storm, with category 4 or 5 winds. It was, without a doubt, going to have a huge storm surge. We knew this on Friday. Why, then, was FEMA not in position to enter areas of devastation earlier? Why did we not have troops and support personnel moved into position before the storm, rather than days later?

We can blame the local government for this, for not asking for help in advance and not having better plans in place. We can blame the federal government and FEMA, especially FEMA, for failing at their jobs. We can especially blame FEMA for fostering a dependence on the organization as a whole during disaster, and then not being there when it was particularly needed. Diverting needed monies away from the levees to fund the Iraqi war didn’t help. We can even blame the restructuring of our defense systems into one global Homeland Security, and our de-emphasizing natural disaster coverage in favor of terrorist protection. These all share the blame.

But so do we.

How many times have we heard from those caught unprepared, “But the weather people say a storm of such and such strength is going to hit, and nothing happens.” If the levee had not broken in New Orleans, the damage from the storm would have been very manageable at a local level. If FEMA and the state had mobilized troops and resources, it would have cost millions of dollars, and then the discussion would be why the government didn’t wait until they knew they were needed, first. We are nothing if not consistent when it comes to giving out blame.

We have also neglected our environment, and the fact that levees work against the natural strengthening of the delta region, which would have built up the area surrounding New Orleans. We tish-tosh global warming, when we’re faced with the worst hurricane season in history. We turn the other way when refineries are built in flood prone areas, right next to neighborhoods full of homes. We let people build wherever they will, because it’s to the benefit to have more taxpayers in an area than not.

We buy gas guzzling cars, and don’t encourage the building of mass transit, which means that when a storm like this comes along, energy-wise we’re caught with our pants down.

Worst of all — we haven’t the attention span of a gnat. Already now that the ‘faces’ in the news are out of New Orleans, we’ve moved on to other issues: Rehnquist dying, Iraq, and by god, the cost of gas. Even if we stay focused on New Orleans and Mississippi, we do so as a means of shouting out our political agendas then any real interest in better understanding what happened, and what we as a people need to do to better equip our country to deal with natural disasters.

I was briefly involved with a mailing list over the weekend where folks were upset about Condi Rice being in New York buying shoes while this event was happening. I can understand the anger that she wasn’t ‘at her job’, but in the great scheme of things this was so unimportant. However, it does make the Bush Administration look ‘more bad’. This is then countered by those people who want to make other peoples look ‘more bad’ so that Bush can look ‘more good’.

And no one seems to care about having discussions about what we have to do to make things right–well, other than I think we all agree that Chertoff needs to go. Lots of discussions about rebuilding New Orleans or not, particularly from those seated in New York, Boston, and the Silicon Valley of California (”Of course we shouldn’t rebuild — we can party elsewhere at Mardi Gras.”) Luckily as regards the latter, we’re just webloggers, and so in the due course of events, have no greater influence on what happens than any other person inside, or outside, of the country.

I keep coming back to the knowledge that 1 in 5 people in New Orleans were so poor they didn’t have the means to evacuate. How could we let that happen? Not Bush, not Mayor Nagin, not FEMA or Governor Blanco. How could we have let this happen?

How? Easy: we let it happen.

We don’t vote for the best person for an office, and when we do put someone in office, we don’t hold them accountable.

We should not have let the government subsume FEMA into the Office of Homeland Security, a move guaranteed to damage what was once previously an extremely effective agency. From the LA Times:

The agency’s core budget, which includes disaster preparedness and mitigation, has been cut each year since it was absorbed by the Homeland Security Department in 2003. Depending on what the final numbers end up being for next fiscal year, the cuts will have been between about 2% and 18%.

The agency’s staff has been reduced by 500 positions to 4,735. Among the results, FEMA has had to cut one of its three emergency management teams, which are charged with overseeing relief efforts in a disaster. Where it once had “red,” “white” and “blue” teams, it now has only red and white.

Three out of every four dollars the agency provides in local preparedness and first-responder grants go to terrorism-related activities, even though a recent Government Accountability Office report quotes local officials as saying what they really need is money to prepare for natural disasters and accidents.

“They’ve taken emergency management away from the emergency managers,” complained Morrie Goodman, who was FEMA’s chief spokesman during the Clinton administration. “These operations are being run by people who are amateurs at what they are doing.”

Under the law, Chertoff said, state and local officials must direct initial emergency operations. “The federal government comes in and supports those officials,” he said.

Chertoff’s remarks, which echoed earlier statements by President Bush, prompted withering rebukes both from former senior FEMA staffers and outside experts.

“They can’t do that,” former agency chief of staff Jane Bullock said of Bush administration efforts to shift responsibility away from Washington. “The moment the president declared a federal disaster, it became a federal responsibility…. The federal government took ownership over the response,” she said. Bush declared a disaster in Louisiana and Mississippi when the storm hit a week ago.

(At a minimum, we should demand the resignation of a man who thinks to warn people about the ugliness of the aftermath of Katrina, but who can’t be bothered to put into place prevention of such ugliness before hand. I must join with others when I say in 50 years, I have rarely seen anyone so breathlessly incompetent in government as Chertoff is. )

Yet a question has been raised: how much should the federal government be involved in disasters. The real answer is, when a disaster is such that local resources will quickly be overwhelmed, then the federal government should be involved, as a representative of all of the people. Because we’re all responsible for our neighbors.

Even before this storm, we had responsibilities. We should have, at a minimum, demanded that we as a collective whole provide the means to help the folks of the area break out of the poverty–a poverty which has become part of the culture, itself. We should have willingly given of our tax money to this effect, to help these less advantaged states build better schools, bring in more teachers, and provide more opportunities.

We should have demanded that those who send their manufacturing and other jobs offshore that they consider, instead, setting up business in Louisiana and Mississippi and other states where unemployment is so high, and pay is so low. We should have used our buying power to enforce this–rather than encourage it by buying yet more white, plastic goodies from Apple, and more big jars of pickels at Walmart. Or that second Humvee.

We, we, we. Not they, they, they. We are, ultimately, responsible for Katrina and the after effects.

I’ve finally had to accept today that most likely thousands have died from Katrina. I just didn’t want to believe it, but the stories coming out now, I can’t deny it any longer. It makes no sense that this has happened. It makes no sense that so many people have died. It makes no sense that we have ignored a city where 1 in 5 people live in poverty. We’re talking about sending people to Mars in a decade, and we can’t even protect people in one of our cities from an event we’ve known for over 100 years was going to happen.

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