Monday, September 05, 2005

Plenty of Blame to Share for Katrina Disaster in New Orleans

Topics of discussion on Advance Indiana do not typically include hurricanes and natural disasters. But with a disaster of biblical proportions hitting New Orleans and the Mississippi gulf coast, it is difficult to ignore. As the nation watched conditions in New Orleans disintegrate into the worst of third world conditions in a matter of 24 hours, our great "super power nation" status could not have appeared more vulnerable. Even as tens of thousands in the storm's wake awaited rescue, the blame game at all levels of government reached unprecedented heights. While it is critical that everyone remain focused on the most important mission-search and rescue-it is clear that there are many factors which contributed to failures in the storm preparedness and recovery efforts for Hurricane Katrina, and there is plenty of blame to share.

A little more than two weeks ago, I attended my legal fraternity's convention in New Orleans, which was held at the Royal Sonesta Hotel in the heart of the French Quarter on Bourbon Street. Welcoming my fraternity to the Big Easy, was New Orleans young and ambitious reformed-minded Mayor, Ray Nagin. In many ways, Nagin is an unlikely person to be mayor of New Orleans. He was a successful business executive-owner of Cox Broadcasting before being elected mayor at the age of 45 with no prior political experience. He was an outsider who abhored the good ole boy system that had ruled the city for decades. In his first term he vowed to improve government services and fight the city's corrupt political system. To that end he has fired hundreds of city workers and sent scores of corrupt city officials to prison. A very self-confident, if not cocky, individual, he has made his share of enemies in the city by ending the business as usual mindset that has guided a bloated and ineffectual bureacracy for so long. As the mayor faced the greatest challenge of his life in leading the city through the disaster, he was handicapped by the deeply divided city, including many disgruntled public servants.

While welcoming tourists to a city is tantamount to a community that depends so much on tourism for its economic vitality, Mayor Nagin was quick to warn his friendly visitors not to stray from the safe confines of the French Quarter, ever mindful of the city's high crime rate. Nearly 70 percent of the city's population is African-American, and it is one of the nation's poorest cities. This is a side of the city few tourists ever see. The gulf between the haves and have nots could not be more pronounced than it is in New Orleans. The role the racial and economic divide of this city had in what unfolded during the hurricane disaster cannot be understated.

Flash forward to Saturday, August 27, 2005. Hurricane Katrina had just reached hurricane status the evening before as it reached the shores of Florida's east coast on the southern edge of Ft. Lauderdale and by Saturday morning had reached the warm gulf waters moving in a southwestern direction just north of Key West, Florida. Hurricane experts immediately began projecting an eventual northward path that would take the storm anywhere from the hard hit Floridia panhandle to the Louisiana coast near New Orleans. I remember watching television coverage of the storm's strengthening during the day on Saturday and wondering why no evacuation orders were being issued for New Orleans. I've known for many years that New Orleans sits in a bowl below sea level, protected by a series of canals and levees constructed by the Army Corp of Engineers. With nearly a half million in the city and over a million in the metropolitan area, it would take time to evacuate such a large population with limited routes out of the city. It had long been predicted by many experts that a direct hit would have a devastating impact on the city, killing tens of thousands and flooding the entire city for months.

As Katrina revved her engines, most went about their daily business. Television news broadcasts showed the French Quarter alive with party revelers and few residents making preparations for the storm. Then something happened that has never happened before. Max Mayfield of the National Hurricane Center personally telephoned Mayor Nagin to express his concern that the danger facing New Orleans from the approaching storm had never been greater and the potential for a direct hit from a Category 5 hurricane was increasingly becoming apparent. Mayfield urged Mayor Nagin to order an immediate evacuation. Remarkably, Mayor Nagin waited more than 10 hours after speaking to Mayfield before heeding his warning and ordering an evacuation of the city late Sunday morning, August 28, 2005. The evacuation order came less than 20 hours before the city would begin feeling the effects of the approaching deadly storm.

Even more troubling than the late hour call for the evacuation was the complete lack of a plan for evacuating the areas' one million plus residents. The city's limited routes out of the city quickly became a slow moving procession westward and northward. For those lacking transportation out of the city, including the city's large poor population, people with special needs and out-of-town tourists, who were stranded when airlines unconscionably cancelled all flights out of Armstrong airport on Sunday, many had no choice but to stay behind and face the storm. No city buses or other forms of public transportation were available to these people. This after countless numbers of studies and hundreds of millions invested by federal, state and local government for emergency preparedness. The only public shelter made available to those with no opportunity to leave the city was the Superdome, which experts said could withstand 150-mile an hour winds. More than 10,000 persons made their way to the Superdome on Sunday, not knowing that the city had made no advance preparations for housing and feeding them in this confined setting with inadequate security to maintain order.

Another important pre-storm note to make. Governor Kathleen Blanco made no effort to call up Louisiana National Guard troops to either assist in the evacuation of the city's residents prior to the storm or in the search, rescue and policing effort in the first days following the storm's impact. She had that power. There were troops available to aid in the evacuation and the search and rescue effort--they are not all in Iraq as had been falsely reported in the days after the storm hit. Blanco's failure to activate those troops in advance or immediately after the storm hit would play an important role in the break-down in the search and rescue efforts in New Orleans. Likewise, federal authorities did not make preparations for the use of military personnnel under its control to aid in either pre or post-storm efforts. Given the economic and national security importance of keeping the Port of Orleans up and running, it is simply unacceptable that so little pre-planning had been done by federal, state and local authorities for a dire situation everyone knew was unavoidable. The public has invested billions in the past for this very effort, and we now know that those funds were completely misspent with the worst of tragic outcomes, causing needless loss of life.

As Hurricane Katrina approached Saturday night, hurricane forecasters began predicting a path that would take the storm to the east of New Orleans, seemingly sparing the city from the brunt of the storm we were told. But would it? Hurricane experts at Lousiana State University didn't think so. They prepared a flood prediction report over the weekend prior to the storm making landfall that showed a worst case scenario even if the storm skirted to the east of the city, which is exactly what happened. The winds from the back-side of a storm as powerful as Katrina would be enough to overrun the city' northside levees along Lake Pontchartrain. The experts at LSU quickly e-mailed their findings to Mayor Nagin, Governor Blanco, FEMA and state and local emergency response agencies, warning of the likely catastrophic flooding of the city based upon its projected path, more than 24 hours before the storm hit!

So as the storm ripped through eastern New Orleans and the southern Mississippi coast on the morning of Monday, August 29, 2005, no one in a position of power at the federal, state or local level with the ability to act seemed to comprehend the impending doom the area faced. I was amazed by the early reports after the eye of the hurricane moved north and east of New Orleans. The city had been spared the brunt of the storm we were told--there was only limited flooding in the city's far eastern neighborhoods, which also happened to be where some of the city's poorest residents resided. The touristy French Quarter was has high and dry, with limited wind damage, and that seemed to be all that needed to be known. Reporters on the scene seemed to remain in place, making little effort to scout the city and learn for themselves the extent of the damage. Fox News had a reporter showing rising water on I-10, but she knew nothing about why it was rising. There were no warnings that people who had stayed behind needed to evacuate their homes immediately to avoid the rising waters. If there had been a warning, how would it have been made. The city was completely without power and most people who remained behind were in a communications blackhole.

Dissatisfied with the national news coverage, I stumbled upon, the website for a local CBS affiliate in New Orleans. The station had re-located to the LSU campus soon after the storm hit due to rising waters at its broadcast location near the French Quarter, and had begun broadcasting live on the internet. The station was in the midst of a live state of the city report from Mayor Nagin--a report that could not have been more stunning. Yes, two levees had been breached and more than 80 percent of the city would seen be underwater, including the Superdome and the city's two airports.

I would also learn to my amazement from a WWL-TV report that the only evacuation center at the Superdome and the neighboring convention center was one of the lowest sites in the city. WWL-TV had reporters throughout the city and provided from the air images reporting on the devastation, all absent in the national reporting. A WWL-TV blogsite reporting up to minute developments online in the aftermath of the storm were breathtaking. Slowly, thousands of refugees began making their way to the Superdome and elevated highways in seach of assistance. The worst case scenarior had indeed happened if you were listening to WWL-TV, but if you were listening to national broadcasts, you would not learn it until well into the day on Tuesday, an utter failure on the part of our nation's largest news broadcasters.

Watching the WWL-TV broacast, you could see Mayor Nagin's complete frustration building. Efforts to begin repairing the breach in the levees was to have started on Tuesday. By Tuesday night, a storm-tired Nagin would complain that there were too many chiefs--someone had forgotten to send the helicopters needed for the effort to fix the levee breaches. Governor Blanco in public appearances seemed to allow her human emotions to take over and left public doubts about her ability to lead during a time of crisis. There was no one like Mayor Guiliani who so ably rose to the occasion of leading New Yorkers and the nation to an extent through the 9-11 attacks.

WWL-TV now reported that the levee breaches had now grown from relatively small breaks to several block-long breaks, meaning that the repair effort would take much more time than earlier anticipated. Worse yet, complete lawlessness had taken over many parts of the city, including the tony French Quarter section. Police and firefighters had to choose between search and rescue and policing, most chose the former. A few chose to join the looters and forget their public safety responsibilities entirely to the detriment of the very citizens they were sworn to serve. By week's end, at least two would commit suicide, while dozens of others turned in their badges in complete frustration.

Conditions at the Superdome and convention center became unthinkable. The squalid conditions evacuees were expected to live in were a national disgrace. A lack of security, food, water and health care, led to a complete break down in order. Several shootings occurred, including several which resulted in death. Women were being raped, children were being molested, people were dying from a lack of health care, and dead bodies were stacking up with no place to go. Thousands more remained stranded on their roofs or in their flooded homes throughout the city with faint hope of being rescued for days.

As word spread throughout the world of the events in New Orleans, the United States' venerable reputation for providing for its own people and helping the needy throughout the world became tattered. After four long days of needless suffering, federal help in the form of military troops and equipment finally arrived, but only after a near-complete breakdown by Mayor Nagin as he swore and cried on live TV begging someone to help. Finally, after four long days, much-needed federal troops would arrive to help restore order and aid in the evacuation efforts.

The airlift of evacuees and the life-saving rescues by our men and women in uniform were a welcome relief. It gave us hope that we were still a nation of good and great people with a unique ability to achieve greater things than any nation before us. As I write, word has come that the Army Corp of Engineers has succeeded in reparing the breached levees. The now-toxic waters are finally receding. But for the people of New Orleans, the extent of the human toll is still being counted. Many expect the death toll to be in the tens of thousands. It will be at least 9 months before the city's residents will be able to return to a partially re-opened city.

A storm of the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina cannot be stopped--it is afterall an act of nature, or an Act of God, whichever you prefer. But the loss of life suffered in New Orleans was completely avoidable with adequate planning and preparation. The taxpayers of the United States, Louisiana and New Orleans have been funding these efforts for decades to avoid this very scenario. It seems to me that officials at all levels of government must share in the blame, but for now, let's focus on what has do be done to restore this devasted community and life-line for our nation's economy.


Anonymous said...

You editorialized the conservative “plenty of blame to share” point-of-view with remarkable skill. However, after reading nearly 2500 words pointedly expressing your take on how to spread the blame you incredibility wrapped it all up by admonishing your readers that now is not the time for them to do the same!

So here’s one liberals’ thought… the long process of determining accountability NOW does not preclude the ability to focus on what has do be done NOW to restore these devastated communities; it demands it.

Gary R. Welsh said...

Your point is well taken. I should have been more precise in my writing. I don't disagree with your statement that we can't do both--just so we don't allow the former to consume the latter.

Anonymous said...

I did not say we can not do both...what I said was "determining accountability now DOES NOT peclude (as in prevent)the ability to..." DO BOTH.


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