The images will be burned into the American consciousness for the rest of our lifetimes. Nearly 50,000 people in two different venues – the Superdome and the city’s massive convention center – living in squalor as desperate and violent as any third world refugee camp. One had to be reminded constantly that these were scenes taking place in a major, modern, industrialized city that just a few short hours ago had been a fully functioning metropolis with all the sanitary, communication, food distribution, and law enforcement facilities of any other American city.
A natural disaster had wiped all that off the face of the earth. And the tenuous bonds that linked the people to government, to each other, and to the faith that sustained them both disappeared in a matter of hours. In its place, nothing; no government and certainly no faith so that the lawlessness and suffering at both the Superdome and convention center became the norm.
What happened next was not the storm’s fault but the fault of government at all levels. It does no good to defend any of the major players, their staffs, or the bureaucracies who at first were confused, then panicked, and finally fell into a stuperous languour that was broken only after massive amounts of aid started to flow on Thursday in the late afternoon, more than 72 hours after the last hurricane force gust of wind moved inland from the stricken city.
Even then the suffering at the Superdome and Convention Center wasn’t over – but with the arrival of the National Guard in force as well as the long awaited and unconscionably delayed busses, there was light at the end of the tunnel. The story of what went wrong is a story of incompetence, stupidity, and just plain misunderstanding.
All bureaucracies need a plan. When you have thousands of people working on a project like “Hurricane Disaster Relief,” everyone in every agency involved has to know where to go and what to do. If not, you get what occurred in New Orleans; a combination of chaos and bureaucratic inertia.
The problem wasn’t that there was no plan. The problem wasn’t that the plans in place weren’t followed. The problem was that there were three different plans being followed by three different bureaucracies with the result being that no one knew who was ultimately responsible for many different and very important things.
By ultimately responsible I mean that in the end, someone has to make a decision. Ideally, this would be the elected officials or their staff heads. The Mayor, the Governor, and the President all rely on their experts to recommend decisions that in a disaster, means the difference between life and death for thousands. What happened to this decision making process occurred because by the time the DHS National Response Plan was activated on Tuesday afternoon – a plan that was supposed to supercede the state and local emergency plans – it was too late to materially affect the conditions in the Superdome and Convention Center.
And because the state and local plans were incomplete and contradictory, people suffered needlessly. One assumes that this is why we have a National Response Plan in the first place; to make sure that local, state, and federal authorities are all on the same page.
There was no reason to delay in initiating the National Response Plan. In fact, as the Chicago Tribune points out in this article, the plan should have been initiated at the latest on Sunday August 28th. Late the previous evening, Blanco had requested that the federal government declare a state of emergency for Louisiana. Such a declaration, using the the correct language, should have automatically triggered a response predicated on a brand new DHS disaster designation, one that had never been used before; Katrina should become an “incident of national significance.”
Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco submitted letters to President Bush on Aug. 27 and Aug. 28, well before Katrina’s landfall, asking for federal help. But the head of the Homeland Security Department didn’t designate the storm an “incident of national significance,” a post-Sept. 11 reform that would trigger the full weight of the federal government, until at least 32 hours after the storm roared ashore on Aug. 29.
(Note: The time period of 32 hours is certainly incorrect. In fact, it was barely 24 hours – about 9:00 AM on Tuesday when the designation was formally announced)
Why the designation was not triggered is currently a mystery. There is no doubt that the massive federal response we saw on Thursday should have arrived on Wednesday at the latest but for the delay in initiating the National Response Plan.
In the meantime, what was going on at the Superdome?
In 1998 when hurricane George threatened the Gulf Coast, 14, 000 people used the Superdome as a “Shelter of Last Resort.” At that time, the New Orleans authorities were reluctant to open the facility but eventually realized it was the only place to put the bulk of people who were not going to take advantage of the voluntary evacuation called for at that time. The people at the dome road out the hurricane in reasonably good shape with sporadic reports of theft and violence. They went home the next day.
There is every reason to believe that the New Orleans authorities did not anticipate the massive numbers of people who would take shelter in the Dome as a result of the mandatory evacuation order issued by the Mayor at 8:00 AM Sunday morning. And because of that, what would have been a desperate situation anyway became hellish.
First, the busses. The city’s Comprehensive Emergency Disaster Plan did not call for the evacuation of the poor, the elderly, and the sick from New Orleans in case of potential disaster. The Tribune points out exactly what the plan called for:
New Orleans’ plan for dealing with its poorest residents during a major hurricane essentially was to cross its fingers. After struggling to come up with an evacuation strategy, New Orleans officials announced in July that they couldn’t provide transportation out of town before a hurricane so residents effectively were on their own.
In fact, RTA busses were to run all day Sunday not ferrying people out of town but rather to the Superdome. The state plan also called for evacuation not out of town, but to “Shelters of Last Resort.”
What these two make very clear is that the press, the left, and racialists like Jesse Jackson have been barking up the wrong tree when it comes to saying that the President “didn’t care” about poor black people.
In fact, they should be pointing the finger of blame at the governments of the City of New Orleans and the State of Louisiana who deliberately planned for the poor, the old, and the sick to be left behind in case of a catastrophic hurricane.
Of course, the reason they planned that way is because there was no earthly way possible to get that many people out of the way of the storm. Could they have evacuated some of them? Of that, there is no doubt. But the question needs to be asked; where? All other designated shelters were full and the state was already opening its less desirable secondary shelters. These secondary refuges were largely without supplies of food and water and would have been unsuitable for long term use.
When Governor Blanco was running around frantically on Wednesday night looking for buses to evacuate the Superdome (it is not clear if she knew about the Convention Center refugees at this point) and telling the National Guard to commandeer school busses for the trip to the Astrodome in Houston, Mayor Nagin was declining the buses on the grounds that they didn’t have bathrooms – a logical position since many of the evacuees were old or sick. And FEMA, who had been promising 500 buses for going on 24 hours had nary a bus to show for those promises. One must assume that Director Brown either had no idea how long it took to get 500 buses to New Orleans or someone was giving him erroneous information.
Even if the federal government declared Katrina “an incident of national significance on Sunday, there is no possible way anything could have been done to evacuate all the old, poor, and sick people who lived in New Orleans. And it will be worse in other, larger major cities. New Orleans has a population of only 475,000. Can you imagine having to evacuate a city the size of New York because of a threatened terrorist nuclear attack?
So the people would be stuck in the Superdome. What happened at the Dome was a direct result of the incompetence and stupidity of local authorities.
People began filing into the Dome at 8:00 AM Sunday morning. There were between 300-500 National Guardsmen along with approximately 150 police from various jurisdictions. There was food and water for approximately 15,000 people for two days. Given the number of people who had taken refuge during hurricane George, this sounds reasonable.
Except it wasn’t reasonable and this wasn’t hurricane George. The Mayor had been told the night before by National Hurricane Center Director Mayfield that this was the worst case scenario hurricane that they had long feared and that water would at the very least “overtop” the levees (not breach. No one at any level of government anticipated a breach or total break in the levees. Certainly not one 200 feet in length). At that point, Mayor Nagin knew that the people in the Superdome were going to be there a while.
How long is a legitimate question that must be asked at any hearings that are held on the disaster response. Since the federal government planned on having the Red Cross handle shelter relief as they usually do and since the Red Cross was barred by state DHS authorities from coming to the aid of people in the Superdome because these same authorities feared that people wouldn’t leave the city (or that people would even come back to New Orleans if they knew there was food and water) a large measure of blame for conditions at the Superdome rests squarely on the shoulders of the locals. Local plans even called for “port-a-potties” to be delivered to the Dome in anticipation of a loss of water. This was never done.
Part of the discomfort in the Dome and Convention Center was due to the lack of toilet facilities after the city’s water system went down late Wednesday. The city’s hurricane plan calls for portable toilets at shelters, but none ever arrived. Nagin said his understanding was that the National Guard was in charge of providing them.
Also, he added, “Our plan never assumed people being in the Dome more than two or three days.”
But perhaps more than anything, this quote from the Mayor reveals what the real problem was; unreasonable expectations:
This is ridiculous,” he said. “I mean, this is America. How can we have a state with an $18 billion budget and a federal government with an I-don’t-know-how-many trillion dollar budget, and they can’t get a few thousand people onto buses? I don’t get that.
First, it was quite a few more than “a few thousand” people. The number is over 75,000 evacuated with another 15-20,000 still to go. To believe that enough busses can be magically transported to a flooded, waterlogged city in a matter of hours to evacuate even just the 50,000 people in the Superdome and Convention Center – many of them sick, dying, and elderly – shows a man who was completely out of touch with reality and who was overwhelmed by events.
THE CONVENTION CENTER
There are no words to describe the stupidity that resulted in the disaster that occured at the Convention Center. Every major media outlet including the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the AP, and the Times Picyune of New Orleans agree; the convention center was not on a list of approved shelters, no plans were made to house people there, and no one ever told FEMA that there were 20,000 (or more) people in and around the convention center to begin with.
Thus did little details slip through the cracks.
What’s even more bizarre is that evidently, no one at FEMA or DHS watched television or read newspapers for 2 days because on Thursday morning, when DHS Director Chertoff was interviewed on NPR he claimed not to have heard that there were refugees at the Convention Center.
But there were and they had been arriving since Tuesday morning.
During the early evening on Monday as more and more people who were flooded out of their homes and could walk made their way to the Superdome, it became apparent that the rapidly deteriorating conditions in the huge building would necessitate opening another shelter. The massive Convention Center would seem to fit the bill. According to this Times-Picyune story, “city officials” were considering it as early as Tuesday morning:
City officials said they might open the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center as a temporary refuge to shelter an estimated 50,000 people made homeless by the storm.
Next, we find that Fish and Wildlife employees are directing people to the Center on Tuesday morning:
A man in a passing pickup truck from the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries finally directed Wallace and the 50 other evacuees under the overpass to the convention center.
But they would find little relief there.
New evacuees were being dropped off after being pulled from inundated eastern New Orleans and Carrollton, pooling with those who arrived on foot. Some had been at the convention center since Tuesday morning but had received no food, water or instructions. They waited both inside and outside the cavernous building.
The influx overwhelmed the few staffers and Louisiana National Guardsmen on hand.
In fact, there was literally no one there. Those few staffers left early. And it’s unclear whether or not there were any National Guardsmen at the Convention Center in the first place.
Did Nagin himself know about the evacuees at the Convention Center? Why yes he did! He even paid them a visit on Wednesday:
“I went there,” he said. “I went through the crowds and talked to people, and they were not happy. They were panicked. After the shootings and the looting got out of control, I did not go back in there. My security people advised me not to go back” after Wednesday, he said.
So the Mayor knew. Did he bother to tell the Governor? Judging by the fact that Blanco called for an evacuation of the Superdome on Tuesday night without mentioning the Convention Center as well as the fact that she visited the Dome twice on Tuesday, one can draw a reasonable conclusion that the Governor was completely in the dark about any evacuees at the Convention Center:
Gov. Kathleen Blanco called for an evacuation of the 20,000 storm refugees from the Superdome after she visited the hurricane-damaged stadium Tuesday evening for the second time of the day.
She set no timetable for the withdrawal but insisted that the facility was damaged, degrading and no longer able to support the local citizens who had sought refuge in the Dome from Hurricane Katrina.
â€œItâ€™s a very, very desperate situation,â€ Blanco said late Tuesday after returning to the capital from her visit, when she comforted the exhausted throngs of people, many of whom checked in over the weekend.
Itâ€™s imperative that we get them out. The situation is degenerating rapidly.â€
Who else knew about evacuees at the Convention Center? The National Guard knew:
The people tell us that National Guard units have come by as a show of force. They have tossed some military rations out. People are eating potato chips to survive and are looting some of the stores nearby for food and drink. It is not the kind of food these people need.
Evidently, there were a whole slew of people in officialdom that knew about the crisis at the Center but failed to do anything about it. Events were quite simply outpacing the bureaucracy’s ability to deal with them.
At around 11:00 AM on Thursday morning, FEMA Director Brown finally acknowledged the human catastrophe at the Convention Center.
We learned about that (Thursday), so I have directed that we have all available resources to get that convention center to make sure that they have the food and water and medical care that they need.
Since there were reporters on the scene at the Convention Center since Tuesday afternoon and all day Wednesday CNN had been showing the horrific scenes of chaos and desperation, one wonders again if anyone at FEMA had a TV (preferably 3) turned to the cable news outlets.
Ultimately, the decision to open the Center in the first place without telling either Blanco’s office or FEMA ranks as the most catastrophically negligent action during the entire botched relief effort. And for that the Mayor is mainly responsible.
Did incompetence play a role in FEMA’s belated response? Jeff Goldstein has made an eloquent and spirited defense of the federal response to the disaster and argues that it represents the most successful response to a natural disaster in history. I can’t argue with that…too bad it started about 24 hours too late. Whether incompetence or sheer bureaucratic inertia had something to do with that, let’s hope the hearings into the disaster response will reveal the truth.
Michelle Malkin has some interesting “Post Mortem” links on Katrina including Jeff Goldstein’s Newsweek takedown.