Entry: The Harsh Lessons of Hurricane Katrina Saturday, September 03, 2005

What happened in New Orleans? How did things go so terribly wrong, and how can such a total breakdown of civil order be prevented in the future? It's easy to point the finger of blame, but that won't do anything to help the next city that falls victim to disaster -- natural or man-made. We need to look at what went wrong, so similar mistakes can be avoided.

On 27 August 2005, two days before Hurricane Katrina hit near New Orleans, President Bush declared the state of Louisiana a major disaster area. This allowed FEMA, which coordinates state and local disaster relief efforts, to make funds and supplies available to Louisiana Governor Kathy Blanco. Medical supplies, food and water and National Guard units were deployed within a short distance of New Orleans -- short under normal conditions. The Red Cross set up headquarters in Baton Rouge, perhaps 80 miles away.

It's impossible to know precisely where a hurricane will strike land, or where the devastation will fall. If you put your emergency supplies and people too close to the hardest-hit area, then they, too, might be damaged or killed. If you place them too far away, they'll be unable to reach the affected area in time, if at all. Placement of resources does not appear to have been the problem... use of them, however, was a different story.

The residents of New Orleans were informed as much as anyone can be of the dangers posed by Hurricane Katrina. The NOAA issued a bulletin for New Orleans on 28 August 2005, the day before Katrina hit. The bulletin warned that Katrina's strength would rival that of Hurricane Camille. "Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks... maybe longer," it went on to say. "Power outages will last for weeks... as most power poles will be down and transformers destroyed. Water shortages will make human suffering incredible by modern standards." Although the NOAA attributed the anticipated problems to the hurricane itself, the warning was certainly vivid enough.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin declared a state of emergency, and ordered a mandatory evacuation of the city after a personal appeal from President Bush. Some of those who remained behind were too poor to escape via normal public or private transportation. The poorest residents had no way out of town. Photos have shown fleets of school buses still parked in their flooded lots. Why those buses were not pressed into service, no one knows. The City of New Orleans Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan clearly states, "The City of New Orleans will utilize all available resources to quickly and safely evacuate threatened areas," and "Transportation will be provided to those persons requiring public transportation from the area." Part II, Section B, paragraph 5 of the Louisiana Emergency Operations Plan (supplement 1A) states, "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." Public buses only took people to the Superdome, which was clearly not outside the threatened area. The school buses were never used at all. Emergency plans are created for a reason, and need to be followed in order to ensure the safety of the citizens.

Over 200 school buses that did not evacuate 10,000 to 12,000 per trip

After the hurricane had passed, everything seemed normal in New Orleans, though power and communications had been largely cut off. In hindsight, and under similar circumstances in the future, that would be the time to move the National Guard into the area, to gather information if nothing else. With no communications, no one could know the city's situation for sure. The Guard would be the governor's eyes and ears on the ground. But they were not told to move into the city. Then the levee gave way, and moving into New Orleans en masse became nearly impossible.

The levees that protected the city from the Mississippi River and Lake Ponchartrain were partially redesigned and rebuilt to withstand a Force 3 hurricane. The ten-year project to build them up to that level was launched in 1965, but is still incomplete after 40 years. The portion of the levee that collapsed, however, was one that had been completed. The city and state governments took a continuing gamble since the 1960's that no stronger storm would happen to strike New Orleans. Eventually, they were bound to lose... it was only a matter of time. Some critics would like to blame the disaster on the recent reduction of federal funds to the Army Corps of Engineers, but funds have been declining for nearly a decade. According to the Chicago Tribune, "Congress in 1999 authorized the corps to conduct a $12 million study to determine how much it would cost to protect New Orleans from a Category 5 hurricane, but the study isn't scheduled to get under way until 2006."

Lawlessness and looting followed the inrush of water almost immediately, as people began taking what they could get their hands on before the water could claim it all. The city police force and fire department had no way of coping with the hurricane damage, the loss of power and communications, impassable roads and the looters thronging the streets, while simultaneously trying to rescue people from the rising flood without getting trapped themselves. Still, the governor declined to order the Louisiana National Guard into the city to maintain order and help rescue survivors, though the Coast Guard quickly began rescue operations. No call was made to mobilise the National Guard units from other states -- it's as though the existence of the Guard was completely forgotten. 

The Red Cross and other relief agencies could not get supplies into New Orleans until the roads were cleared. Desperation worsened looting, and the crowds packed into the Superdome and the Convention Center descended into chaos, as the food and water began to run low and the facilities became unusable. Other people have been sitting on the roads and parking lots around those areas for days, waiting for the authorities to tell them where to go and what to do. The result is one of the worst humanitarian disasters in American history, a black eye for the entire country, and a lesson plan for our terrorist enemies, who would love nothing better than to cause such chaos and destruction themselves.

The New Orleans disaster should serve as an alarm for every city in America -- not to mention every city, everywhere. Lessons have to be drawn from this that will prevent a repeat during the next crisis, whether it comes from a natural disaster or a terrorist attack. Local and state governments should pay careful attention to what the New Orleans crisis is telling us about how to deal with future problems.

1. Work out emergency plans, and carry them out as closely as possible. If an evacuation is called for under the circumstances, move as many people as possible to as safe a place as possible -- not just across town. Don't plan on keeping them there just for a few hours, but plan for days, just in case. Stage emergency food and medical supplies at places designated as rescue points. If plans are followed, then loss of communication among the authorities won't matter as much -- each government official will have some idea what the others are doing.

2. Maintain law and order. The main obstacle to the food and water distribution and rescue operations has been the rioting looters in the streets, shooting at the rescuers. Those who merely take food and water are making it impossible for others to use it, and impossible for local authorities to commandeer those supplies for the sick and helpless. Inside the refugee centers, there aren't nearly enough police or security guards or hastily-sworn-in deputies to prevent rape, murder, theft and other violence among the angry, hungry crowds.

3. Maintain communications. The people packed into the stadium and convention center are turning hostile mostly because they feel they've been abandoned. Buses and trucks pass them by, feeding and evacuating others according to a plan that isn't being shared. Frustration easily turns to anger, and anger to rage. No one on the outside even knew how many people were jammed into the Superdome and the Convention Center until news trucks made their way to those buildings to report.

4. Use all available resources. The Louisiana National Guard could have done so much in the early hours of this crisis, but they were not utilised. Even a few thousand Guardsmen patrolling the streets would have gone a great deal towards maintaining at least the appearance of law and order -- and appearances can mean a great deal in a city-wide crisis. Press every city-owned bus, dump truck and bicycle into service to transport people to safety if needed.

5. Do not wait for the federal government. There's a reason we pay state and municipal taxes, and it isn't so that our elected officials can sit on their hands and wait for Uncle Sam to bail us out of a crisis. For every inch of red tape in a city bureaucracy, there's a foot of it at the state level and a mile at the federal. Emergencies demand swift action and clear communication to avoid the sort of chaos Katrina has left in her wake.

We will face disasters again, possibly as severe as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The days of ignorant complacency vanished on 9/11 -- an artificial disaster can happen anytime, anyplace. A lesson for the individual here is not to depend on any government, but on yourself. Make sure you always have at least a few days' worth of food and any medicine you need. Keep some bottled water on hand in case of emergency. Above all, keep your head.


September 3, 2005   10:02 AM PDT
Like most plans, they are just words on paper until the disaster happens. Unfortunately, most cities and states spend months and years (and millions of dollars) working on their plans, but fail to follow through on them when a catastrophic event occurs. One problem with grandiose plans is that they are almost impossible to test and you cannot always depend upon the people responsible for key components (they might need rescuing themselves or even dead). And with any such plan, you have to depend upon the people who are to be saved to co-operate. Yes, there is plenty of blame to pass around, to be shared, but hopefully this painful lesson will be a wake-up call to cities on the coast and taken to heart, just as 9/11 was a wake-up call to the country. The outcome and the damage from natural catastrophes, like terrorist attacks, are almost impossible to predict.
September 3, 2005   05:03 PM PDT
What will happen when the city has not been yet rebuilt and another hurricane comes next season?
September 3, 2005   08:37 PM PDT
Oh, but that will never happen! They will say, "based on statistics, the odds of that happening are only 20 percent in a ten year period". It reminds me of the people whose houses burn down in the California wildfires, they rebuild, only to have their house burn down again during the next fire season. Or the people who build in the floodplains in the Midwest, whose houses wash downstream during a flood and say "The same thing happened in the last flood, ten years ago".

Anyone notice that there was one area of New Orleans that had little or no flooding and suffered little wind damage? The French Quarter, the oldest part of the city. Some of the buildings there have been there were built during the late 1700's. I'm sure that the people of New Orleans will point that out as reason to rebuild. (Hopefully, the thugs don't burn it down too soon). What they don't seem to understand is that the French Quarter was most likely built on the only part of the area that is relatively safe from flooding.
Psychic Ferret
September 6, 2005   09:13 AM PDT
A must-read by Ben Stein:


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