The Unrepentant Individual

...just hanging around until Dec 21, 2012

September 3, 2005

Katrina: Failure at every level

Watching the tragedy and our response to it over the past week, I have been generally appalled. I’ve been reminded of the situation in third-world countries. When we see disaster on such a large scale “over there”, we tell ourselves that it can’t happen here. After all, this is America. We have the infrastructure, we have the wealth to build structures that can withstand the greatest of earthquakes. We simply should not see the sort of large-scale loss of life in the aftermath of a natural disaster: especially since Katrina was no surprise.

What, then, should we think about this? How is it that we let ourselves fall victim to such a terrible fate? What can we learn to keep this from occurring again?

First, we have to ask ourselves whether this could have been avoided. The answer is undoubtedly yes, but the preparations would have had to start 20 years ago. Why is it, with the possibility of a Category 5 hurricane looming, that this never was never even started? I fear that this is a much more general failure of government. As Neal Boortz put it today, you don’t earn votes by adding redundancy to the radio systems of first responders. You get it by influence peddling and transfers of wealth. We can fault the {corrupt} city government of New Orleans, and all the way up to the feds, but assigning blame for something that was ignored for 25 years won’t get us very far. If anything, this can be a lesson to us. There are threats looming all around us. San Francisco has very stringent safety codes for buildings, due to the prevalence of earthquakes. We need to take threats to places like New Orleans seriously, and make preparations an actual priority.

But what is truly a tragedy is the immediate fallout. First, the evacuation. The evacuation of New Orleans was declared mandatory by the government. As it turns out, most people capable of leaving New Orleans by vehicle did so. I have no sympathy for those who had the means to leave but did not; they made their choice. But there are a huge number of people in the city of New Orleans that don’t have those means. In a pure libertarian world, charities and individuals would have swarmed the city with buses and private cars to sweep these folks to safety. We don’t live in a purely libertarian world, and people in this nation expect the government to be ready for this. Why weren’t they? They suggested the Superdome. I realize they may not have expected the levees to fail and thus for people to be stranded in the Superdome for that length of time, but as early as Saturday and Sunday, people were talking about the fact that the Superdome was designed for 130 mph winds, and winds as high as 175 mph were expected. This, coupled with the fact that it could never have accomodated the 100,000+ people left stranded in the city anyway, and you have a failure. Who’s to blame? Likely the state and local government in the area.

This brings us to the federal angle. Federal disaster management agencies are constantly working up contingency plans for worst-case scenarios. As early as the weekend, they knew how strong this would be. Perhaps the failing of the levees was an unlikely scenario, but I’m sure they know it’s a possibility. That is the time to start talking to the National Guard units and military in the area and brief them on what might be happening. It’s not time to mobilize yet, but time to start logistical planning in case it is needed. As early as Tuesday, we knew the levees had failed and we had a worst-case scenario on our hands. That is time to mobilize in force and get people in there. At that point nobody can claim that we didn’t know what the situation was, it was plastered over every news broadcast in the country.

So what needed to be done? National Guard mobilization is a first step. Are some LA and MS guard units in Iraq? Yes, so if manpower is an issue, we needed the army to roll in. I don’t know too much about who is stationed where, but I do know that Fort Benning, on the Georgia/Alabama border, is about 6 hours from New Orleans. If we had mobilized those troops, they could have been on the ground as early as Tuesday night or Wednesday morning. As I’ve said, a perfect libertarian world would have already had all these problems solved. But as I’ve also said, utopia is not an option. With power knocked out, communications knocked out, and all the infrastructure of the city compromised, private action can’t cut it. The National Guard or military bring their infrastructure with them. Once their on the ground, we have the ability to coordinate and control relief efforts. We have radios, telephones, capable vehicles, fuel for those vehicles, etc. Such widespread destruction requires self-sustaining relief forces to arrive, and in this country, it’s the Guard and army. Where were they? Where was the National Guard? Where was the army? Nowhere to be found. Still, at this point, I don’t put any fault to the President, as he is not supposed to be a logistical leader in times like this.

But all that changed on Wednesday morning. By this time, everyone knew the situation was horrible. Everyone knew that we were seeing large numbers of casualties, people still stranded, infrastructure in the Superdome failing, widespread looting, and general mayhem. It was already understood that the situation was far beyond the capabilities of the {corrupt, looting} New Orleans police department. At this point, not two days later, is when we needed to see Bush light some fires. At that point we knew the response was not adequate, and it certainly didn’t look like anyone was jumping to fix it. Maybe the Mayor and Governor were just too overwhelmed, but it was time for leadership. It was time to call the relief efforts “not acceptable”. It was time to tell people that the cavalry was on its way. And our President didn’t provide it.

So what did we have? Roving gangs of thugs terrorizing anyone they come across. Women being pulled into the bathrooms at the Superdome and raped. Police officers, rather than stopping the looters, joining in. A situation where the only way to ensure your own survival was to have days of supplies, and arm yourself heavily against people who will kill you to get at your belongings. Law and order went out the window. People who were looking for guidance on where to go for safety had to wander around aimlessly, as nobody could tell them where to go or what to do.

Are we finally starting to get things under control? Yes. But everyone was at least two days late, and there is no excuse for that. The ball was dropped at every level. I stood by Bush’s response in the wake of 9/11, because it was a surprise attack and his response was swift and provided the calming and rallying effects that were needed at the time. But he doesn’t get a pass on this. I don’t need to see him putting feet on the ground in Louisiana, but he was two days too late in his response.

In the annals of history, this is going to be written as a logistical failure that far outstrips 9/11. In New York and Washington, the number of people who perished was much lower than it could have been, and was directly a result of the attack. Thousands were saved in the towers by swift coordinated action of the rescuers. In New Orleans, few perished in the hurricane. The death toll will be almost completely due to our failure to prepare for and respond to what happened. In America, that is absolutely unconscionable.

Posted By: Brad Warbiany @ 8:44 am || Permalink || Comments (5) || Trackback URL || Categories: Uncategorized


  1. While I agree with you somewhat in principle, you seem to WAAAY underestimate the logistical difficulties. While it would be nice to think you can snap your fingers and have 10,000 NG troops instantly deployed and ready to go start saving people and protecting property, it just doesn’t happen that way.

    The NG and Army don’t “bring all their infrastructure with them.” They do, ultimately, but the first convoy of humvees and quarter-ton trucks isn’t going to have everything they need to sustain operations in a completely devastated area. There is NOTHING in this area; and more importantly, the transportation infrastructure is completely wiped out. You really need interstate quality four-lane divided highways to properly deploy, due to weight constraints on the military’s transport trucks. These kind of roads are few and far in between in and around NO.

    Until you can get a large number of big trucks in, you can’t support any number of NG troops, because without big trucks, they have nowhere to live, eat, get power, or fuel their trucks.

    Ultimately, my point is that there’s a reason everyone (FEMA, the Red Cross, etc.) tells you to have one weeks worth of supplies on hand in the event of a natural disaster. More often than not, it can take up to one week before there is something resembling a civil infrastructure.

    And that brings us to the pre-disaster contingency planning. Why did Nagin wait until Saturday night to declare a mandatory evacuation? If we’re playing for keeps, (and with a Cat 4/5 hurricane bearing down on a city below sea level, we most definitely are), it seems to make much more sense to err on the side of caution. If we’re supposed to have a weeks worth of supplies on hand in the event of a natural disaster, why didn’t the Superdome have that amount? I understand that we’re talking about a huge amount of supplies, but the problem is that it seems that the NO civil defense and LEMA were piss-poor about getting a contingency plan put together in the event the levees failed. The levees were only built to withstand a borderline Cat 3 hurricane. Katrina was a Cat 5 almost until she made landfall. While I know its too early to be assigning ultimate blame, it seems clear to me, at least, that the Superdome idea was a last ditch “plan” that was devised because LEMA and the NO city government didn’t have one.

    Comment by Mike — September 3, 2005 @ 7:45 pm
  2. Mike pretty well said it. There should have been better plans in place at the nursing homes and hospitals in this case senerio. More personal prepardness. More people ready to leave instead of staying to “stick it out”. The city did not have a plan to help those with no transportation or means of survival. The superdome was a last ditch effort. This storm created havoc in several areas: city flooded, communications down, power down, lack of police protection and a way to handle looters, no viable plan by the city for a Cat. 5 hurricane, etc. Everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong. There will need to be much learning from this tradegy. Today the Modern Marvels show on cable TV had day long programing of disasters. It was very interesting and really did fit in with what happens during something like this. This situation is kind of like Pearl Harbor, in a way. Too many things went wrong. Thank goodness for the American people who are now opening their arms with donations, food, lodging, clothing, etc. This would have been a real tradgey had it not been for loving, caring people all over the country. Thank God for that.

    In my opinion, New Orleans should not be rebuilt. If they do decide to rebuild then they need to raise the level of the city. It would be easier to build somewhere else. New Orleans is just surrounded by too much water. It’s a big gamble.

    Comment by Lucy Stern — September 4, 2005 @ 12:07 am

    Go here for just a taste of some of the logistical hurdles. The author is an ex-Army guy who served in a supply outfit. He’s been posting all week on the extensive difficulties the relief effort is facing.

    The most recent is the fact that the NG’s 2 1/2 ton trucks simply can’t make it from the last place with fixed gas pumps (Tuscaloosa) and NO. So you have to bring in at least one tanker per 2 1/2 truck. And that tanker needs fuel too. And the tanker that brought the fuel for the second tanker is going to need fuel when it gets back to Tuscaloosa.

    I’m not saying there isn’t some blame to be assigned on all levels, I’m just saying that the media is extensively white-washing just how difficult the relief effort really is, and is going to be.

    Comment by Mike — September 4, 2005 @ 2:32 am
  4. Mike,
    I see your point. And problem #1 was the Mayor and state response before it even occurred. Things have come out which show that their own procedures called for using the school buses to evacuate people, and no effort was ever made to do that. That would have saved countless lives.

    While I understand the logistical issues, it sure doesn’t seem that a lot of smart decisions were made, on any level, until about Thursday or Friday.

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — September 4, 2005 @ 4:47 pm
  5. Yeah, the Mayor Nagin Memorial Motor Pool.

    The AAR for this whole charlie-foxtrot is NOT going to be pretty. There is a lot of blame to be assigned, on all levels; you just have to forgive me for the quick jump to the feds defense. I’ve read so much bull in the media about how the federal government should have done this, or the how the federal government didn’t do that, when the truth is that a) LEMA and NO city government really had no coherent plan, and b) disaster response is ultimately a local responsibility. Yes, FEMA can provide lots of money, and the NG can provide lots of manpower, but if the local response isn’t up to snuff in the first 24 or 48 hours, the whole situation goes down the toilet, as we have seen.

    As usual, I just wish the media took the time to tell the WHOLE story instead of Mayor Nagin’s soundbites. (Speaking of those, if I taught a leadership class, I would use the Mayor’s leadership during this crisis as a textbook example of what not to do…but that’s just me.)

    Comment by Mike — September 4, 2005 @ 7:00 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.