Monday, September 4, 2006

New Orleans: Who is to Blame?

For purposes of this discussion, I'm going to divide the people of New Orleans into these groups:

Group A: You heard the warnings to get out, and got out. Good for you. You may have lost property, but you exercised good judgement and consequently are not part of the current problem. Thank you.

Group B: You heard the warning, and chose to stay either out of stubborness, or to protect your property, which was lost anyway. Your stubborness has needlessly added to the rescue effort. You're at the end of the help line as far as I'm concerned.

Group C: You wanted to get out, and had the means to get out, but felt you needed to stay to protect loved ones who were unable to get out. Your willingness to sacrifice yourself was noble. Some folks will say that you just added to the number of victims (one of the arguments for NOT jumping into save a drowning victim unless you are trained). I won't be that harsh, because I'm sure I couldn't leave an invalid parent behind if I couldn't get them out.

Group D: You wanted to get out, but didn't have the means. These are the people we failed.

So the specific question: Who should have been taking care of Group D?

US Army Corps of Engineers: I hope the Corps of Engineers gave an adequate appraisal of the risk of the levies failing. It seemed to me that the civilian authorities were most worried about a storm surge coming over the levies. That would have been bad, flooding a great deal of the city. But the presumption would be that once new water stopped coming into the city, the pumps could begin getting it back out immediately. By now (a week later), the water level would be much lower.A complete failure of the levies is clearly much worse. Not only does the water rise to the highest possible level, it's going to stay there until the levies are repaired and a great deal of water is pumped out. It just doesn't seem like anyone considered this possibility...

The Mayor of New Orleans: The Mayor has been making a lot of noise, emphasizing his words with profanity presumably to show the people how mad he is. However, it seems to me that no government official should have been more acutely aware of the potential risks and therefore have taken precautionary steps. It seems like it would have been entirely within his power to commandeer the Superdome before the storm and get it stocked with all the supplies needed to handle a worst-case-scenario, which is pretty much what happened. New Orleans has been threatened with this kind of catastrophic flooding for decades. Why didn't this mayor or any of his predecessors take the initiative to get a disaster plan put together? He could have been on the news a year ago saying: "I want to prepare for a total flood out that traps tens of thousands of people in the city. I can't do it alone -- the state government and FEMA needs to help." I would rather hear him bitch about not getting help in making a plan than point fingers after the disaster takes place.

The Governor of Louisiana: Like the Mayor, she could taken some initiative to prepare for a disaster of this magniture. She has lots more resources than the Mayor, including the Louisiana National Guard. The plan should have been drawn up years ago, and activated in stages as the probability of the storm hitting went up. She could have helped provide resources for the evacuation of the folks in Group D. She could have had Louisiana National Guard bases prepared to be temporary shelters for evacuees. She could have worked deals with governors of other states to lend resources (e.g. National Guard and police units) and evacuation sites.

The Federal Government: Gee, back in the Cold War days, these guys drew up a zillion plans for going to war with the Soviets, and ran enormously expensive war games to try out elements of those plans. Someone, the Corps of Engineers, FEMA, the Pentagon -- someone could have drawn up those plans and mobilized thousands of troops to be ready.

Hopefully we learned some lessons with this disaster. New Orleans is not the only city which can be impacted this way. What about the Big Earthquake on the west coast? Can't say we don't have warning. How about a tornado that finally rips through a big city, like Columbus OH where I live? What if the terrorists had loaded the airliners with nuclear waste before crashing into to the World Trade Center and the Pentagon?

When I was a kid, the entire country had made preparations for a nuclear war with the Soviets. The military had its bunkers in Cheyenne Mountain (and maybe deep under the Pentagon). The Congress was going to bail out to the Greenbriar (those guys are no fools). The President and Cabinet would go to Mount Weather. The rest of us were told to build fallout shelters in our basement and stock them. In the cities, every building had signs posted directing people to the public fallout shelters.

Seems like it is worth it to apply similar effort to preparing for city sized disasters. We know what is needed. Let's not get lazy again.

Mr Mayor: If you want to be a real leader, be a man and admit that you could have done more to prepare your city. Then volunteer to run a federal commission that oversees the development of a plan in cooperation with the state and local governments of our largest cities.

Mayors of other major cities: Use this as a lesson and TAKE RESPONSIBILTY FOR MAKING A PLAN.

FEMA: This is your job, and you blew it. Heads should roll.

Mr President: Put LtGen Honore in charge of FEMA. Make it a 4 star CINC command under the DoD. They're the only guys with the resources, leadership and organization to run something of this magnitude.

Citizens: When the man says "Get Out!" - LISTEN!!

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