I originally posted this as Special Saturday feature: Who’s to blame?
on Saturday, September 3, 2005. Now, here it is, March 2, 2006, and it seems like nothing has changed, and this is still as relevant now as it was then.
Well, this will probably just piss off everyone. So be it:
Let’s start with obvious facts. It was (or should have been) common knowledge that the New Orleans levee system could not withstand a strike by anything greater than a Category 3 hurricane. The nearly hysterical National Weather Service warning issued on Sunday before Katrina hit should have been sufficient warning to everybody concerned–citizens, City, State, and Federal government–to get off their asses and take whatever steps were necessary to get everyone out of New Orleans. But this didn’t happen. Years of near-misses, lucky breaks, and false alarms lulled everyone into a mindset where “it wouldn’t be that bad.” It is this mindset that the infamous NWS warning was trying to break. Unfortunately for the thousands of dead and displaced, too many people continued to believe that “it can’t happen here.”
With that preview, let’s look at all of the parties to this disaster and Monday-Morning-Quarterback their responses:
1. The People of New Orleans.
The people of New Orleans failed in their responsibility as citizens of the United States: to take individual and personal responsibility for their own safety. The stories of individual citizens taking independent action to improve their condition and/or escape the disaster are few and far between. We know one person commandeered a school bus[*1] and took some others out of the area. While I don’t want to endorse stealing school buses, more stories like this where individuals took appropriate action to get themselves and others out of danger would be of some comfort. Instead, we’re treated to hour after hour of the TV news channels showing passive victims complaining about the horrible conditions there.
It’s not as if the people of New Orleans did not have plenty of warning. On July 24th, they were basically told “you’re on your own.”[*2]
Each time you hear a federal, state or city official explain what he or she is doing to help New Orleans, consider the opening paragraphs of a July 24 story in the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
“City, state and federal emergency officials are preparing to give the poorest of New Orleans’ poor a historically blunt message: In the event of a major hurricane, you’re on your own.”
The story continues:
“In scripted appearances being recorded now, officials such as Mayor Ray Nagin, local Red Cross Executive Director Kay Wilkins and City Council President Oliver Thomas drive home the word that the city does not have the resources to move out of harm’s way an estimated 134,000 people without transportation.”
The victims huddling on the I-10 or in and around the Superdome have some questions to answer. Why are you here? What did you do to get out, or even to prepare for this day? The level of my sympathy for the victims is in direct proportion to the quality of the victims’ answers to those critical questions. They are not completely innocent here. They were warned.
2. The New Orleans city government. As discussed above, the New Orleans city government had no plan to evacuate the city in the predictable case of levee breaks and major flooding. This is criminally irresponsible in my opinion. The City government failed in its primary responsibility–to ensure the security of its citizenry. No amount of Mayoral tantrum-throwing will change that fact.
The pictures of a huge school bus farm completely under water says volumes about the failure of the city government to plan for and react to this level of disaster.
3. The Louisiana state government.
State government knew, or should have known, that New Orleans was unprepared for major flooding. As the hurricane approached, The Governor as well as the mayor had to be prodded by President Bush to order an evacuation[*3] for which we now know that they had no plan or capability to carry out. The City of New Orleans essentially ceased to function in the aftermath of Katrina. The thousands of storm victims huddling on I-10 testify to that. Louisiana should have stepped in and aggressively took control after it became obvious that the City could not manage the situation and provide order. It did not. Like the Mayor and New Orleans city government, the Louisiana Governor and Louisiana State Government have much to answer for.
4. The Federal government.
The Federal government knew that something extremely bad was about to happen. The Corps of Engineers knew that the levees could not withstand any hurricane above Category 3. The National Weather Service was well aware of the imminent danger. President Bush pleaded with the Mayor and the Governor to order an evacuation. But it wasn’t enough. The President should have canceled his regular schedule (including a seemingly oblivious San Diego speech/photo op and some wrongheaded appearance where Bush strummed a guitar) and gone to Houston or Washington, and immediately ordered the Homeland Security and Defense departments to full disaster response readiness status.
5. The disaster reaction system.
The disaster response system in the U.S. is tiered, matching our political structure. That is, local governments have primary responsibility to manage incidents. This responsibility flows “upward” to the State and to the Federal government as the scale of emergency incidents grow. A key assumption is that disaster response will be escalated appropriately from level to level. So, Federal authorities wait for State requests, and State authorities wait for requests for local governments. It’s obvious that this system is no longer adequate. The Federal government can’t assume that the State will be able to communicate its disaster response requirements, and the State can’t assume that local governments will be able to ask for what they need.
If you’re inclined to think that way, the hurricane was a Lesson. What should we learn?
Have I blamed everyone yet? No? Read on . . .
1. Individual citizens must take real responsibility for their own lives. Victims have complained that they were “treated like cattle.” Well that’s probably because you were acting like cattle. Stop acting like cattle. You’ve got a human brain, hands, legs, and arms. You’ve got ears and a mouth. If the “authorities” aren’t handling the situation, get together with those around you, and figure out something yourself. I think my stand here is pretty clear.
2. Take warnings seriously. Humans want to sugar-coat things and tend to believe that dangerous situations are not really that bad and/or will turn out well in the end. Over and over, we see how dangerous this tendency is. The higher you are in government, the more essential it is to take warnings seriously, because the consequences of blowing off a threat get larger and larger as you move from local to State to Federal government.
3. Always be prepared–individually and at all levels of government. Having worked for a while in private industry on disaster recovery plans, I am well aware that your response plan depends primarily on your initial assumptions. Figure out what the worst-case scenario is, and then figure out how it could be worse. That’s what you plan for.
Nobody wants to think about disasters and disaster response/recovery. It goes back to the fundamental human attitude of “it can’t happen here.” If you make that assumption, you’re dead. We all, at every level, need to take time and spend money up front to ensure that our personal and our governmental disaster plans are both reasonable and are up-to-date. Maybe we need to have an annual Federal Disaster Preparedness Day, where normal activities are suspended and the entire country reviews and updates our personal, corporate, and governmental disaster plans.
The larger the disaster, the longer the list of missed opportunities, mistakes, and failures to take appropriate actions at the appropriate time. Katrina is one of the biggest. No one, not the victims huddled on I-10, not the President, nobody escapes without some responsibility.