As the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina continues, it is very important that we all keep in perspective what happened in New Orleans and the reality of what type of evacuation could have taken place and what actually caused the city to flood on Tuesday morning. If everyone is to be taken seriously in their ongoing criticisms of the Bush Administration's historical failure to adequately respond to Katrina, it is important that those criticisms be based on legitimate, rationale arguments and facts:
1. THE BREACHING OF THE LEVEES:
Everyone talking about the flooding in New Orleans has blamed it on the breaching of the levee system. But it is extremely critical to note that there is a big difference between levees and flood walls in the flood control system.
A. The levees are typically very large earthern berms that are basicallyreinforced, big sloping hills of dirt used as flood barriers.
B. Flood control walls are the two-feet thick vertical concrete walls mainly along the many miles of drainage and navigation canals in New Orleans that are backed up by earthen works much narrower than a typical levee.
NO levees failed in New Orleans! I repeat, NO levees failed in New Orleans! The flooding was caused by the failure of three sections of FLOOD CONTROL WALLS at:
The 17th Street Canal
The London Street Canal
The Industrial Canal
The storm surge from the hurricane overflowed the canal walls and caused the earthern works behind them to be washed or "scourged" away. With no support behind them, the concrete walls could not stand up to the huge amount of force being placed on them by the amount of water in the canals and they failed and the city flooded. Plain and simple.
Last night on 60 Minutes, Scott Pelley confirmed all of this and also interviewed Al Naomi, who manages the flood walls for the Army Corps of Engineers. Naomi stated clearly, that even if he had all of the necessary funds had been available to him to improve the flood walls to withstand a Category 4 storm like Katrina, the work would have had to begun TWENTY YEARS ago in order to have prevented what happened in New Orleans last week. Al Naomi's comments make perfect sense.
This controversy really boils down to simple physics as improving the flood walls would have involved a combination of adding height to them with more concrete and exponentially increasing the size of the earthworks behind them to properly support the added weight and water pressure against them. If you look at pictures of the 17th Street Canal breach, you can clearly see that there are houses and other structures built very close to the walls. Increasing the size of the walls would have required that hundreds (maybe thousands) of houses along the flood walls be torn down to make room for the enlarged earthern support works. That would have involved the government using imminent domain to seize the property and compensate the homeowners. Law suits would have inevitably been filed and the subsequent appeals could have delayed these improvements an unknown number of years.
This dramatically points out that the Bush Administrations de-funding of the levee improvements did NOT cause this disaster like a lot of people are continually claiming. While there are other countless examples of stupidity and incompentence by FEMA and other government agencies, the flood wall collapse cannot legitimately be blamed on Bush or his minions.
Word is already filtering out that homeowners in the more upscale areas of New Orleans are planning to sue the government for the loss of their homes. Just what we need, a bunch of frivolous lawsuits from homeowners that will be compensated from their homeowner's policies. And in the end the lawyers will make all of the money anyway
2. THE EVACUATION THAT COULD HAVE, BUT DIDN'T OCCUR - PART 1
It has been stated that the still unknown thousands that probably died in New Orleans did so because they had no means of evacuation. In many cases this is undoubtedly true and in many others it is quite clear that those that died did do because of their own ill-informed, misguided, or just plain bad decisions.
A. Many people that didn't evacuate did have personal vehicles to do so, but didn't have the money to purchase enough gasoline or to stay in any type of lodging once they left the city. It was the end of the month and the many people on public assistance had not received their monthly checks, which could have paid for gasoline and some lodging.
B. As more and more evacuated survivors are being interviewed by the media, many of them are telling stories of family members that refused to evacuate for a wide variety of reasons:
They had "ridden out" numerous hurricanes before and were confident they could survive Katrina.
Many refused to leave without their pets and many shelters would not allow pets. One elderly couple that was refused entry to a shelter because of their pet returned to their home and died in the storm.
Many people were scared to leave their homes and personal belongings behind and were afraid of losing it to looters after the storm.
Many people didn't believe the "media hype" of what could happen when a Category 4 or 5 storm hit New Orleans. And as many people have noted, the city did survive the storm itself relatively intact. It was the collapse of the flood walls that has caused all subsequent death and damage.
Many residents that refused to leave were people whose families have lived in New Orleans for generations and the city is all they had ever known. A fear of the unknown outside the city probably contributed to their staying in the city during the storm.
And now, as rescuers are reaching more parts of the city they are running into many people that still refuse to leave their homes, even after explaining to them that they will undoubtedly get sick and die from the contaminated flood waters. So even if an adequate, effective, and timely pre-storm evacuation had been mounted, many people still would have died from their refusal to take advantage of any available evacuation.
THE EVACUATION THAT COULD HAVE, BUT DIDN'T OCCUR - PART 2
As I sat and watched TV coverage last week of the horror in New Orleans, I kept asking myself why government officials (city, state, or federal) didn't use every available municipal bus and school bus to evacuate those that wanted to leave before the storm. Yes, it would have been difficult logistically and they may not have found drivers for all of the available buses, but at least many thousands of people would have been able to escape and would still be alive today. If an 18-year old kid, with no previous experience driving a bus, could drive a school bus full of people from New Orleans all the way to Houston by himself, anything is possible. That kid is a true hero.
There will no doubt be a huge inquiry as to what did and didn't happen in New Orleans and I look forward to hearing the excuses as to why the "Great Katrina Bus Lift" didn't happen.
3. WHAT TOOK THEM SO LONG?
Before Katrina had hit New Orleans, FEMA people were all over the media telling everyone how they would rapidly respond to the storm. We all know how long it took the government (and is still taking them in some areas) to provide food and water to the SuperDome, the Convention Center, and other areas (I-10 overpasses)where large groups of people were gathered, but:
A. Why were Wal-Mart and Hyatt Hotels able to get truck loads of food and water to the city from out-of-state before the government? And what happened to all of the "pre-positioned" supplies that Michael Brown bragged about in many interviews?
B. Why were all of the major media outlets easily able to get into many parts of the city days before any government help arrived?
C. How could FEMA NOT know that there were thousands of people at the convention center without food or water when it was being reported all over the media, including FOX News (the Bush News Channel)? And why did some National Guard troops prevent some people from using supplies in the convention center's kitchen freezers to feed people? These people, that had cooking experience, were only trying to prepare meals for these victims but were stopped from doing so. The food was thawing out anyway and would be a total loss. It was wasted.
D. Why weren't pallets of food and water lowered from cargo slings below military helicopters to people at the Convention Center? Someone from the military was asked the same question and he responded that "FEMA hadn't asked them to." So they sat around waiting for orders that never came and that has been reported from numerous active duty military units in surrounding states that could have responded quickly.
E. Why did the U.S. Navy hospital ship Comfort not set sail from Baltimore until Thursday of last week when the government knew a week earlier that Katrina was going to hit somewhere on the Gulf coast?
F. Why did the USS Bataan, a 844-foot ship designed to dispatch Marines in amphibious assaults, sit off of New Orleans underutilized until Labor Day? The ship has helicopters, doctors, hospital beds, food and water. It also can make up to 100,000 gallons of its own drinking water a day. The Bataan rode out the storm and then followed it toward shore, awaiting relief orders. Helicopter pilots flying from its deck were some of the first to begin saving New Orleans residents from rooftops, etc. The Bataan's hospital facilities, including six operating rooms and beds for 600 patients, has sat empty for days. A good share of its 1,200 sailors, that could also go ashore to help with the relief effort, sat idle for days because they hadn't been asked to help.
"Could we do more?" said Capt. Nora Tyson, commander of the Bataan. "Sure. I've got sailors who could be on the beach plucking through garbage or distributing water and food and stuff. But I can't force myself on people.
G. Why did FEMA Director Brown tell people that they would have to rely on the Red Cross and other local organizations for relief until the feds could get into town after the Homeland Security Department insisted that the American Red Cross not come back into New Orleans? HSD's excuse was that Red Cross relief efforts would encourage people to stay in the city. According to Renita Hosler, spokeswoman for the Red Cross, "Right now access is controlled by the National Guard and local authorities. We have been at the table every single day [asking for access]. We cannot get into New Orleans against their orders." Idiot point for Brownie!
Tell that to the people that endured the horrible conditions at the Super Dome, the Convention Center, and the I-10 overpasses.
H. Why was FEMA Director Michael Brown so surprised by the lawlessness that took place in New Orleans? Appearing on ABC's "Good Morning America," the FEMA director said he "never thought I'd see" the lawlessness that has overtaken the city and interrupted emergency relief efforts. "It's heartbreaking and very, very frustrating to me from a broad operational perspective," he said.
Hello? This is New Orleans, the city that had a rising murder rate for the two years previous to the hurricane. And you didn't expect lawlessness? Another idiot point for Brownie!
I. Why were military helicopter relief flights halted because a few pot shots were taken at them? It's not that I want to see any of our military personnel injured or killed while attempting a rescue, but isn't that what the military does? Goes in under fire? And why didn't they put snipers on the helicopters to return fire and take those "lawless" folks out? That would have made Pat Robertson happy!
THE BUREAUCRACY OF FEMA
The stories are still coming out, and will for some time, about some of the mind-boggling decisions made by FEMA personnel in stopping relief efforts that were undertaken by businesses and local citizens. FEMA:
Turned back three trailer trucks of water in New Orleans.
Ordered the Coast Guard not to provide emergency diesel fuel and cut emergency power and telephone lines.
Ordered local citizens in Mississippi to stop clearing roads with their own equipment.
Brought 1,400 firefighters to Atlanta, GA to be trained in handing out fliers in hurricane impacted areas. The firefighters spent an entire day being trained on how to hand out fliers and the training also included a sexual-harassment course. Fifty of them were quickly flown to Louisiana to stand beside President Bush as he tours devastated areas. What a waste of trained rescuers for a stupid photo-op!
As time goes on, more and more stories of the good and bad that happened in the week after Hurricane Katrina will continue to come out. History has repeatedly shown that disasters of any kind bring out the best and the worst in people. And while many stories of heroism and bravery came out last week, stories are now starting to come out from survivors about some of the disgusting behavior exhibited by would-be rescuers. We will be subjected to numerous books, nauseating, sappy interviews on Dateline, 20/20, and Larry King Live for months to come. Movies will be rushed into production and onto TV and into theaters.
The White House blame game will continue in an effort to deflect from its incompentence in providing timely relief to the area.
But for all of the critics of the post-Katrina relief effort, let's be realistic about the capabilities of any government, even one as large as ours. Providing relief to an area that is 90,000 square miles is an incredible, daunting task. And the natural, logical progression of providing relief to a large disaster area is to first deliver help to areas where the largest amount of people are located. A mayor of a very rural town interviewed on CNN said that FEMA stood for "Forget Everyone Except Metropolitan Areas." And Randi Rhodes on Air America Radio redefined FEMA as standing for "Failure to Effectively Manage Anything." It's an important point that needs to be addressed in the future, but it's virtually impossible to rapidly deliver aid simultaneously to everyone over such a large area that has suffered severed communications systems and major transportation arteries.
As preparations are being made to completely drain the city; rescue remaining survivors; recover the thousands of bodies that remain in flooded houses; and to dispose of the millions of tons of debris, a debate is already starting about how New Orleans should be rebuilt. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert made some very ill-timed comments about what should be done about rebuilding New Orleans "It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed," said Hastert in an interview about New Orleans last Wednesday with the Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, Ill. Asked in the interview whether it made sense to spend billions rebuilding a city that lies below sea level, he replied, "I don't know. That doesn't make sense to me."
There is no doubt that New Orleans will be rebuilt, but Hastert does bring up some important points about how the city should be rebuilt. Any civil engineer will tell you that New Orleans never should have been built where it was and that centuries of development eroded natural barriers around the city that could have better absorbed the huge storm surge. Tens of thousands of homes sitting in polluted water for over a week are a total loss and will have to be destroyed. What to do with all of that debris is an unfathomable logistical nightmare all by itself.
New Orleans is a city that is vital to our economy and there is no doubt that it's port infrastructure needs to be rebuilt as soon as possible. But should homes located in the lowest lying areas of New Orleans be rebuilt at a cost of billions of our tax dollars? It makes no sense to rebuild in these areas, if at all, unless the flood control/prevention systems protecting these areas are improved to such a degree that it is virutally guaranteed what happened last week will never happen again. Many New Orleans residents have already said they will not return to the area. They've lost everything they owned; didn't have insurance; and have no reason to return to the area.
There will undoubtedly be an effort by developers to grab land made available by the flooding and displacement or death of their owners and redevelop it with more upscale dwellings. Louisiana has been rife with corruption for years, so why should things change now? One thing the state and federal government can do is to quickly enact legal protections that may not currently exist to protect displaced homeowners from having their land seized in the ongoing recovery and rebuilding efforts.
As in any disaster of any significant magnitude, there are too many reasons that things can go horribly wrong afterwards. And while some people are still trying to focus on one or two things to blame the needless deaths on, it's not a realistic path to continue on. For many horrible reasons, too many people died last week and will continue to die as the relief response continues. The incompetent response of the Bush Administration has been one of the biggest humiliations this country has ever seen. And now our fearless leader is going to lead an investigation into his own failures. Way to go "W!" But should we really be surprised?
If Bush supporters don't wake up and realize that they have been supporting one of the most evil, divisive, uncaring, and moronic presidents in our history, then they are obviously brain dead themselves. Bush and his cast of slimy characters need to go! Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Rove, Chertoff and the others have consistently demonstrated for years that they don't care about anyone NOT like them. As in Iraq, they lied and too many died.
And their vacations and shopping sprees while our own citizens died says it all.
Larry Peck Atlanta, GA
Overall, I think Larry makes good points, but I do have some disagreements with him:
I think the distinction he makes between "levees" and "flood control walls" is misleading, and actually misconstrues something. It is true that flood walls are what failed, not levees -- and when I wrote about levees being breached it was during the chaos of that first night, when information was hard to come by -- but that's an engineering distinction, and in popular parlance "levees" are a shorthand way of referring to the entire flood control system in and around New Orleans and southern Louisiana. That Bush drastically cut the budget for the Army Corps of Engineers in that area is indisputable, and that money, if it had gone through, would have both help improve the flood control system in general but would also have improved the ability of the ACE to respond to the disaster.
No responsible person is claiming that the Bush budget cuts directly caused the flooding of New Orleans, nor is anyone denying that many, many decades of flood control policy contributed to the depletion of the coastal wetlands which failed to slow down Katrina as much as they might have, but Bush's policy, both about wetland development and about cutbacks to the ACE budget, certainly contributed in a significant way to the scope of the disaster and to the quality of the response.
I think Larry comes perilously close to blaming the victims by his emphasis on people who stayed in New Orleans when they could have left. At this point -- when no one at any level of government has any clear idea of how many stayed, who they were and what there motivations were, let alone how many of them died from the malfeasance of the Bush administration's pathetic initial reponse and other factors, it is dangerous to make any broad assumptions about the causes due to which tens of thousands of people wound up staying in New Orleans. Once they stayed, there was a humanitarian obligation for them to be fairly dealt with, to be rescued from the plight they were in , whether or not they put themselves in harm's way for reasons that Larry agrees with or not.
I understand the impulse to lash out at local authorities for not responding quickly and efficiently to the disaster, but I think blaming them for this completely overlooks the scope and nature of the disaster and the way it progressed. It seems that once the storm had past, the initial response was that New Orleans had dodged a bullet: the storm hadn't been the category 5 everyone had feared, but had downgraded to category 4, and it hadn't hit in the worst possible way -- with the northeast quadrant passing over Lake Ponchartrain -- but had moved off farther to the east. I myself commented to my wife that it looked as if the worst of the nightmare scenario wasn't going to happen: there was only minor flooding in the city, not the 20' in the French Quarter that might have happened.
Then the flood control system failed, and water started to pour in, rising at the rate of something like 1 foot per hour. Up until this happened, the city was basically dry, except for one district (the lower 9th ward), the evacuees at the Superdome were inconvenienced and scared but basically safe, and those who stayed in their homes were not apparently in immediate danger. Presumably it is at this point that critics such as Larry would have had the mayor of New Orleans and other local officials mount a massive evacuation, but until the flood walls came down, there was no obvious reason that a massive evacuation was necessary, and once they came down, the water rose at a very fast rate.
Not only that, but to mount such an evacuation requires some sort of command and control system to be in place, and the infrastructure of official control has been decimated by the storm. With no power, and no communications, how, exactly, were local officials supposed to mount this evacuation that is being retroactively demanded of them, even supposing that they knew one was necessary?
I don't agree with every action taken by Mayor Nagin, but -- as I wrote earlier -- given the immensity of the stuation that had been set down upon them, I think it's only right to give them the benefit of several thousand doubts.
The fact that local officials are overwhelmed by a disaster is the very reason that we have FEMA, the job of which is to mount an immediate, coordinated Federal response to a devastating event which cannot be dealt with by the locals. So I'm in no way in favor of spreading the blame around, playing into the loathsome spin program of the Bush administration: the player at fault here is almost solely the Federal government, and we know where the buck stops there.
Concerning lawlessness -- remember this is the same administration that had no plan to deal with the lawlessness that was the immediate response to the fall of Baghdad and the overthrow of Saddam. Their response to New Orleans is completely in line with their lack of preparedness for the easily predicted chaos in Iraq.
No one (at least no one reasonable) believes that an immediate and effective Federal response to Katrina would have turned an awful situation into a bed of roses. People would still have died, we would still be feeling the economic impact of so many people out of work and homeless, there would still be an overwhelming job of rebuilding to do throughout the Gulf coast -- but because the scope and scale of the devastation is so extreme and unprecedented, every hour lost is an hour when things can start to go from very bad to even worse. The most that could have been expected is that small steps would be taken to start the massive relief program going, but those steps would have been tremendously heartening to everyone, and the sense of despair and disconnection would perhaps have been held back to some degree.
As a matter of timing and delicacy, it's much too early to discuss how and in what way New Orleans should be rebuilt, not to mention whether it should be rebuilt at all. That time will come when the rescue and recovery effort is winding down, not now.
I want to thank Larry for sharing his thoughts with me.
Update: Because he didn't mention it in his initial letter to me, I was unaware that Larry's comments were taken from his weblog, Barrels of Blood. You'll find them here, and Larry writes that he plans to update them to clarify his meaning. (I've added a link above as well.)
hostile to science
lacking in empathy
lacking in public spirit
out of control
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Steven Abrams (Kansas BofE)
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George W. Bush
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The Coors Family
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Leonard Downie (WaPo)
John Gibson (FNC)
Fred Hiatt (WaPo)
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All the fine sites I've
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Arthur C. Clarke
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Philip K. Dick
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"The Harder They Come"
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Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
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