The Critical Mistakes In New Orleans Were Made On The Local Level

For all the carping and complaining about FEMA’s performance, they’ve actually done a good job in New Orleans. Yes, FEMA has proven itself to be slower than we’d like, mistake prone, and overly bureaucratic. Then again, what part of the Federal government does that not describe? The Post Office? The IRS? The Border Patrol?

Despite the mistakes FEMA has made after hurricane Katrina and the uniquely awful performance of Michael Brown, who’s untelegenic, wonkish, and has a knack for appearing out of touch, this has been the biggest, most comprehensive, and well executed operation FEMA has ever run after a major disaster.

So why have things gone so badly in New Orleans after Katrina? Because of the total and complete incompetence of the local government. In fact, all 3 of the “catastrophic failures” in New Orleans were caused by the locals.

Let’s take a look at them, shall we?

1) All Americans, including the people of New Orleans, are ultimately responsible for their own welfare. So when Mayor Ray Nagin told the people of New Orleans to evacuate because of the storm, they should have done so.

That being said, there were of course a lot of people in New Orleans who were old, sick, disabled or who just didn’t have cars. Had Nagin planned ahead and sent those now famous buses that were left to rot, out to pick people up, undoubtedly thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of people would have taken advantage of that opportunity to evacuate the city.

As a matter of fact, the Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan of New Orleans calls for the city to “utilize all available resources to quickly and safely evacuate threatened areas”. From the “Concept of Operations” section:

“The city of New Orleans will utilize all available resources to quickly and safely evacuate threatened areas. Those evacuated will be directed to temporary sheltering and feeding facilities as needed. When specific routes of progress are required, evacuees will be directed to those routes. Special arrangements will be made to evacuate persons unable to transport themselves or who require specific life-saving assistance. Additional personnel will be recruited to assist in evacuation procedures as needed.”

Folks, it is a heck of a lot easier to send buses around on dry streets before the storm than to go door to door via helicopter over a flooded city afterwards. That’s why this mistake was such a back breaker. The moment that levee broke and flooded 80% of the city, thousands of people who could have been evacuated by bus beforehand, were doomed to lose their lives.

2) The second crucial mistake was the refusal to enforce order in New Orleans after Katrina. When the city chose to have its officers stand by and allow looting to occur, the escalation of lawlessness that followed was inevitable and shouldn’t have been a surprise given that New Orleans has a murder rate ten times the national average.

Not only did the ineffectiveness of the local police, the tolerance of looting, and Governor Blanco’s long wait to call in the National Guard lead to theft and property damage, it led to beatings, rapes, murders, and a slow down of the rescue effort.The failure of the local government in Louisiana to strongly condemn looting from the very beginning and secure the streets was another disastrously bad decision.

3) If you were inviting, let’s say, a half-dozen friends over to your house to stay for a few days, would you make any preparations? Would you maybe buy some food to eat, some soda to drink? Would you plan where they were going to sleep? You would, right? Well, you’re way ahead of the mayor of New Orleans because he didn’t think that far ahead.

For the city of New Orleans to use the Superdome as a storm shelter without preparing adequate food, shelter, water, cots, medical care, security, or a way for people to leave goes beyond incompetence.

Then there are those pesky buses again. In a much publicized interview last Thursday, Nagin cursed and railed against the Federal government for not moving fast enough. He also said, “I need 500 buses.”

Of course, Nagin had hundreds of buses that could have been used to evacuate people before and after the storm. Unfortunately, because of Nagin’s lack of foresight, he left those buses in the flood to be destroyed instead of arranging to make use of them.

Summing it all up, what you to have to remember is that the local government, not FEMA, is supposed to be the first responder after this sort of disaster. In fact, as the Washington Post notes:

“…(T)he federal plan advises state and local emergency managers not to expect federal aid for 72 to 96 hours, and base their own preparedness efforts on the need to be self-sufficient for at least that period.”

The reason New Orleans has been such an incredible mess is in part because of the scale of the disaster: 80% of a large city has been flooded. The other problem is that the response of the local government has been just horrendously inept and FEMA has been forced to desperately try to “put the toothpaste back in the tube” in order to compensate for those critical, early mistakes. Unfortunately, in the partisan frenzy that has followed hurricane Katrina, that very obvious point has been lost.

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