Friday, September 2

For want of a megaphone...

[Re September 1 post] I think a lot of people see this as a political opportunity -- and it cuts both ways. The other thing is that Katrina is a dress rehearsal for any real civil emergency response. Not looking too good. It is important for the local level to act decisively. By the time a national response gets there it may be too late to bring things under control.
Anonymous Reader"

Dear Reader:
The local level is absolutely critical and it seems the greatest failure was at the local level. But in a highly complex social system the local level must coordinate with state, federal and private contractor levels.

This debacle goes way beyond politics and to the heart of government capacity in the complex, interlocked modern era of fragile communications and transport systems.

Granted, we don't like to think there is so much incompetence at the disaster preparedness level, so we seek scapegoats.

And the situation with New Orleans is so weird that it's hard not to imagine dark theories and conspiracies, i.e., real estate developers in cahoots with corrupt officials to use hurricane as cheap means of land clearing.

Yet even supposing a dark explanation is true, if people get into political food fights they will miss the critical lessons taught by the New Orleans storm aftermath crisis.

By accident or design, it still comes down to mind-boggling incompetence. So the distinct facets of the situation have to be studied on their own and also studied as a gestalt:

> City and state planning and preparation for evacuation/preparation for an approaching storm (or other kind of disaster including terror attack).

> City/state planning/preparation for disaster relief after a storm.

> FEMA and National Guard preparation/deployment and interface with local government after a storm.

> Emergency repair of critical infrastructure (key roads, debris removal, cell phone towers, etc.) by the Army Corps of Engineers, private contractors and public works employees. Who oversees all this? Coordinates?

Last night there was a breakdown of communication about buses routed to the Astrodome. Astrodome ran out of key supplies so they had to turn away the arriving buses. There was simply nowhere for people on buses to go -- they were left in parking lot.

Buses should have been rerouted to the two other large shelter sites located in Texas when it was clear the Astrodome was nearing capacity. But there was no communication. Who is responsible for command and control at that level? FEMA? State/local governments?

Yet if you trace it back a lot of it is very simple preparation. The story that hit me hardest was the refugee in New Orleans who suggested that megaphones be used to direct people wandering the streets to food/water distribution points. Sensible idea but evidentially the city had not thought to stockpile megaphones and it seems no one (e.g., FEMA, National Guard)thought to bring megaphones with them.

I can't verify the story but it is typical of what has been happening. For want of a nail the kingdom was lost, and all that. Simple critical stuff such as batteries was not stockpiled and distributed prior to Katrina's landfall.

Yet for a city that is squeezed between a river, lake and gulf in hurricane alley with a levee system clearly inadequate to hold back a 20' storm surge, special supplies should be stockpiled at the start of every hurricane season.

Of course all the above skirts the question of the levees -- why such a critical system was not shored to withstand a big storm surge. Yet all the more reason to have adequate planning for what authorities should do during a storm approach and during the immediate aftermath.

Everybody knows the electricity tends to fail in a big storm! So, stockpile batteries! Arrange for chemical toilets to be transported to shelter sites prior to the storm, if complete evacuation is out of the question. This kind of preparation is not rocket science. But don't take Pundita's word for it. A comment posted by "Red River," in response to Belmont Club's Imperfect Storm 2 spells things out from the viewpoint of someone who worked with engineering firms in New Orleans.

The entire comment is worth the search to read (Belmont Club's comment section is huge) but here is part of Red River's observations:
[...] Compartmentalization, raised roads, sandbag strike teams, and modern pumps would have allowed NO [New Orleans] to ride this out.

They have to, Like the Dutch, see the Sea as the enemy to be feared and planned for.

Its an egregious criminal failure of local political leadership and a failure of imagination of local elites.

LA [Louisiana] and NO could have invested small amounts of money every year to deal with this contingency. They don't need the feds to do this - they can do this on their own. Bond money could have been sought and sources of funding could be had. How many times have they had the Superbowl?

There was no initiative before, during or after by local leadership.

I have spent a lot of time in NO the last three years working with local engineering firms. Many a time key people have shown up in shorts, and then left to go fishing rather than do their job and their duty.

Compare the situation in NO with what Iowa and Illinois went through during the Mississippi floods a few years ago. The farmers and ranchers and city slickers FOUGHT for weeks and saved Many, Many farms. The City of NO cut and ran.

While I sympathize with their plight, and have rooms open for refugees, this WAS and IS preventable with good planning and execution. The Dutch deal with this on a scale 1000 times bigger and endure winter storms like Katrina every year. But they make it.

The Mississippi is the most critical waterway and port in the USA. The City of NO has shirked their duty and their conduct is a disgrace. The Mayor and the COE leaders need to be fired and a FULL audit of activities and monies needs to be conducted.
Speaking of cutting and running, a basic question: Can the state actually enforce an evacuation order without first declaring martial law?

Okay, Pundita can't put off vacation any longer.

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