September 3, 2005

Local Breakdowns

Good post from Ed Morrissey on Katrina response. He links to an AP article from Sunday that reports the personal phone call made by President Bush to Governor Blanco appealing for a mandatory evecuation order for New Orleans, and has interviews with residents who either chose to ignore the order when it finally came, or didn't have the transportation to get out of town. Meanwhile, the city had the fleet of school buses that could have served the purpose, but they failed to move them to high ground in the days before or even after the storm. A sample from Ed:

What did George Bush do? He had a wide area of devastation to manage. Mississippi has also sustained catastrophic damage, with entire towns destroyed, flooded, and unable to fend for themselves. He does not have the authority to call out anyone's National Guard until he federalizes the units, a move usually reserved for use when governors prove recalcitrant in mobilization. Yet within three days of the levee burst and the drowning of New Orleans, Bush had 40,000 troops entering the city to take over the management from Nagin and Blanco, delivering the aid that had waited for lines of communication to get established and the order that the NOPD and Louisiana could not maintain.

We work within a federal system, where cities and states control the allocation of resources used within their borders. We do this because we recognize that, for the most part, federalism works. Local decisions about resource allocation usually create better results than top-down bureaucratic management. The main requirement for that to work is local leadership. Blaming George Bush because he delivered results within three days of the major catastrophic event while following these rules is as silly as blaming Congress for taking five days to pass an aid bill.

The main failure in New Orleans came when the local and state governments refused to recognize that the storm had a high chance to cause catastrophic damage and use its assets to get the poor and infirm out of its way. They had plenty of resources (in vehicles) with which to do that, but left them right where the floods would destroy them. All the rest of the damage would have been mere property destruction, difficult to rebuild but nonetheless easier to accept than the unbelievable hardship we've seen this week.

From a Washington Post editorial:

...if blame is to be laid and lessons are to be drawn, one point stands out as irrefutable: Emergency planners must focus much more on the fate of that part of the population that -- for reasons of poverty, infirmity, distrust of officialdom, lack of transportation or lack of information -- cannot be counted on to leave their homes after an evacuation order.

Tragically, authorities in New Orleans were aware of this problem. Certainly the numbers were known. Shirley Laska, an environmental and disaster sociologist at the University of New Orleans, had only recently calculated that some 57,000 New Orleans Parish households, or approximately 125,000 people, did not have access to cars or other private transportation. In the months before the storm, the city's emergency planners did debate the challenges posed by these numbers, which are much higher than in other hurricane-prone parts of the country, such as Florida. Because a rapid organization of so many buses would have been impractical, the city's emergency managers considered the use of trains and cruise ships. The New Orleans charity Operation Brother's Keeper had tried to get church congregations to match up car-owners with the carless, and it had produced a DVD on the subject of hurricane evacuations that was to be distributed later this month. Unfortunately, none of these plans was advanced enough to have had much impact this week.

Media Blog documents the hypocrisy of the New York Times on the federal funding for flood projects that the administration is being criticized for "slashing."

Posted by dan at September 3, 2005 6:04 PM