Playing the Blame Game

Sept. 8, 2005
People have known for years that New Orleans was living on borrowed time. Now, as the blame game plays out in what is the worst natural disaster faced by this nation, one has to hope some lessons will be learned.

Those lessons must carry over into planning for national security, because if Katrina has taught us one thing, it is that we are woefully unprepared for worst-case scenerios.

Infrastructure Protection

The Bush administration and previous administrations – both Republican and Democratic – have known that the barriers holding back the Mississippi River and Lake Ponchartrain were built to protect the city should a Category Three hurricane hit. Katrina, a huge Category Four storm by the time it made land near New Orleans, was the worst-case scenerio we are all told to plan for but pray we never face.

Complaints about a lack of funding for flood control projects for the New Orleans area go back to the Carter administration, and have continued through every administration since. The Bush administration is certainly not to blame for decisions made 30 years ago, however, two Army Corps of Engineers projects that were in place to control flooding and prepare for hurricane damage in the New Orleans area received reduced funding between FY 2001 and FY 2004. One project included channel and pumping station improvements for Southeast Louisiana. The other project was designed to protect residents between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain – the proverbial rock and a hard place – from storm surges caused by a Category Three hurricane.

While repair projects for the existing infrastructure of levees were underfunded, according to the Army Corps of Engineers, hundreds of millions of dollars were spent to maintain the levees. Critical for this discussion is the levee and pump station infrastructure was built with a Level Three hurricane in mind. When the system created to keep the below-sea-level city above water was developed some 30 years ago, the thought was that a Level Four or Level Five hurricane would hit the city maybe once in 100-200 years. Unfortunately, time ran out for New Orleans.

Following the Asian tsunami, experts at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) examined New Orleans and the potential devastation that widespread flooding would cause in the area. Over the years, dozens of "what if" scenarios and evacuation plans have been drawn up. While experts anticipated flooding and the possibility that the levees protecting the city would overflow, they never anticipated the knock-out punch of a hurricane, flooding, breaches in the levees and no electricity to run the 148 pumps that remove flood waters from the city.

The lesson here, unfortunately, is that sometimes the worst does happen, and we would be wise to prepare for the worst-case scenerio all the time. A billion dollars spent on infrastructure protection to protect against something that might never occur seemed like a lot of money at the time. Compared to the hundreds of billions that will be spent to bring aid and shelter to the displaced residents of the coastal regions and to rebuild what was lost, not to mention the thousands of dollars each of us will pay for increased fuel, food and other costs, it seems like a drop in the bucket.

A Dress Rehearsal

I was in New Orleans last September for a conference. A storm called Hurricane Ivan came a callin' in the Gulf of Mexico, and the city was evacuated. I can only imagine that what happened this year was a pretty close facsimile of what happened last year, only with devastating results.

First of all, last year, we accepted every bit of news – whether it was from the conference organizer, the mayor of New Orleans, our travel agent, FEMA, the National Weather Service or a cab driver – as gospel.

At times, last September, we were running from our lives from a Category Five hurricane (ultimately, Ivan was a Category Four) that would hit landfall earlier than projected, bringing with it waves of 50 feet that would send New Orleans back to the swamp and potentially strand hundreds of thousands of people on the third, fourth and fifth stories of hotels and apartment buildings – which is where they would have had to stay in order to escape rising flood waters. Sound familiar? It should, because that is exactly what happened this year.

At other times during our visit last year we were told the hurricane would come no where near New Orleans (sort of true, although the rising water levels in the Gulf and Lake Pontchartrain did come uncomfortably close to overflowing the levee). We were told that our hotel was planning to evacuate to the Superdome (which turned out to be a false report) and we could go there along with other visitors and residents with no place else to go.

Hurricane Ivan missed New Orleans and none of the dire predictions associated with a Category Four or Five storm hitting the city came to pass. As I watched the events of the last 10 days unfolding on national television while safe and dry in my home far from New Orleans, the saying "There but for the grace of God go I" kept repeating itself in my head.

Hurricane Ivan should have been an excellent dress rehearsal for Hurricane Katrina. City officials knew after Ivan that as many as 40 percent of the area's residents did not evacuate. Many did not choose to stay; they had no way out of the city and no place to go once they left.

Failure of Local, State Government

I don't know what's in the hearts and minds of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour or other city and state officials. I do know that after Ivan in September 2004, they knew that many people would remain in New Orleans and along the Mississippi coast should another hurricane threaten the area. They knew New Orleans and parts of Mississippi and Alabama are home to many poor people, with few or no resources. Many work in service industry jobs as cooks, servers, housekeepers, valets, cleaning staff; they are the fuel that runs the Gulf Coast's thriving tourist and gambling industries. Most probably worked paycheck to paycheck.

Mayor Nagin knew that many of his residents could not leave the city. Mayor Nagin, however, did evacuate – to Baton Rouge. As many people have pointed out, he's no Rudy Guiliani. Had he stayed at his post longer, and insisted on the evacuation of all the residents who wanted to go but had no means to do it; had there been a plan in place to evacuate the city, one that involved calling on cities such as Houston for help and shelter for residents before disaster struck; had emergency responders been trained and equipped to respond to any type of catastrophe; had Nagin not made the order to use the Morial Convention Center as a secondary shelter without, apparently, having a plan in place to provide water and food to the people who went there looking for help, perhaps the death toll in the city would not be so high.

In interviews, Mayor Nagin has acknowledged that 20 percent or more of the residents of New Orleans did not have the means to evacuate. If Nagin had offered New Orleans residents a ride on a city school bus to Houston or a surrounding city with which New Orleans had already worked out an evacuation and sheltering plan, along with enough food and water to make it there comfortably, how many people would have been spared the horrors of the past 10 days? My guess would be hundreds, possibly thousands.

Last week, Gov. Blanco enlisted hundreds of the state's school buses to ferry survivors out of New Orleans. My question is this: Why weren't those buses standing at the ready when it became clear, as much as 48 hours before the storm hit, that the city and surrounding area could suffer significant damage?

On August 27, Gov. Blanco sent a letter to President Bush, asking him to declare a state of emergency for Louisiana, which he did. In her letter, Gov. Blanco writes, "I have determined that this incident is beyond the capabilities of the State and affected local governments, and that supplementary federal assistance is necessary to save lives, protect property, public health and safety and/or to lessen or avert the threat of a disaster."

Gov. Blanco has complained repeatedly and bitterly behind the scenes that the federal government did not act quickly enough. According to a White House spokesman, she was asked by President George Bush to order the evacuation of New Orleans on Aug. 27, 48 hours before Hurricane Katrina struck. Blanco, for reasons unknown, waited until Aug. 28. After the levees broke and the city began to flood, the White House spokesman says the president asked if she wanted the federal government to take control of the evacuation of New Orleans. Gov. Blanco asked for 24 hours to think about it. A lot of people can and probably did die in 24 hours. And Blanco's refusal to cede control of the Louisiana National Guard to the federal government is shameful. When the water is over your head, catch the lifepreservers that are thrown to you, Gov. Blanco.

In Mississippi, the situation was a classic case of "been there, done that." Many residents of the area could have evacuated and chose not to do so; they believed that if they survived Camille. they could survive anything. They were foolish. As one Biloxi resident put it, "Camille killed more people last week than it did in 1969." That said, Gov. Barbour did not do a good enough job of conveying to the residents of coastal Mississippi a sense of urgency about the coming hurricane.

I've spent countless days – months, even – along the Mississippi coast over the years, and the one thing you hear over and over is: "I survived Camille. " There are various versions: "My house withstood Camille." "Our town survived Camille." "We suffered a lot of damage from Camille, but we're still here." You name it, I've heard it. So has Gov. Barbour. Heck, he's probably said it.

The damage done by Katrina makes Camille look like a pussycat. The state of Mississippi should have done a better job of educating its citizens about the differences between Katrina and Camille before Katrina struck. Granted, Camille was a Level Five hurricane, but Level Four-almost-Level Five Katrina's sheer size and force pounded the coastline for a much longer period of time, and created a higher storm surge than Camille. Katrina was a more dangerous storm. Period.

Plus, things have changed in Gulfport and Biloxi since Camille. The area along the Mississippi Gulf Coast is more heavily populated, with more infrastructure. And let's face it, they just don't build 'em like they used to. Houses that withstood Camille were made - in some cases - of stronger stuff than some of today's homes (And even that's no guarantee; 150-year-old houses tumbled in the wake of Katrina.) The coastal barrier islands and wetlands that once offered some protection from storms have been destroyed by developers in recent years.

And let's not forget the disaster that were the floating casinos of Gulfport and Biloxi. Barbour and previous Mississippi governors and state legislators deserve their share of the blame for legislating that casinos must be "floating" offshore in an area prone to tropical storms and hurricanes. The state government relies on the tax money generated by the casinos to operate and the casinos employ some 14,000 people in the area. The loss of those casinos is an economic disaster for the state and its residents.

Federal Response

Like many others, I watched news reports of Hurricane Katrina and the devestation left in its wake. I watched in the early days following the storm as President Bush talked about mobilizing troops and launching Navy ships full of supplies, equipment, food and water from ports in Norfolk, Va., and Bethesda, Md. I watched and thought, "Why weren't those ships launched on August 27, when the president asked Gov. Blanco to order the evacuation of the city?"

We knew before the hurricane struck that it would be a Category Four or Five and would land somewhere between Texas and Florida and cause considerable damage. I understand that it takes some time to activate the estimated 45,000 National Guard troopscurrently deployed to the Gulf Coast areas hit hardest by Katrina, and that it takes time to gather teams from the Federal Emergency Management Administration and deploy Navy ships and helicopters. However, several days passed before troops, ships and supplies were mobilized.

Reports have the president waiting for Gov. Blanco to officially ask for help. She reportedly is a methodical decision-maker who would rather take her time making a decision than make a bad one. That is coupled with her resistance at ceding control of her state to the federal government. Both Bush and Blanco have shown themselves to be weak leaders. In times like these, tough decisions have to be made. One of my favorite sayings is, "It's better to beg forgiveness than ask permission." In this case, too much time was spent waiting for permission to be granted. People were suffering. People were dying.

Entertainer Kanye West said Sept. 2 in a benefit concert to raise money and awareness for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, "George Bush doesn't care about poor people." Honestly, I don't think that's the problem here. I think that George Bush appears not to care about anything unrelated to national security or the war in Iraq. While the creation of the Department of Homeland Security was touted as a way to ensure the country was protected from both natural and manmade (aka: terrorist attacks) disasters, the focus of the department – and the subsequent allocation of funds – has been on security, not emergency response. The fact that FEMA Director Michael Brown is a political appointee whose last job was commissioner of judges and stewards for the International Arabian Horse Association reinforces that fact. He was completely unprepared – in education and experience – for this type of disaster.

One interesting aspect of the Hurricane Katrina response is that it has shown our nation is not prepared in advance for any type of disaster - terrorist or otherwise. For example, after 9/11, much emphasis was placed on interoperability of communication systems, coordinating communication between agencies and the importance of maintaining and protecting communication equipment. One of the first things mentioned as a cause for so much confusion and misinformation following Katrina was a lack of communication between agencies and a lack of working communication equipment. One story illustrates this failure, and Michael Brown's lack of experience, best: When FEMA entered Jefferson Parish, they cut the parish's emergency communication lines. When Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee found out, he had the line reconnected and posted armed guards and told them, "No one is getting near our line." Other reports surfaced of FEMA agents turning away trucks full of water and telling the Coast Guard not to issue fuel to local law enforcement agencies.

President Bush has acknowleddged the initial federal response was "not acceptable." In an interview with CNN, former President Bill Clinton said, "Our government failed those people in the beginning, and I take it now there is no dispute about it."

Failure occurred on so many levels that playing the blame game is like shooting fish in a bucket. It's just too easy.

Full Disclosure

My large, extended family is scattered throughout the South, many living in the coastal regions of Mississippi and Alabama, and in New Orleans. They have money and the means to survive this tragedy. Most of them don't know if their homes, or even their towns, will survive the storm and its aftermath. A number of relatives live in Hattiesburg, Miss., which also was in the path of the hurricane. They spent days with no electricity, phones or gasoline. As difficult as their situation is, they are the lucky ones. They are safe, well-fed and relatively comfortable.

Possibly thousands of people are dead in Louisiana and Mississippi. Many more thousands are displaced and have lost all of their belongings and any sense of security they once had. A city I love, a city I consider my second home, is destroyed and may never fully recover. Certainly, it will never be the same.

But what's worse is that with all the billions of dollars spent on homeland security, it turns out the place we are the least secure is at home. The government – local, state and federal – has failed all of us, not just the residents of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

Let Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath serve as the lessons we thought we learned after 9/11: that we can never be too prepared for disaster, and the worst-case scenerio sometimes becomes reality.

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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