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Sunday, September 18, 2005

Le Hasard Ne Favorise Que Les Esprits Préparés

By now you've probably seen various timelines covering the Katrina disaster (I've linked to Think Progress and Redstate previously).  Pretty much everything I've seen has started their discussions around Friday or Saturday before the storm hit.  I think that misses the larger point: some people learned lessons from previous disasters and some people did not.

We often talk about preparedness in my security classes.  You can't be secure if you don't have a plan in place, test it regularly and revise it as you learn new things.  The time to experiment with ways of dealing with crisis is not during the crisis itself.

That's why I scoff at the winger mantra of "the buses, the buses!" 

Why didn't Nagin just put those magical flying buses into operation and get everybody out of NOLA?  He's to blame for all those dead people!

Short answer: their role in the plan was very limited.  Long-answer is below the fold.

We really need to begin our Katrina timelines earlier than the weekend before she hit, so let's hop in the Wayback Machine and check out what happened during Hurricane Ivan the previous year:

Those who had the money to flee Hurricane Ivan ran into hours-long traffic jams. Those too poor to leave the city had to find their own shelter - a policy that was eventually reversed, but only a few hours before the deadly storm struck land.

New Orleans dodged the knockout punch many feared from the hurricane, but the storm exposed what some say are significant flaws in the Big Easy's civil disaster plans.

Much of New Orleans is below sea level, kept dry by a system of pumps and levees. As Ivan charged through the Gulf of Mexico, more than a million people were urged to flee. Forecasters warned that a direct hit on the city could send torrents of Mississippi River backwash over the city's levees, creating a 20-foot-deep cesspool of human and industrial waste.

Residents with cars took to the highways. Others wondered what to do.

"They say evacuate, but they don't say how I'm supposed to do that," Latonya Hill, 57, said at the time. "If I can't walk it or get there on the bus, I don't go. I don't got a car. My daughter don't either."

From this experience, New Orleans and Louisiana learned that they were not prepared for The Big One, and went about developing plans to better deal with a regional crisis in the future.  As we also discuss when dealing with security issues, no plan is perfect: the best we can do is mitigate risk, not eliminate it. The plans put in place acknowledged that fact.  Here are some points from the official state emergency plan (PDF):

The Greater New Orleans Metropolitan Area represents a difficult evacuation problem due to the large population and it’s unique layout.
It will take a long time to evacuate large numbers of people from the Region.

The road systems used for evacuations are limited, and many of the roadways are near bodies of water and susceptible to flooding.

There will be problems evacuating ANY city, and NOLA presents some serious challenges other cities do not face.  The process must be organized and staged very carefully for it to be effective.  So again, you don't "just use the buses" to get people out of harm's way.  You've got to be able to collect people to get them into the vehicles, make sure they have places to go with adequate shelter and provisions, and get them out on limited roadways along with hundreds of thousands of other people.

The Redstaters made a big deal about one part of the city's evac plan1: the City of New Orleans has established a maximum acceptable hurricane evacuation time standard for a Category 3 storm event of 72 hours.

"Why didn't Nagin order a mandatory evacuation 2 days before he did?" they cry.  They apparently missed the 'maximum' timeframe, and have not fully considered the enormous task of evacuating a large city.

The plan defines three phases of evacuation: precautionary/voluntary, recommended, and mandatory.  This allows for reasonable time to identify a threat and begin the process of moving people progressively as the threat grows more imminent.  And should the threat not materialize, you haven't completely wasted resources or caused unnecessary havoc associated with a frenzied movement of people all at once.

So state and local authorities followed the plan:

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is not a test. This is the real deal," Nagin, flanked by Gov. Kathleen Blanco and other state and local leaders, said during an early afternoon news conference at City Hall. Workers boarded up windows at City Hall later in the day.

At a later news conference, Nagin called for a voluntary evacuation of Orleans Parish, saying he is "strongly encouraging" residents to leave their homes.

"We don't want you to panic, but we want you to take this very seriously," the mayor said. "Treat this one differently."

The precautionary evac relied on people voluntarily doing what made sense.  Some people mused about why not issue a mandatory order right away and force everybody out.  Uh...how in the hell do you realistically expect that to happen?  I mean, honestly.  If you have the means to leave and a small sense of self-preservation, you're going to go. 

As we've seen in the post-Katrina attempts to clear the city, even the threat of force won't necessarily motivate people! You simply aren't going to get everybody out.  So 'mandatory' in this context doesn't mean "we'll force you out" but rather, "you might face legal penalties if you survive those impose by Nature."

Returning to the state plan, let's look at some of their assumptions:

The primary means of hurricane evacuation will be personal vehicles. School and municipal buses, government-owned vehicles and vehicles provided by volunteer agencies may be used to provide transportation for individuals who lack transportation and require assistance in evacuating.
A portion of the public will act in their best interest and voluntarily evacuate the high-risk areas before a recommended evacuation announcement.
Voluntary evacuation will be advised well in advance of landfall. Much of the public will evacuate high-risk areas when recommended by local authorities. Most will evacuate following a mandatory evacuation order.
As a hurricane approaches land, high winds and rising water will affect evacuation routes, making travel hazardous. Evacuation orders will take this into account and provide for evacuation routes to be closed at the point at which travel would become hazardous.

As evacuation routes are closed, people who are still in the risk area will be directed to last resort refuge within the area.

People with resources got out.  The poor and infirm could not.  BUT WHAT ABOUT THE BUSES?

Buses cannot carry infinite numbers of people.  Queueing theory dictates it takes time to fill any vessel.  With contraflow in effect (part of the plan), it would take perhaps 6 hours to get to areas of safety, so there would be no possibility of "ferrying" people as many folks have suggested out of ignorance.  Would a few more people have gotten out?  Perhaps, but then those resources would not have been available to help more people get to the refuge of last resort, in this case the Superdome.

Bloggers are great.  Many of them are smart.  But I'm sorry folks, a couple hours googling stuff doesn't make me an expert, and certainly doesn't make any wingnut capable of somehow conjuring up a better plan on the fly than what was already in place.

So following the plan, Nagin ordered the first ever mandatory evac on Sunday, August 28th, and 26,000 people gathered at the Superdome, which according to the Red Cross "saved a significant number of lives."  The refuge of last resort was provisioned such that 15,000 people could survive for 3 days--given the number who actually showed, it was estimated that support was adequate for 36 hours.  Remember that number.

State and local officials followed their plan.  Perfectly?  I guarantee you they did not.  Yet they were actively engaged in saving their people from the start and given the enormity of the task, did what they could.  Unfortunately, Katrina was a catastrophic, regional disaster that state and local resources just can't handle.  That is why the Federal government was summoned per the Federal Response Plan (PDF), which states that when help is requested the following types of assistance are available:

  • Initial response resources, including food, water, and emergency generators
  • Emergency services to clear debris, open critical transportation routes, and provide mass sheltering and feeding

Bush declared a state of emergency at Blanco's request, making DHS and FEMA responsible for coordinating the response.  That was on Saturday, August 27th.

Knight Ridder obtained a memo.  A rather damning memo.  Dated August 30th.  That's 2 days (or more than 36 hours) after people filed into the Superdome.  The memo is from DHS director Michael Chertoff, discussing a "task force" the President set up which was scheduled to meet the following day.  August 31st.  In other words, 3 days after people went to the Superdome.

Then it took a couple days after that to get FEMA mobilized to respond to Katrina.  That's too late, folks.

To sum up:

  • State and local officials developed a plan in the wake of Hurricane Ivan and followed it.
  • State and local officials requested Federal assistance as they are required by the Federal plan.
  • George Bush did not have a sense of urgency about a response, waiting to set up a task force days after the storm hit.

This is the guy who claimed in 2004 that he was best suited to respond in a crisis.  He failed to do his duty.  So if he really takes responsibility for what went wrong at the Federal level, he needs to do more than just apologize and throw $200B at his capitalist cronies to rebuild the region.

An honorable man would resign.


1 - Curiously, the plan is no longer publicly available, but I can vouch for the content in the Redstate timeline linked above.

[Update: fixed a bunch of annoying typos, word choices, etc.]

September 18, 2005 | Permalink


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It seemed like some of the "news" channels had the flooded buses on infinite loop yesterday.

Posted by: George Johnston | Sep 18, 2005 9:05:39 AM

excellent, meticulous work, NTodd. now, how to circulate your points in the wider world? the bad guys have boiled their point down to a few bits of cant. whereas the truth is, as usual, more complex and nuanced. and i've never figured out how complexity and nuance can trump simple-minded sloganeering.

or how anyone could like the moody blues (sorry, couldn't resist)). seriously, you rock. thanks for your blog.

Posted by: deluxe sampo | Sep 18, 2005 9:09:55 AM

Thank you. That answers the whole "buses" meme that seems to be the main line of defense of the White House supporters. I had read, sorry I don't have a link, that it was taking people in cars 8 hours to travel eighty miles. Imagine if 26,000 people in buses had been caught on the road when the storm hit or god forbid, the levees caved.

Posted by: ql in ny | Sep 18, 2005 9:10:16 AM

Thanks for putting together what I've saying for days. With the extent of the disaster, local and state authorities did the best they could.

If buses could have gotten people out, couldn't military troop carriers have done it? One would trust that they're in better shape than the average city bus. (Trust me, I've ridden a few in my area, and I doubt NO's were much better.)

Plus national guardsmen, unlike city/school bus drivers, wouldn't have had the pressure of getting their own families evacuated. Or were those people just supposed to have abandoned their own families?

And evacuations are of little point without somewhere to bus the people to.

Those are all the things FEMA could, and should, have done in coordination with local people.

One more thing - I've heard criticism lf Blanco about not releasing her authority over the national guard to the fed. I'd bet dollars to donuts that what the feds were demanding was more extensive than simply coordination in the crisis. The Bush admin has no conscience about exploiting human misery for its own fascist ends.

Posted by: sister of ye | Sep 18, 2005 9:18:57 AM

this won't do. you are using facts here.

Posted by: preznitwit | Sep 18, 2005 9:23:17 AM

O.K. NTodd, so how many hours (or perhaps it is down to minutes now) AFTER the levees break do you expect the federal government to invade a State?

Posted by: Charlie | Sep 18, 2005 10:03:38 AM

sister - yeah, I've heard all that "federalizing" crap. That is not required to get assistance Federal assistance and really, in light of how much the Feds fucked this up as it was, would you really trust them to do a better job than they did just because of a bureaucratic process?

Charlie - I'll ignore you deliberate use of loaded words like "invade" and observe that 36 hours would've been the bear minimum. Waiting to convene a meeting to plan the response until days after the event doesn't come close to cutting it.

Posted by: NTodd | Sep 18, 2005 11:25:23 AM

Thanks for a great blog. I've read the entire pdf file on La's hurricane evacuation plan and you did a wonderful job creating a synopsis. All the key points were highlighted that rebut the Rove smear campaign. While Nagin and Blanco may have made a few mistakes that are obvious only in hindsight, they DID follow the plan and did everything in their power to get the citizens of N.O. to safety.

You are right-on when you talk about how difficult it would have been to use the buses to evacuate all of the citizens who were not able to leave on their own. The plan did not specify how this was to be done, and as you noted it is a very complex undertaking. The plan didn't specify 1) how all of these citizens were to be identified and assembled, 2) how many buses would be needed, 3) where the buses would come from, 4) how far in advance the evacuation would have to start, and 5) where the citizens would be bussed to. All crucial points to consider. Any effort by Nagin to bus people out of the city without having first worked out these details would necessarily have been haphazard and not comprehensive.

And the evacuation routes--again, you brought up the great point that it takes just about forever to evacuate. My parents evacuated for Ivan and it took them 12 hours to get across Lake Pontchartrain--usually a 45 min trip. With the contraflow plan, the time was cut in half from what I've heard from other evacuees, but that's still at least 6 hours to get out of the city. Ferrying is NOT an option.

One last rant: something that really pisses me off about Bush & Co's response (or lack thereof) is the statement that "no one predicted that the levees would fail" (Bush, 1-2 days after the hurricane) and Brown/FEMA claiming that the delay in rescuing people was due to logistical problems dealing with flooded streets. Well, my response to that is that FEMA modelled EXACTLY this disaster, they DID predict the flooding, so why not be prepared with amphibious vehicles and boats? You just can't claim that you weren't expecting to deal with floods when your own agency predicted them. I don't buy it. And I suppose Rove would say that the state of La was supposed to provide its own aquatic rescue teams. Hah.

My .02

Posted by: MSM | Sep 18, 2005 12:07:59 PM

Charlie, out of sheer curiosity, after such a blatant, earth-shattering (literally) track record of screw-ups, incompetence, cronyism, arrogance and greed on the part of this entire administration, how can you possibly still be defending them? What thought processes do you use to do this?

Posted by: Green | Sep 18, 2005 12:21:25 PM

So Charlie tell us how many residents of the Mississippi coast did Haley Barbour bus out?

I need that as a standard by which to measure Nagin's performance.

Posted by: Gimlet | Sep 18, 2005 12:40:40 PM

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