Wednesday, September 07, 2005


Like a lot of folk on blogs, I think it's time to throw my two cents into the arena in regard to the Katrina mess. Let me begin that for the most part it's too early to assign "blame". Heck, for a lot of things what is currently seen as blame may turn out to be outstanding success.

Case in point - the tens or hundreds of thousands stuck in New Orleans during the hurricane. That is, the alleged "failed" evacuation. They had an evacuation of at least 80%, some estimates as high as 90%. That on a short-notice evacuation. You don't think that's impressive? OK, try this. Go to an apartment building and pull the fire alarm. Now find out how many residents didn't get out. Unless the place has special supervision, you're likely to discover a lot more stay-behinds than you'd expect. Some will be folk who couldn't get out - sick, bedridden, elderly, that sort of thing - and some will be people who thought "it's just a drill, if it were real I'd smell smoke". Now remember that New Orleans had a voluntary evacutation last year for a hurricane and Nothing Happened. (Actually, there was some damage, but relatively speaking it was insignificant.) The normally planned time to evacuate the city was 72 hours, and the order didn't go in till 48 hours. So with that in mind, the evacuation was FANTASTIC.

But. But there have been some things that deserve blame. Not many, but some that stand out as errors.

The Mayor of New Orleans dawdled. It's quite apparent he was one of those who felt it wasn't really going to be bad, regardless of what the weathermen said. It required the combined insistence of the governor and the president to get him to declare an emergency and order an evacutation. And because it was so short notice he didn't follow the plan but played catch-as-catch can.

A funny thing, but I've not yet found a true "error" in the governor's actions. There are some questionable items, but at the same time there are mitigating circumstances. What's most amusing at this level is the blame redirection program from the current administration that's trying to point all sorts of blame (that may or may not be deserved by anyone) at her. My favorite is the repeated claim that she never issued a "state of emergency", when it's in black and white documentation and specifically referenced by the White House statements on the 27th of August.

At the federal level, I'm really only seeing three "blame" events. Two are from the DHS - one in planning and preparation, one in the response.

The planning and preparation failure is quite simple - in 2002 there was a mandate that all the responders would have common communications, and it was DHS's responsibility to see it was done. Frankly, an amazing number of tragic events in the Katrina episode can be traced to this lack.

In response, the only blameworthy action is that DHS was slow off the mark. One of the most critical declarations in the process of responding to an emergency at the federal level is the sole responsibility of the Secretary of the DHS, and that's to declare an event as an "Incident of National Significance." Once that's declared a huge number of federal and NGO assets move without further need of notification. It's like pulling that rock holding up the avalanche, frankly. All the prerequisites for an INS declaration were in place the 27th of August - the governors of the states involved had declared an emergency beyond their ability to cope, the president had responded with an order of Federal Emergency Assistance, the governors had put their respective National Guards on standby... That was the 27th of August. On the 29th of August, Katrina made landfall. By that afternoon the levees had been breached and New Orleans was flooding, and Biloxi and Gulfport were reporting estimates of 90% of their structures being irreparably damaged. And here's where that condemnation occurs. Michael Chertoff, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, did not issue the INS till the late afternoon of August 30, approximatey 24 hours after the levees broke, and almost 36 hours after Katrina made landfall. "Ask of me anything but time," said Napoleon (paraphrased), and the SecDHS wasted at least a day and a half - given the prerequisites in place, perhaps as much as three full days.

And yes, I'm going to tag President Bush with some blame. Not, however, for setting up the disaster with the cuts or with delays or anything like that. In the cuts, he was doing what most of the folk who voted for him said they wanted. And in administrative terms he did everything in a timely fashion - he was, for example, critical in helping convince the Mayor of New Orleans to issue a mandatory evacuation notice. No, where he failed was in being a leader.

See, in times of emergency leaders lead. Sure, it's important they not merely be posturing figureheads but actually ensure that Things Get Done. But a good part of leadership is, indeed, "posturing". And that's where the president failed in his duty. This was such a major emergency coming on that he issued several Federal Emergency statements. He pleaded with at least one mayor to begin a mandatory evacutation. He did all that right, but at the same time it was all behind the scenes. And in leadership and politics, what isn't seen didn't happen.

What the public at large saw was a man who thought his vacation was more important that preparing for the emergency. He stayed on his ranch as the storm reached Cat 5. He played guitar and cut cake at a birthday party as the storm turned and raced for New Orleans. The day after it hit he finally said, "I'm cutting my vacation short and returning to Washington," then ruined his recovery by adding one more word, "tomorrow."

Appearances, all, matter. And if it's able to be handled tomorrow, it's not an emergency. If I think it's an emergency and you say you'll be there tomorrow, then to me you've said you do NOT think it's an emergency. Now let's be completely honest here. The President couldn't actually DO anything more in DC than he did at his ranch. And he did a lot. But he sent a terrible message - a message that in his eyes and therefore inevitably in the eyes of his subordinates this was not an emergency, it was just a rough period to be dealt with later.

Frankly, I cannot help but wonder if the DHS error was caused by Chertoff's impressions of the importance President Bush was giving the matter. After all, he held regular electronic meetings with the president, but that's just once a day and he was in DC, not Texas. So if you really wanted to push it you could assign Chertoff's blame to Bush. Me, I don't want to go that far - it's not the first time Chertoff's been a little slow off the mark, and those times didn't involve the president's behavior. However, Bush appeared to minimize the importance, and DHS dawdled the "go" order.

The folk doing rescue are doing heroic things. But I can't help thinking how much better they might have been if they'd been able to start a day earlier.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

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9/07/2005 6:29 PM  
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9/07/2005 6:34 PM  

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