08 September 2005

More Katrina Lessons Learned.

God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change,
courage to change the things we can,
and wisdom to know the difference.

-- Attributed to Roman Philosopher Boethius and popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous.

I don't believe in God, but do agree with the sentiment behind the serenity prayer. Preventable misfortune needs to be stamped out. Unpreventable fortune needs to be accepted serenely.

I've ranted at some length on the abject failure of FEMA to handle the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina well, and the lack of leadership provided by the Bush Administration.

There is, of course, blame to go around.

The biggest federal mistakes before the disaster were (1) a failure to fund levee maintenance and improvement projects, despite the fact that what New Orleans experienced was one of the top three most likely disasters to occur, (2) the development of a plan (based on a "Hurricane Pam" scenario) which simply assumed that 100,000 people or so would remain in the city and suffer, instead of recognizing that this status quo was unacceptable and trying to address it, and (3) a failure to mobilize resources and get them moving to the scene in advance of the storm actually hitting (a failure exacerbated by the fact that many Louisiana National Guard troops were in Iraq). Naval ships and trucks could have been en route before the Hurricane even made landfall, instead of days later, as actually happened.

Even one less levee break would have dramatically reduced the danger to the city. But, the funds that could have prevented that were intentionally diverted elsewhere by the Bush Administration over local protests.

Likewise, a mandatory evacuation isn't very meaningful when it isn't enforced and people aren't given the means to evacuate. Local officials do share blame for not doing a better job of enforcing the mandatory evacuation order before the Hurricane hit, or at least making it easier for people to comply. But, the Mayor's failure to do this is understandable, because efforts like city sponsored buses to get people out weren't part of the Hurricane plan. Still, we need to learn from this for all future predictable disasters. If even two-thirds of those who stayed in New Orleans and other hard hit areas had been bussed to shelters a hundred miles inland in advance of the storm, the amount of suffering from this disaster would have been an order of magnitude smaller. It is clear, after the fact that at least, that many stayed, not because they were determined to sit out the storm, but because they were unable to leave, either due to health problems, or poverty. Allowing pets to be evacuated in advance of the storm with their owners or caretakers, would have induced even more people to leave.

Sure, not everyone would have left without intense use of force. The 15,000 who are still in New Orleans now, wouldn't have left. Perhaps twice as many wouldn't have left without seeing the devastation wrought by the storm and the subsequent broken levees.

But, evacuations of even two-thirds of those who ended up staying would have helped not only those who left, but those who stayed. Rescue and supply resources would have been less strapped. Shelters of last resort would have been less full. Those who remained would have been less overwhelmingly composed of the weakest members of society, like the elderly and poor single mothers with young children.

The issue of lawlessness in the city after the storm mostly goes to the third issue, failure to dispatch help as soon as possible. Violence comes from desperation and an impression that civil authority has vanished. The city should have been swarming with relief boats, national guard troops and rescue helicopters hours after the eye passed, not several days later. National Guard officers should have been appropriating supplies from damaged groceries and pharmacies for public use and supervising their distribution within twenty-four hours, leaving potential looters without the desperation that would drive them to take those goods in the first place. People are more reasonable when they haven't gone without food, water, dry shelter and medical care for two or three days.

The biggest local failure was again, a long term one, rather than one attributable to this particular Mayor (unlike the failures at the federal level, which were mostly attributable to the ineptitude of our current leaders). Indeed, the near universal fact that land use decision making is not coordinated meaningfully at a metropolitan area level was an important part of the problem. The region's building codes and land use patterns exacerbated the risk.

These steps weren't taken, and there were other failures after the fact as well, as discussed before, most notably, failure to use resources that were available to be used, especially from volunteers, the military and distant governments. As a result, Hurricane Katrina will likely be the most deadly disaster in U.S. history, and cause more property damage than any other disaster in U.S. history. The best we can do is punish those officials who failed, mitigate the damage that has already been done, and learn our lessons from this disaster so that these consequences will never be experienced again.

There will be natural forces of comparable capacity to do harm in the future. Global warming and the proximity of so many major cities to coastal areas makes the future risk from hurricanes like this one a near inevitability. New Orleans itself could easily be hit again, even this season. But, we can improve the measures we put in place to plan for these disasters so that when they happen again they are not so catastrophic. Toughening the infrastructure in place to mitigate risk, planning development with risks in mind, improving mechanisms for evacuating people and pets to distant shelters in advance of disasters, and improving the extent to which relief forces are pre-deployed and then immediately get to the scene, would go a long way towards achieving those ends. It is hard to imagine that these costs could possibly exceed the costs of suffering another disaster like this one.

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