Failure in responding to Katrina

So soon after the embarrassing failure of emergency response it’s a little risky to venture an explanation.    The appearance is that government planning for emergency response to “the big one” failed to include providing food and shelter for those stranded by it.

My opinion is that the problem was mainly that FEMA kept following the plan they had on file even when it was apparently not working.   I think both key failures, the bad plan and bad leadership in response, come from the scale of the problem.    The disaster caused by Katrina was different in kind and was treated as only being different in degree.

I really don’t want to minimize the direct fault of the personnel in charge of the state and federal response, even if exemplary ability to change plans in the midst of a crisis may not be in their job description.   It should be.    The plans that would have worked fine for smaller disasters were incompetent for the bigger one.

The “big one” did surprising things.   For one, the evacuation plan seemed to selectively evacuate the people who ran everything in response to unexpectedly heavy storm damage and the loss of all communication.

The effect was to tear the institutions of community, city and state apart.   Blinded and crippled it’s no wonder that the emergency responders could only seem to stagger around.     Judging from results, that was the plan.

Looking at it from the other side it’s possible that had the planners noticed that the “big one” would be different in kind they’d also see that the state and federal response would be necessarily inadequate.    Maybe the needed difference in response would have been good local civil defense plans and supplies.

If nothing else the people stuck behind have clearly acted helpless and apparently had no civil defense training whatever.    That they acted helpless was partly their own fault of course, but if there were only stores of critical supplies left for the purpose, it might have made a huge difference in both fact and appearance.

It might take leadership, like federal mandates, to persuade neighborhoods to do adequate civil defense, but the professional planners probably need to do a better job of telling the feds horror stories like that of New Orleans to persuade them to do it.

There’s lots of other blame to go around, for the breach of the levy on Lake Pontchartrain, for building below sea level on a storm path in the first place, etc. The fact is that you can’t always be prepared for the worst and nature is full of hazards.   Like one old friend liked reminding me, this is life, and nobody but nobody gets out alive!   Ultimately we’re dealing with a crappy hand and making the best of it, and do a rather fine job of that in many ways, exemplified by New Orleans.

My other concern is with the plans for recovery.   I won’t say much for the moment but this.    A vibrant community, urban spirit and way of life such as New Orleans represents is actually a living thing that grew up on its own without anyone knowing the design.   We certainly don’t know how to make these kinds of things that make life wonderful any more than a farmer knows how to make corn without seed.

What we can tell about the ‘seed’ of a living community spirit is that it lies in the connections between the people, which the defacto solution for the city was to break and scatter.    That is really not good.

Galveston was never the same again after it was hit by a great storm, and New Orleans seems sure to be greatly changed too.   In life and nature you can never go back.    There is, though, a way to improve the chances that the real ancient cultural roots of New Orleans will survive to thrive again. It’s a lesson that applies to lots of other situations too.

Keep the connections going. In the shelters have neighborhood corners, fund the local paper to expand its web site, capture unused public access TV, etc.    You can’t tell where that’s going to work, but you can be sure, I think, that the chances of a living community decay rapidly with its connections severed.

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