Sunday, September 11, 2005

A Tale Of Two Storms Part Two

The verdict of Florida's emergency response officials is that not only did Louisiana fail to properly plan and train for an eminently forseeable disaster, but it also failed to follow the flawed plan it had:

One thing Florida knows is hurricanes.

Florida emergency planners criticized and even rebuked their counterparts -- or what passes for emergency planners -- in those states for their handling of Hurricane Katrina. Gov. Jeb Bush, the head of Florida AHCA and the head of Florida wildlife (which is responsible for all search and rescue) all said they made offers of aid to Mississippi and Louisiana the day before Katrina hit but were rebuffed. After the storm, they said they've had to not only help provide people to those states but also have had to develop search and rescue plans for them. "They were completely unprepared -- as bad off as we were before Andrew," one Florida official said. ...

Louisiana also lacked an adequate plan to evacuate New Orleans, despite years of research that predicted a disaster equal to or worse than Katrina. Even after a disaster test run last year exposed weaknesses in evacuation and recovery, officials failed to come up with solutions. ...

But the most recent Louisiana emergency operations plan doesn't address how to evacuate in the case of flooding from storm surge, saying simply that "The Greater New Orleans Metropolitan Area represents a difficult evacuation problem due to the large population and its unique layout."

It continues, "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."

However, the article by a crew of Times writers instead inadvertently encapsulates the incompetence of Louisiana's governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, in a single anecdote that also calls into question the ability of the four reporters to properly investigate their subject matter.

The scene: three days after Katrina's landfall, and a day after the levees broke. The place: Baton Rouge. The setting: the state's command center for emergency response.

The governor of Louisiana was "blistering mad." It was the third night after Hurricane Katrina drowned New Orleans, and Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco needed buses to rescue thousands of people from the fetid Superdome and convention center. But only a fraction of the 500 vehicles promised by federal authorities had arrived.

Ms. Blanco burst into the state's emergency center in Baton Rouge. "Does anybody in this building know anything about buses?" she recalled crying out.

They were an obvious linchpin for evacuating a city where nearly 100,000 people had no cars. Yet the federal, state and local officials who had failed to round up buses in advance were now in a frantic hunt. It would be two more days before they found enough to empty the shelters.

Why didn't Blanco know about these buses?

Did Louisiana and Governor Blanco follow any of its plan? Based on the report we read in the New York Times yesterday, it appears that Blanco didn't even know what the plan required, or even have any knowledge of the resources and responsibilities that the state government had.

Also note the date on Louisiana's EOP. Its last revision came in January 2000. No one in Louisiana has updated this plan despite the events that followed after that date:

* 9/11
* Hurricane Ivan (Sep 2004)
* Natural Hazards evaluation of LA/NO response (Nov 2004)

Florida officials have called this correctly. The response to Katrina and its unnecessarily deadly consequences started years ago, when Louisiana and its officials refused to take emergency planning seriously and neglected to make what slight planning did take place known to the various agencies expected to respond. No amount of federal intervention could have overcome the mistakes made by state and local response agencies in the days and hours before landfall, and even afterwards the reluctance of Blanco to allow federal authority to take over the area cost more time and lives while she dithered.

Sheer incompetence. Louisiana needs to ask itself why their elected officials left them so vulnerable to this kind of disaster.The Times-Picayune publishes/blogs a lengthy interview with Mayor Nagin by reporter Gordon Russell. Lots in there; judge for yourself.On the buses:

Federal officials have also faulted Nagin’s administration for not marshaling its own buses and those of the School Board to start ferrying the tens of thousands of evacuees stranded at the Superdome and the Convention Center out of town.
Nagin said perhaps some of the criticism is fair. But he said there were various logistical hurdles that made it hard to use that equipment, and the buses would have hardly created a dent in the size of the crowds anyway.
“It’s up for analysis,” he said. “But we didn’t have enough buses. I don’t control the school buses, and the RTA (Regional Transit Authority) buses as far as I know were positioned high and dry. But 80 percent of the city was not high and dry. Where would we have staged them? And who was going to drive them even if we commandeered them? If I’d have marshaled 50 RTA buses, and a few school buses, it still wouldn’t have been nearly enough. We didn’t get food, water and ice in this place, and that’s way above the local level.
“Our plan was always to use the buses to evacuate to the Dome as a shelter of last resort, and from there, rely on state and federal resources.”
Those resources took way too long to arrive, Nagin said – in fact, much of the help didn’t arrive until after the mass evacuations from the Dome and the Convention Center had occurred.
Well, there’s the first FOIA I want to see: Let’s see the plan. Let’s see all the plans: city, state, and federal. Who was supposed to do what. Oops, we have already seen the plans. Both the New Orleans plan and the State plan. Maybe Nagin or Blanco haven't seen their own plans. Could it be? Read the entire interview, it's a doozy.

Update: There were 21,000 buses in Louisiana. Her failure to procure them locally is bizarre.

Vehicles and Conveyances

Automobiles registered: 2.0 million

Light trucks registered: 1.5 million

Heavy trucks registered: 32,000

Buses registered: 21,000

Motorcycles registered: 48,000

Rail transit systems: 1 light rail

Numbered boats: 314,000

UPDATE: I was going to save my vitriol at the Feds and blame game as well as a summary of things that went right for a new post or two but this was worth a bump in the queue: This from Jack Kelly of the Pittsburg Post- Gazette is well worth the read and it does put things in a bit more perpective.

"Mr. Bush's performance last week will rank as one of the worst ever during a dire national emergency," wrote New York Times columnist Bob Herbert in a somewhat more strident expression of the conventional wisdom."

But the conventional wisdom is the opposite of the truth.