Observations on the response to KatrinaI originally planned on writing today's post about John Tierney's excellent column in the New York Times this week about the power of high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes and the futility of letting hybrids into the HOV lanes. But the story of the week is Hurricane Katrina, and particularly the slow destruction of New Orleans by rising flood waters.
Tonight, things are looking grim. Looters are getting more aggressive and violent. Gangs with AK-47s are roaming the streets. Wal-Marts have been cleaned out of their guns and ammo. There could be 100,000+ people still in the city. Most will leave voluntarily when transportation is provided, but what will authorities do if there is a hard-core population perfectly happy to continue hiding and looting the city while it's abandoned? How do you empty a 180 sq.mile flooded city? Door to door? With who and what? I don't think the current police force and the marginal addition of National Guard troops is going to cut it. It might be time to call in whatever Airborne army units we have in this country that aren't in Iraq or Afganistan before we have a real-life version of the movie "Escape from New York". These images of looting are going to put many others at risk during future hurricanes, when they would rather evacuate but decide they have to stay to protect their belongings because they can't count on local authorities to move-in in force after the hurricane passes.
While the crisis is ongoing, some attention is starting to turn towards some very hard questions:
- This flooding potential has been known for years, but why does it seem as if there was incredibly bad planning for it? Why has the planned shelter of last resort - the SuperDome - been such a disaster itself?
- Why was an mandatory evacuation ordered, but no public transportation provided for those with no means to leave the city? Doesn't seem obvious in hurricane evacuation planning for a deeply poor city that hundreds of buses need to be called up before it strikes?
- It has been noted that upgrading the levees for a category 4 or 5 was too expensive, and I'm no civil engineer, but why aren't there at least simple gates at the ends of the canals to shut them off if a levee breaks? My wife and I recently got back from a trip to Ottawa, where their canal has quite a few boat locks/gates, which don't really seem that complex or expensive.
- Stories indicate that the levees were broken for hours overnight before public works found out about it, allowing the breaches to grow dramatically over many hours. In a city totally dependent on the levees to protect it, wouldn't make sense to have arrays of sensors that can immediately detect a breach? Ones that are on their own generator-backed-up power grid? That would enable a rapid response while the breach was small, before it grew to hundreds of feet wide.
- Again, in city where the levees are so critical, shouldn't a pre-packaged rapid-response capability been in place to respond to a levee breach? Maybe a simple barge with sandbags, concrete, and a crane? Heck, maybe just some barges that can be easily sunk in place to block a gap? Why is the Army Corps. of Engineers having to figure out on-the-fly how to respond to these levee breaches?
Some are already blaming Bush for budget cutbacks in the engineering program to enhance New Orleans protection, and I don't want to sound harsh, but I have to ask: why are the Feds responsible for protecting an untenable city? Why isn't that a local problem? Californians locally absorb the cost of building their buildings and infrastructure to survive an earthquake, but protecting New Orleans from hurricanes and flooding is somehow a national problem? Now that we're in the process of completely building out Galveston island, should we demand that the Feds come down and extend the seawall all the way down? Shouldn't Galvestonians absorb that risk and pay if they want to mitigate it?
CNN is reporting that a lot of people are angry at the slow federal response. My suspicion is that, when the media dig into this story over the next few weeks, they're going to find that the emergency management organizations in Louisana, Mississippi, and Alabama (all poor states) were totally inadequate, and it took the Feds 24-48 hours to figure this out (they're probably used to dealing with Florida, which I'll bet has this disaster-response stuff down to a science). So then the Feds had to step in and take over by sending in resources above and beyond FEMA to compensate for poor planning by those states. Certainly this is a disaster beyond any normal magnitude, but my impression is that these states didn't really have even the most basic plans and resources in place for what was really a very predictable disaster (who would guess a high-powered hurricane might hit Gulf Coast states?!)
(update this morning: Wall Street Journal confirms - "As U.S. Mobilizes Aid, Katrina Exposes Flaws in Preparation - Despite Warnings, Officials Say There Wasn't Clear Plan For a New Orleans Disaster")
The good news is that Houston is reaching out with generous donations and support, not the least of which is the Astrodome refugee shelter. Rice and UH are reaching out to Tulane and other displaced students, as are the TEA and HISD. Mayor White performed admirably on CNN tonight, and so did Judge Eckels on Fox News (both conveying much more competent leadership than many other politicians and government officials I've seen on TV this week). Bill O'Reilly was impressed with the speed of the Astrodome logistics coming together and very complimentary towards Judge Eckels, who simply responded (I'm paraphrasing):
"Houston comprehensively plans for this sort of situation."