Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Observations on the response to Katrina

I 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."


At 11:15 PM, August 31, 2005, Blogger Max Concrete said...

I agree with your comments. Considering the amount of known risk and dire consequences of a levee failure, it seems like the planning and preventive action should have been better.

As a taxpayer I'm also concerned how much this is going to cost us (through the federal government). Does it make sense to pour billions into rebuilding in a location where there should not even be a city?

One potential opportunity for Houston is attract some energy-related businesses that may be interested in relocating. Has anyone seen any signs of this?

At 12:09 AM, September 01, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Um...ok. So are hybrids less fuel efficient than hybrids and jitneys?

And why should we forego fuel efficiency standards for congestion standards (i.e. "room to brake") ?

At 7:25 AM, September 01, 2005, Blogger Andrew said...

I am glad to see Houston opens it's arms and help fellow citizens but have an issue.
That maybe someone on this blog can address.
If there is such lawlessness going on in & out of the Superdome, what makes Houston think that those same thugs wont find themselves on a bus heading to Houston.
Houston has a crime problem of her own so why are we busing in criminals.
I am not saying that all these people are criminals but just 1 bad apple is enough.
It's good to be kind hearted but Fort Polk Louisiana has the space and the trained personel to deal with these people, so why are they coming to Houston?
Sorry for the rant I just don't see this coming off as smoothly as Eckels would want everyone to believe.

At 8:18 AM, September 01, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

why are the Feds responsible for protecting an untenable city? Why isn't that a local problem?

Houston has a crime problem of her own so why are we busing in criminals?

Owen, is that you? Sounds like it...

At 9:02 AM, September 01, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Andrew: I do not know the answer. Ft. Polk sounds like a good site, but maybe they're full with troops for one reason or another right now? Or they lack access to adequate health care? (vs. our Medical Center) 20,000 is really only a drop in the bucket. A million+ people lived in metro New Orleans and have to find shelter. There are probably at least a 100,000 still there. If the capacity is there, I'll bet they tap Ft. Polk at some point.

They are promising comprehensive searches of the people bussed in to remove weapons, drugs, or alcohol. I'm sure there will also be substantial security.

The benefit of our generosity to tens of thousands far, far, far outweighs the risk of bringing in a few bad apples with the desperate masses, IMHO.

At 9:32 AM, September 01, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why are the Feds responsible for protecting an untenable city? Why isn't that a local problem?

Well, there is the port of New Orleans, which is something like the fifth busiest worldwide and whose unavailability will have a very adverse effect on national and international commerce. And of course there's all the refineries, chemical plants, and pipeline terminals. I think you can make a pretty good case for national interest in protecting all of these assets.

The point of that E&P article is that planned projects to fortify the NO levees were the victims of Bush budget cuts. Whether or not those projects would have made a difference in this storm, I think it's fair to point out the policy decisions that were made.

At 9:32 AM, September 01, 2005, Blogger kjb434 said...

About the federal money to protect New Orleans: I guess Harris County ought to give back the billions they received from the Federal Govn't including the Army Corps for work after Tropical Storm Allison.

Houston, has a flooding problems, I guess we should handle it all our own too.

The importance of New Orleans and south Louisiana to the overall US is too critical to let go. The Miss Gulf Coast also provides some necesities for the US. When the impacts are felt well beyond regional and state borders, it becomes a Federal issue.

Also, the federal govn't is the only body capable of handling the aftermath of this tragedy

At 9:33 AM, September 01, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oops - that last comment was from me. Forgot to sign my name.

-- Charles Kuffner

At 9:52 AM, September 01, 2005, Anonymous Dave said...

The energy industry has already pretty much left New Orleans for Houston. I believe Shell is the only major company that still had a New Orleans office. N.O.'s economy has been tourism and the port and very little else for quite some time. Unfortunately, both those things were in a slump before the storm, and there's no way to relocate those two industries.

At 11:00 AM, September 01, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Max: a partial answer to your question about businesses moving to Houston:

At 1:03 PM, September 01, 2005, Anonymous HH Gwin III said...

One would hope that next time, the National Guard will be mobilized sooner and looters will be shot. Looters should be shot for two reasons:

1). If people are afraid of having their houses looted, they may be less willing to evacuate next time. They may drown in their houses.

2). I've heard of looters stealing from hospitals and interfering with recuers. How many people will die in the mud because their would-be rescuers were afraid to help without police protection?

At 1:21 PM, September 01, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Looters should be shot

Ummmm.... never mind that the NOPD was even assisting in some looting for things like food, medicine, certain clothing items, etc.

Allowing any government a policy of "shoot first and ask questions never" is an action that has no moral standing.

It just amazes me to read a few of the responses here. Some pretty ugly stuff...

At 4:09 PM, September 01, 2005, Anonymous RJ said...

Tory -

RE: It has been noted that upgrading the levees for a category 4 or 5 was too expensive... but why aren't there at least simple gates at the ends of the canals to shut them off if a levee breaks?

Let me add to that by floating another seemingly simple idea... emergency inflatable barriers. And perhaps even a redundant inflatable levee system that runs along the Lake that can be activated ahead of storms like Katrina.

And why on earth are electric motors being used on some of the pumps? You know, power does go out during many natural disasters... Fuel cells would have been a better choice. Many institutions in SoCal (such as hospitals) realized this following various earthquakes.

And why the heck hasn't the military converged on New Orleans yet? That should have happened as soon as the first levee was breached. Any Joe Armchair like us who has read anything about New Orleans knows the scenario of what happens when a levee fails.

At 11:18 PM, September 01, 2005, Anonymous hh gwin iii said...

Anonymous said...
Looters should be shot

"Allowing any government a policy of "shoot first and ask questions never" is an action that has no moral standing.

It just amazes me to read a few of the responses here. Some pretty ugly stuff..."

Raping your fellow refugees is ugly. Stealing generators from hospitals is ugly. Shooting at rescue helicopters is ugly.

Shooting looters is justice.

By the way, "anonymous", how about SIGNING your post if you have a pair. Perhaps your opinion will be respected.

At 6:06 AM, September 02, 2005, Anonymous anonymous said...

Shooting looters is justice.

yep, definitely what Jesus would do...

how about SIGNING your post if you have a pair

just did

At 6:07 AM, September 02, 2005, Anonymous signed, anonymous said...

how about SIGNING your post if you have a pair

oops, now I did

At 8:50 AM, September 02, 2005, Anonymous Dave (from N.O., live in Houston) said...

I have to agree that the looters in question should be shot.

There's nothing wrong with taking water, food, and medicine. Walgreens reportedly gave permission to various hospitals and hotels to take those things from their ruined stores.

But we're talking looters breaking into real estate offices--looking for what? Looters cleaning out a sporting goods store of guns and ammo. Looters taking televisions from the Wal-Mart. Looters setting fire to the Oakwood Mall, shooting at rescue helicopters, and overturning a boat full of nurses evacuating the public hospital!

That sort of behavior marks you as nothing but scum. You don't kick someone that's down, and you don't use a disaster as an excuse to help yourself to 200 pairs of jeans.

It's behavior like this that makes me disgusted with human nature, or at least that of *certain* humans.

At 10:17 AM, September 02, 2005, Anonymous HH Gwin III said...

"yep, definitely what Jesus would do..."

Perhaps CNN didn't cover it, but I don't exactly see Jesus walking around New Orleans.

Sometimes, Jesus uses violent, unpleasant people like me to protect the weak from the animals.

Think about that next time you try to "reason" with someone who wants to kill you and help himself to your TV, your wife, or your child.

FWIW, I'll be at my church in Houston's Museum District all next week, preparing or serving food or whatever they need. Come join me. We need the help. Which church it is, is irrelevant...I think they all need the help.

At 8:54 PM, September 02, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

To clarify on the local vs. federal expense: I definitely believe the Feds are the people to handle emergency relief. But outside of emergency relief, I think local govt is devolving in this country into a game of "what expense can we pawn off on the feds?" (inc. transit and highways). It's time for a reclarification of what the feds should cover, and what states are responsible for. Ask any economist: you warp decision making when you provide subsidies (i.e. "free" money).

That said, in general, I think most states get back from the feds reasonably close to what they put in in terms of tax dollars, so it may not be that big of a deal. But you really have to wonder: if the feds suddenly said to states "we're going stop collecting $X billion from your citizens and stop providing Y services", how much would states really raise taxes to compensate and replace those services. I would bet a whole lot of those services would suddenly lose their urgent priority...

At 10:42 PM, September 02, 2005, Anonymous signed, anonymous said...

hh gwin iii says "Perhaps CNN didn't cover it, but I don't exactly see Jesus walking around New Orleans."

Wow! So you don't think He's omnipresent? You don't think he's with the folks of New Orleans? I don't recall abandonment being a big theme of Jesus's in the New Testament.

At 10:45 PM, September 02, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The republican spin machine is placing *all* the blame for the poor-response debacle on the local authorities, including the governor of louisiana and the mayor of new orleans. It'll be intersting to see how this plays out - their main goal is to protect Bush, but I think this time he's going to take a pretty big hit.

At 9:50 AM, September 03, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

After watching Bush's press conference at the NOLA airport yesterday, I think there's an uneasy truce between Democrats and Republicans. I think Democrats realize they're vulnerable at the state and local level, and Republicans know they're vulnerable at the national level. There will a lot of hashing in the media, but I don't think you'll see the politicians go at each other directly, because it'll be mutually assured destruction (MAD). The head of FEMA and possibly Homeland Security will resign once the situation has stabilized, if I had to guess.

At 11:33 AM, September 03, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

John Tierney at the NY Times expresses similar concerns over Federal vs. local or private protection from disaster:

At 10:24 PM, September 03, 2005, Blogger Andrew said...

The first response was to blame Bush for the problems but when people really started looking at issues closely, they realized that the Democratic Mayor and Governor will get their fair share of the blame.
Nagin not having buses ready to take the sick and poor out of HIS city was problem #1. Plus, the Governor didn't ask for Federal troops until Wednesday!
So I think they will be a fair share of finger-pointing and spinning but both parties will let this issue go as soon as something happens in Iraq.

At 11:31 AM, September 06, 2005, Anonymous hh gwin iii said...

"Wow! So you don't think He's omnipresent? You don't think he's with the folks of New Orleans? I don't recall abandonment being a big theme of Jesus's in the New Testament."

Now you're just trolling. There's a difference between personal comfort and Salvation. Jesus himself cautioned not to lay up treasure in this world (where thieves break in and steal, and rust and moth consume) but in the next.

I won't go further into theology as it's not appropriate here, but the idea that if God loves you, he'll make you rich (to paraphrase Janis Joplin) is recent, and may explain why so many churchgoers feel no responsibility toward the poor.


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