Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Katrina analysis

This was posted on democraticunderground by a T. Roosevelt.
It's something to ponder.
I've been seeing a lot lately in the news and in the blogs about the
"blame game" and who was responsible. Having worked in the engineering
private sector interfacing with emergency management, and having spent
the past few years working on my PhD in engineering studying hurricane
evacuation, I can say that there is plenty of blame to go around. As in
civil lawsuits, the question is how much is apportioned to whom.

Every jurisdiction at risk of a hurricane develops emergency procedures
to deal with the possible consequences based on the predicted storm
severity and expected impacts (eg storm surge). Resource allocation,
placement of equipment and other supplies, and responsiblity of each
involved agency is laid out in these plans. These plans are typically
layered to account for increasing threat. Cat 1 storms don't require
nearly the preparation or relocation as Cat 5 storms - obviously. And no
city wants to evacuate if avoidable; this is costly both economically
and in terms of risk to citizen and personnel.

Once the threat becomes established (based on NHC weather forecasts),
these procedures are implemented, and as the threat increases, the
additional pre-determined measures (layers) are taken. Emergency
procedures don't kick in until certain criteria are met, simply out of
practicality. Jurisdictions can't just willy-nilly declare emergencies
and begin evacuations at any time, since nature can't be accurately
predicted beyond short-term times (Hurricane Charley is a good example).
Based on available timelines for Hurricane Katrina (ignoring the
GOP-produced bullshit timeline), Governor Blanco and Mayor Nagin appear
to have done what they were supposed to do, when they were supposed to
do it.

Once an emergency is declared, various administrative and jurisdictional
procedures kick in. Blanco clearly did this on the Friday prior to
landfall, and once the feds acknowledged her request (Saturday morning),
they became obligated to aid in any number of specific ways. Mayor Nagin
also took the steps assigned to him to move as many people to shelters
as possible. The fact that the evacuation reached an unprecedented 80%
is an indication of his efforts and his success (when 60% was expected).

Destination is a sticking point in many discussions - why the Superdome?
Why the Convention Center? Where was the food and water. When evacuation
procedures are developed, emergency evacuation shelters are identified.
However, provisions are not normally made for providing food and water -
this is the responsiblity of the evacuees (and Nagin pointedly
recommended 2-3 days of food and water). Clearly the Superdome and
Convention Center, along with a number of public schools or other sturdy
public facilities, were identified as shelters, and performed admirably
for the duration expected - around 2-3 days.

In addition, jurisdictions work with the resources available to them.
This includes money and personnel. If the money is not available, things
just don't get done, regardless of their necessity or potential for
death or destruction. This is the free market at work. And evacuations
are expensive. For example, much has been made of the school buses not
used to evacuate. It wouldn't have mattered if Nagin had a million buses
available to him - if he doesn't have the drivers, the buses are
useless. Perhaps if the National Guard had been dispatched in a timely
matter (and this is a sticking point between the Feds and the State),
the buses could have been utilized. Given that Lousiana was short-handed
on experienced NG troops due to their presence in Iraq, the federal
government bears much responsibility.

An important point, however, is destination. Where would have the buses
taken the evacuees? Most likely the Superdome, since any trip beyond New
Orleans would have been effectively one way (remember, the freeways were
contra-flow, meaning all lanes were outbound - therefore no return
traffic). Beyond this, there would have had to have been agreements made
or destinations established for these evacuees. Within Louisiana this
likely would not have been a problem, though no unaffected jurisdiction
would have been happy with so many evacuees descending upon their city.
Anything beyond the state limits would probably have required agreements
between Louisiana and the receiving state, along with the funds
necessary to support the temporary relocation (be it shelters, hotels,
whatever). Once again, money and free market raise their ugly heads.

The problems encountered during Katrina underline the importance of a
strong federal government, and a competent agency missioned to handle
such situations. State and local governments simply lack the resources
(both money and personnel) necessary to handle natural disasters of this
magnitude. FEMA was retooled after Hurricane Andrew to be the focal
point of response.

Without an investigation, absolute allocation of blame can probably
never be made. However, with a minimal amount of information some
educated guesses can be made. And in the case of Hurricane Katrina, FEMA
clearly dropped the ball, leaving the city of New Orleans and the state
of Lousisiana to essentially fend for themselves.

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