Friday, September 02, 2005

Disaster in New Orleans

I'm starting to have the feeling that the country I grew up in is no more. How can it happen that a major city can break down so quickly while the rest of us watch on television? Why isn't the federal government doing more - doing everything it can - to save people in New Orleans from hunger, thirst, heat, lack of sanitation, lack of access to doctors and medication - you name it? How can it be that people are dying in the streets and no one is even noticing the corpses? Why didn't the local and state governments bring in buses before the hurricane hit to evacuate the people too poor to get out on their own?

Is it really because our government has sent so many National Guard troops to Iraq that we have none left to deal with disasters here at home? So much for our "wartime" President, who can do nothing more than fly over Louisiana in Air Force One, watching from above. Is it because most of the people left in New Orleans are poor and black?

And the rest of us, we sit at our televisions and watch it as if it were a spectacle akin to a reality show.

Some words from local officials in New Orleans:

On the situation in the Superdome:
"Some people there have not eaten or drunk water for three or four days, which is inexcusable," acknowledged Joseph W. Matthews, the director of the city's Office of Emergency Preparedness. "We need additional troops, food, water," Mr. Matthews begged, "and we need personnel, law enforcement. This has turned into a situation where the city is being run by thugs."

On FEMA:
Col. Terry Ebbert, director of homeland security for New Orleans ... was particularly pungent in his criticism. Asserting that the whole recovery operation had been "carried on the backs of the little guys for four goddamn days," he said that "the rest of the goddamn nation can't get us any resources for security."

"We are like little birds with our mouths open, and you don't have to be very smart to know where to drop the worm," Colonel Ebbert said. "It's criminal within the confines of the United States that within one hour of the hurricane they weren't force-feeding us. It's like FEMA has never been to a hurricane." FEMA is the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

A local resident outside the Superdome:
"We're just a bunch of rats," said Earle Young, 31, a cook who stood waiting in a throng of perhaps 10,000 outside the Superdome, waiting in the blazing sun for buses to take them away from the city. "That's how they've been treating us."

On where the refugees are being sent:
The effects of the disaster spilled out over the country. In Houston, the city began to grapple with the logistics of taking tens of thousands of refugees into the Astrodome, and San Antonio and Dallas each braced for the arrival of 25,000 more. Baton Rouge overnight replaced New Orleans as the most populous city in Louisiana and was bursting at the seams.

On the receiving end in Houston, though, the Astrodome looked at times like a squatters' camp in a war-torn country. The refugees from Louisiana, many dirty and hungry, wandered about aimlessly, checking bulletin boards for information about their relatives, queuing up for supplies and pay phones, mobbing Red Cross volunteers to obtain free T-shirts. Many found some conditions similar to those that they left behind at the Superdome, like clogged toilets and foul restrooms.

But in Houston, there were hot showers, crates of Bibles and stacks of pizzas, while in New Orleans, many refugees scrounged for diapers, water and basic survival.

This article from the New York Times talks about how the government did not forsee the failure of the levees, and did not prepare for having to evacuate and house 100,000 people in the city who were too poor, old, or sick to leave on their own. They thought that even if Katrina had been a Category 5 storm, the levees and flood walls might be overtopped - not that they might be breached.
Rodney Braxton, the chief lobbyist for New Orleans, said that many of the city's poorest residents "had nowhere to go outside the region and no way to get there. And there wasn't enough police power to go to each house to say, 'You have to go, come with me.' " In a city with so many residents living in poverty, the hurricane came at the worst possible time: the end of the month, when those depending on public assistance are waiting for their next checks to be mailed on the first of the month. Without the checks, many residents didn't have money for gas, bus fare or lodging. City officials said they provided free transportation from pick-up points publicized on television, radio and by people shouting through megaphones on the streets. In addition to the Superdome, officials opened schools and the convention center as shelters.

While they may have done that, they didn't try to evacuate them outside the city.
The chaotic disaster response came despite repeated efforts over many years to plan a coordinated defense if the worst should occur. As recently as July 2004, federal, state and local officials cooperated on the Hurricane Pam drill, which predicted 10 to 15 feet of water in parts of the city and the evacuation of one million people. Martha Madden, who was the Louisiana secretary of environmental quality from 1987-1988, said that the potential for disaster was always obvious and that "FEMA has known this for 20 years." "Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent, in studies, training and contingency plans, scenarios, all of that," said Ms. Madden, now a consultant in strategic planning. The Army Corps, she said, should have had arrangements in place with contractors who had emergency supplies at hand, like sandbags or concrete barriers, the way that environmental planners have contracts in place to handle oil spills and similar events.

I know that it's impossible to plan for everything, and that the magnitude of the disaster has overwhelmed everyone - but can't we help those people who are suffering?

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