In comments to the press on Sep. 3, Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff remarked, "That 'perfect storm' of a combination of catastrophes exceeded the foresight of the planners, and maybe anybody's foresight", and called the disaster "breathtaking in its surprise."
It's not our fault," said Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, in charge of the deployment of National Guard troops in New Orleans. "The storm came and flooded the city."
In other words, Katrina was an Act of God no one could have foreseen, and the politicians we elected to protect us from disaster are not responsible for the unimaginable horror we have witnessed this week.
A horror unimagined by anyone, except by every hurricane scientist and government emergency management official for the past forty years and more. It was a certainty that New Orleans would suffer a catastrophe like this. Every 70 years, on average, the central Gulf Coast has a Category 4 or 5 hurricane pass within 80 miles of a given point. Sometimes you get lucky--for a while. New Orleans had gone over 150 years without a strike by a hurricane capable of overwhelming the levees. Sometimes you get unlucky. There's no guarantee that New Orleans won't get hit by another major hurricane this year. We are in the midst of an extraordinary period of hurricane activity, the likes of which has not been seen in recorded history. Hurricanes Ivan and Dennis, which both had storm surges capable of breaching the levees in New Orleans, smashed into Pensacola in the past year. Either of these storms could have inundated New Orleans, had they taken a slight wobble westward earlier in their track.
Hurricanes are an inescapable part of nature's way on the Gulf Coast. Nature doesn't care about tax cuts and fiscal years and budget crunches. Nature doesn't care that a city of 500,000 people situated below sea level lies in its path. It was certain that New Orleans would sooner or later get hit by a hurricane that would breach the levees. How could the director of Homeland Security not be familiar with this huge threat to the security of this nation? How could the President not know? How could all the presidents and politicians we elected, from Eisenhower to Clinton, not know?
The answer is that they all knew. But the politicians we elect don't care about the poor people in New Orleans, because poor people don't have a lobbyist in Washington. The poor people don't make big campaign contributions, and those big campaign contributions are vital to getting elected. In all of the Congressional and Presidential races held over the past ten years, over 90% were won by the candidate that raised the most money.
So there was little effort given to formulate a plan to evacuate the 100,000 poor residents of New Orleans with no transportation of their own for a Category 4 or 5 hurricane. To do so would have cost tens of millions of dollars, money that neither the city, nor the state, nor the federal government was willing to spend. Why spend money that would be wasted on a bunch of poor people? The money was better spent on projects to please the politicians' wealthy campaign contributors. So the plan was to let them die. And they died, as we experts all knew they would. Huge numbers of them. And they keep dying, still. We don't know how many. Since the plan was to let them die, the city of New Orleans made sure they had a good supply of body bags on hand. Only 10,000 body bags, but since Katrina didn't hit New Orleans head-on, 10,000 will probably be enough.
Admittedly, it is very difficult to safely evacuate 100,000 people with a Category 4 or 5 hurricane bearing down on you. There are only a few routes out of the city, and a full 72 hours of warning are needed to get everyone out. That's asking a lot, as hurricanes are very difficult to predict that far in advance. The National Hurricane Center did pretty well, giving New Orleans a full 60 hours to evacuate. The Hurricane Center forecasted on Friday afternoon that Katrina would hit New Orleans as a major hurricane on Monday, which is what happened. New Orleans had time to implement its plan to bus the city's poor out. However, this plan had two very serious problems--it wasn't enacted in time, and it could only get out 20% of the people in a best case scenario.
The mandatory evacuation order was not given until Sunday, just 20 hours before the hurricane. I have not been able to ascertain from press accounts when the busses actually started picking up people. The mayor says 50,000 made it to the Superdome and other "shelters of last resort", leaving another 50,000 to face the flood waters in their homes. Although 80% of the city was evacuated, it is unclear whether any of the city's poor made it out by bus. And it is very fortunate that Katrina did not hit the city head-on, or else most of those in the Superdome and other "shelters of last resort" would have perished. The death toll from Katrina would have easily surpassed 50,000.
Even if the evacuation plan had been launched 72 hours in advance, it almost certainly would have failed. A local New Orleans news station, nola.com, reported in 2002 on the evacuation plan thusly:
In an evacuation, buses would be dispatched along their regular routes throughout the city to pick up people and go to the Superdome, which would be used as a staging area. From there, people would be taken out of the city to shelters to the north.
Some experts familiar with the plans say they won't work.
"That's never going to happen because there's not enough buses in the city," said Charley Ireland, who retired as deputy director of the New Orleans Office of Emergency Preparedness in 2000. "Between the RTA and the school buses, you've got maybe 500 buses, and they hold maybe 40 people each. It ain't going to happen."
The plan has other potential pitfalls.
No signs are in place to notify the public that the regular bus stops are also the stops for emergency evacuation. In Miami Beach, Fla., every other bus stop sports a huge sign identifying it as a hurricane evacuation stop.
It's also unclear whether the city's entire staff of bus drivers will remain. A union spokesman said that while drivers are aware of the plan, the union contract lacks a provision requiring them to stay.
So, if one does the math, 500 busses times 40 people per bus yields 20,000 people that could have been evacuated in a best-case scenario. Only 20,000 out of 100,000. That isn't a half-hearted effort, it's a one-fifth hearted, criminal effort. We're talking about the lives of 80,000 people or more sacrificed, from a disaster that was certain to happen. By not having a plan to get New Orleans' poor out, our government caused the unbelievable suffering and the needless deaths of thousands of Americans. This was not a natural disaster caused by an act of God, it was an unnatural disaster. In his excellent 2001 book, Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America, Ted Steinberg writes: "Calling such events acts of God has long been a way to evade moral responsibility for death and destruction." He shows in the book how countless politicians over the past one hundred years have done their best to evade this moral responsibility when preventable disasters struck. Our current leaders are no different.
The most prosperous and technologically advanced nation in history surely could have done better. Was it really too expensive to have the vehicles, people, and workable plan in place needed to evacuate New Orleans? Yes, the local and state goverments had primary responsibility for the New Orleans evacuation plan, but in an exceptional case like New Orleans, shouldn't the federal government have stepped in with the additional resources needed? "A society is measured by how it treats the weak and vulnerable", said George W. Bush in his State of the Union of Feb 2, 2005. By that measure, the people of this country have responded magnificently. The outpouring of aid, sympathy and prayers for those affected has been tremendous. But by that same standard, our government has failed. Its not just the current administration--every elected government since the days of Eisenhower has failed us. As I've outlined above, the problem is not likely to go away until the amount of money a candidate raises is no longer the primary factor determining who gets elected. Our elected officials won't care for the poor, as long as it is the rich who determine who get elected.
What can we do to help prevent such a disaster from recurring? Well, I encourage all of you to support election reform initiatives such as public campaign financing and Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) over the coming years. Maybe then I can check a box to vote for a candidate who will actually care for the needs of the poor in New Orleans and elsewhere in this county, instead of the usual "lesser of two evils" from the miserable two-party system that let thousands die and tens of thousands more suffer so unbearably.